Those that venture beyond Winnipeg city limits during late summer are often treated to a spectacular, almost mythical sight. Most of the paved arteries that carry vehicles out of the Heart of the Continent thread themselves between farmers’ fields, and this is where a golden sun-drenched ritual keeps a good part of Manitoba’s economy — and Manitoba’s soul — alive.
Machines as big as small houses, complete with insect-like incisors and sleek, high-tech compartments for the human operator to sit in, descend upon yellow, purple, golden brown, or green fields, and there, they Harvest. It is, for a moment, the epitome of technology’s power over nature, a seasonal reminder of industrialization’s unforgiving victory over small-scale, hunter-gatherer society. But the next moment it becomes beautiful.
The dexterity with which the combine combs out the nutritious parts of the plant; the timing acrobatics involved when a grain truck pulls up to a moving combine, allowing the latter to relieve its heavy load into the former even while continuing its harvest; the setting sun that projects an orange haze through the dust that hangs over the field as an ephemeral reminder of what was months of hard work; farmers taking supper breaks with their families in already harvested corners of fields, steaming meat and fresh salad dishes sending enticing scents across the prairies. All this, the look and feel of harvesting, fuses a romantic lining around its mechanical core.
The Harvest is an afternoon to evening affair because it begins once the previous night’s dew has been exposed to enough daylight to dry off. As every farm kid knows before they can walk: a wet crop isn’t a happy crop to harvest. The moisture makes it difficult for combines to cut cleanly. The Harvest is also an almost entirely summer affair in Manitoba. While much of the planet’s crops are ‘winter crops,’ meaning they’re planted in the fall for a spring awakening, Manitoba’s winters has historically made this next to impossible. And while a variety of ‘winter wheats’ have been successfully developed in the province, most crops are still seeded in spring.
It is one thing to view the Harvest from inside a car while traveling by, but it is quite another to actually experience the aforementioned ‘look and feel,’ especially for a ‘townie’ or an ‘urban dweller.’ Since I qualify as both those things, it was essential to experience the nitty-gritty of the ritual I was planning to write about.
Jeff Wiebe helps run a family farm of approximately 4000 acres southwest of Winnipeg. There is nothing unusual about it being a family farm; almost all Manitoban farms are family run. And there is nothing unusual about its large size; many grain and oilseed farms are larger than 5000 acres. What was unusual was the presence of this self-acknowledged farming idiot on Jeff’s farm for one evening, where I chased after titanic harvesting equipment for pictures, partook in the family’s evening meal, and — for reasons I still don’t understand — was allowed to operate a combine.
On the evening I stopped by, Jeff’s family was tackling a wheat field on rented property close to their home. While the province’s farmers own about sixty percent of farmland, it is not uncommon to rent fields from another owner. The wheat was cut in neat rows as Jeff handled one combine and his brother another. Their dad drove the grain truck to the combines’ side when they became full.
Wheat is the largest crop in the province by area. The area of Canola, bred at the University of Manitoba in 1974, is catching up fast, and can sell at two times the price of wheat. Nevertheless, wheat has a longer history here, was once dubbed the ‘King of the Prairies,’ and is therefore a fitting experience for a first time harvester.
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The driver’s area in a modern combine rivals anything Star Trek can offer. Buttons, figures, and codes run amok as the machine measures everything from the amount of crop a field yields to the moisture level being driven over. The best parts are the wide glass window that allows one to survey miles and miles of prairie, the ever steady stream of air conditioning, and, of course, the ability to stream CBC Radio right into the cab. It is little wonder that farmers get lost in their own happy world while harvesting.
Jeff and his family is of Mennonite background, one of the many backgrounds that make up Manitoba’s diverse farming population. The earliest immigrant farmers were Lord Selkirk’s settlers, who arrived at the Red River Settlement early in the 19th century. They were the trickle that was made a flow by the Homestead Act of 1872, which let farmers-to-be claim, for a mere ten bucks, 160 acres of land. The feds and railway companies were determined to populate Western Canada, and with policies tailor made for farmers abroad, populate it they did. All sorts of farming traditions and specialities came to call southern Manitoba home, with Ukrainians, Germans, Mennonites, Icelanders, and Anglo-Saxons creating a veritable multicultural mosaic to complement the variety of crops and livestock they farmed. By 1876, the first big batch of prairie grain — 23,300 kg of wheat to be exact — departed Winnipeg for eastern Canada.
We stopped harvesting to join Jeff’s mother, who had constructed a mini-buffet on a patch of already-combined field. The sort of cooked ham that exhibits a technique perfected over many years — firm but not dry, juicy but not watery — filled our plates next to hearty potatoes and an army of leafy greens. It all came from the farm, or close by. A city dweller might desire to conclude such a meal with a dark espresso and some self-reflexive thoughts on the experience of harvesting, but such delicacies were not to be. Jeff and I washed the food down with homemade ice tea and were off again. Once the sun drops below a certain level the air cools and dew begins. As much harvesting as possible should get done before that point.
Despite the many farming friends Jeff and his family has, they are a part of a diminishing group. The farming population in Manitoba has dropped from over 35% of the total population in 1931 to just above 5% in 2006. The last year rural Manitobans outnumbered urban Manitobans was 1946. Farms have grown bigger throughout the latter half of the 20th century as farmers capitalized on economies of scale to make up for low returns. Furthermore, those farmers that do remain are getting older, and without the historical guarantee of kids taking over the reins. It was estimated in 2005 that retirement or death of farmers in Canada would mean the sale of around fifty billion in farm assets over the following fifteen years. On a brighter note, Manitoba farms — like the rest of the province’s economy — are some of the most diversified on the continent, with many farmers growing five crops or more each year.
On the drive back into the city I saw other farmers orchestrate the combine-grain truck tandem I had been a part of at Jeff’s farm. I wondered at the thousands of slices of bread that began their journeys here, and the places they would be eaten. I wondered about the severe food shortages found throughout world, the role industrialized farming has played throughout the last two centuries vis-à-vis those shortages, and the roles left for smaller, more labour intensive farms. I wondered about the debate around food justice and the massive corporations that control most of the industry. Whatever the direction of these debates, whatever the policy decisions of governments, whatever the nature of the big food selling companies, and whatever the increase or decrease in small scale farming, Manitoba’s late summer ritual will have a role to play in it all. And given the history since the first immigrant farmers in 1812, or, indeed, since Aboriginals planted corn in ground tilled with sticks and Bison shoulder blades, that role is bound to be no small one.
Johanu Botha is a student of public policy and political philosophy. His hobbies include the mandolin and intermittent bouts of existential angst. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Facts and figures obtained from The Encyclopedia of Manitoba (2007, Great Plains Publications).