10 Things You Should Know About Custom Harvesting

10 Things You Should Know About Custom Harvesting

There is a segment of agriculture that many know nothing about, the custom harvester. The men and women who live this nomadic lifestyle are sometimes viewed through the eyes of others with a touch of romance when, in fact, it’s not for everyone. The custom harvester can provide another option for the farmer at harvest. Equipment and manpower are provided to the farmer when efficiency and timeliness is needed the very most. When a farmer hires the experience that a custom harvester can provide, no longer does he have to worry about his crop getting to the elevator.

When talking to people who know about the custom harvester, they are generally one of two types, a). Those who wish they had gone on harvest and have regrets or b). Those who did go and have wonderful memories of the farmers they worked for, the crew they worked with and the life lessons learned while traveling the Midwest highways chasing the ripening wheat from south to north. Which are you? What? You know nothing about the custom harvester? Well, then, let me provide you with ten things you should know about this way of life.

Tracy Zeorian
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1. The birth of an industry. In 1944, the US had a ration on steel and a shortage of labor due to WWII and yet needed to produce more wheat. Joe Tucker, sales manager for Massey-Harris USA, had an idea and convinced Massey-Harris (Toronto, Ontario) to manufacture 500 more Model 21 combines than usual to be used exclusively for a US harvest brigade. These machines would then be sold (at a price of $2,500) to farmers only if they agreed to harvest at least 2,000 acres with them. The machines were built, loaded on trucks and hauled to Texas. From there, they followed the ripening wheat north. The brigade was meant to be a temporary fix and intended to disappear after the war ended. However, in 1947, there were more than 5,000 combines on the road and a new industry was born.

Tracy Zeorian

2. It’s nice to be needed. The custom harvester depends on the farmer. Without a crop, there is no need to go through the motions. The amount of preparation and necessary steps required by the custom harvester to make that very first stop is extremely stressful. Each stop beyond the previous one is generally 200 miles or so further north. Wheat matures approximately 20 miles per day. The push to get to the next job is constant as the farmer is anxious to get his crop cut. He’s got everything riding on that harvest and doesn’t want it anywhere but in the bin or elevator.

Tracy Zeorian

3. Not a “shoestring budget”. A new combine and wheat head will cost $500,000 or more. Most custom harvesters have additional headers for other crops, as well. There are corn heads, pick up heads (used to pick up crops that have been swathed), stripper heads and sunflower heads. The machinery investment also includes trucks, tractors, grain carts, service trucks, pickups and trailer houses (to live in). I probably don’t have to convince you the typical custom harvester could very easily have invested well over $1,000,000 per machine (including the cost of other support equipment). Most custom harvesters will have two or three combines (and support equipment) to do the job.

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4. Rules, rules and more rules. Once the custom harvester crosses state lines, they become part of the trucking industry and fall under the same rules and regulations as an Over The Road truck driver.  It’s very difficult to stay on top of all that is expected as a custom harvester and being on the road. States are not consistent with their rules and seem to change constantly. Before the custom harvester hits the road, he/she needs to be aware of what is expected of them by the DOT and FMCSA when hauling their equipment through various states. No longer can they just load equipment any ‘ole way and hit the highways.

Tracy Zeorian

5. So you need a job? The custom harvesting industry is a large scale employer. Each piece of equipment must have someone sitting in the seat to make it go. A business with two combines will need to employ at least five or six employees. It has become very difficult for the owner to fill these vacancies with local employees. In order to keep the business rolling, some of them have become reliant on the foreign employee. The H2A Visa process is tedious (with lots of paperwork) and costly but if the owner wants to keep the equipment moving, he does whatever he has to do. When the CDL requirement was put into place in 1991, the labor pool was greatly reduced. No longer could the 18 year old high school senior just pack his bag and hit the road for the summer.

There is no watching of the clock while on harvest. The days are ruled by whether the sun is shining or if it’s raining – not by what time of day it is. The custom harvester will work every day the sun is shining (from sunrise until sundown) until the crop is cut. The job of harvesting is not a Monday – Friday, 9-5 job. Most harvesters will be on the road May through November.

Oh…and don’t be surprised if you haven’t a clue what day of the week it is. The days all run together and you’ll find yourself asking often, “What day is this”?

Tracy Zeorian

6. The game changer – weathering the weather. The weather is one factor the custom harvester has no control over (unfortunately) and is the most important piece in the game called agriculture. Concern for the crop begins in the spring with late season freezes and snowstorms and won’t quit until the last grain is in the bin in November. The custom harvester has no safety net. If drought or hail takes away acres which have been counted on, there is no insurance to help with lost income. Hopefully, replacement acres will be found to make up what was lost. However, sometimes those lost acres aren’t replaced – such as what happened with the summer of 2017.

Tracy Zeorian

7. Sharing the love. When the custom harvesters arrive in a community, the economic impact is felt. The arrival usually means money being spent on lodging, food, fuel, parts, etc. Towns can sometimes double in size when the “wheaties” make their annual trek back to their town. When something happens and the custom harvester doesn’t show up (most times due to lack of acres), the community which counts on the income during their two-week stay feels the crunch.  

Tracy Zeorian

8. Most harvest businesses are family owned – forced family time. What began as a male dominated industry has been passed down generations and has become family-run. Most custom harvesting businesses today include the entire family. This results in the family working together, playing together and becoming a tighter family unit. There are some fourth and fifth generation harvesters making the annual harvest journey. Ask any of the harvester’s children if they felt they missed out on a “normal” childhood and you’ll have consistent answer of “no”.

Tracy Zeorian

9. Meet the best people in the country! Their travels take them from Texas to the Canadian border. This can only mean getting to meet some of the best people in the country. Unfortunately, their best friends live 1,000 miles away and will only be seen once a year. Relationships between the farmer and the harvester will sometimes become more like family rather than a friendship.  But, it’s the relationships built between harvesters that become the closest. There’s no greater feeling than a custom harvester meeting up with another custom harvester. This way of life is so unique, only another custom harvester can understand this thought.

Tracy Zeorian

10. The number one benefit of the job? Sunsets…from the seat of a combine, truck or tractor. Day after day, this never gets old.

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