The bright-green hulk of our John Deere harvester crept across the field of soybeans. It was late in the day, early October, the sun low. A cloud of hulls and chaff spewed from the back of the combine, then swirled up around us and blazed in the glow. Sealed in the dustless quiet of the cab, Rick Hammond steadied the wheel with one hand and punched coordinates into the touchscreen onboard computer with the other. With each new piece of data entered, the system let out a high-pitched beep or a low, lazy bloop. The reel of the harvester head spun steadily below like the paddlewheel of a river steamer, standing up stalks for the toothed blades cutting a dozen rows at a go. The feed auger corkscrewed the cut plants into the mouth of the combine, where a throbbing set of threshers splintered the dry pods, collecting the oily seeds inside and sending them spiraling up to the grain tank behind Rick’s chair. Harvested beans ticked against the back window like a light summer hail. The only other sounds over the churning reel were the Pong-like beeps from the computer.
“Okay,” Rick said at last, marking final coordinates, “we’re on autosteer now.” And, to show me, he took his hands off the wheel. “I thought I’d be able to retire before I had to get autosteer,” he sighed. Rick is in his sixties, tan and weatherworn, but still plenty fit. Most days, he works sunup to sundown, especially during harvest. It wasn’t the long hours he said were getting to be too much but trying to keep up with the technology. “The reason for all this is inputs,” he explained. “Inputs” is a kind of catchall term on the farm, a word used to cover any overhead or revolving costs—seed, fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, as well as payments on past investments and big costs for the year, such as a new tractor or additional land. Everything hinges on keeping your inputs as low as possible without jeopardizing your yield.
The combine continued along, following the contours of the planting lines automatically recorded months earlier by the Global Positioning System. As we moved, our progress was charted on the touchscreen in varying colors to show where each row or part of a row was above or below the target for bushels-per-acre for this field. All of that data is recorded and stored to plan for next year, helping farmers decide how to adjust the density of their seed populations, where to apply fertilizer, how much to water, where to put inputs and where to save. “During the era of high prices, yahoos that should have been broke were thinking, ‘There’s nothing to this.’ Now we’re back down to cost of production—or less. So everything matters. Every place you can cut a corner or save, you do it.”
Even being out here was a tough call. Earlier in the day, with the sky clear and a light breeze blowing, Rick had asked Dave to check out the condition of this field. “Dave poked his nose in here just to get the combine set,” Rick said. He found that the soybeans were dry enough to harvest, but the ground, after weeks and weeks of rain, was so wet that bringing in all the equipment they’d need to work the field—the harvester, the tractor and grain cart, the semi to haul the beans away—was going to compact the soggy soil and make it too dense to plant next year. After some thought, Rick decided to make the sacrifice. “It was scheduled to be seed corn next year,” he told me. But Pioneer had already informed its seed growers that the company would be further reducing fields, from 30,000 acres in York County in 2013 down to 15,000 in 2015. “We were scheduled for six fields,” Rick said, but he expected that Pioneer would reduce that number by at least one field before planting came around in the spring. “So I told them, ‘You know what? If you’re going to short us a field, this one would be the one.’”
The decision might seem impulsive—why not wait just a few more days?—but this urgency arises from a particular oddity of soybean biology. “Beans are weird,” Rick told me. “With corn,” he said, pointing to the stalks in the neighboring quarter, “it’s growing degree units, the heat.” Then he pointed straight ahead to the horizon, the sun orange and sinking low. “With beans,” he said, “it’s sunlight.” So, unlike most crops, which begin to mature when the weather turns cold and the air dries, soybeans are short-day plants—meaning, simply, that their final stages of maturity are triggered by waning hours of sun.
This poses two major problems when you run into an unusually wet fall. First, the days get shorter no matter what. Weather-dependent crops like corn slow their maturation on rainy days. You can get lucky—catch a warm spell or even a single sunny day—and get out in the field and back on track. Not so with soybeans. While you’re waiting for the clouds to clear, the beans are going past maturity. Second, soybeans have to be delivered to the grain elevator at a precisely defined moisture rate: 13 percent. “We’re at twelve-point-nine right now,” Rick showed me on the touchscreen, “but when we get down there where the ground is a little wetter, it’ll go back up.” Above 14 percent, he said, the grain elevator not only charges you for drying but also docks you for the estimated shrinkage. “And you would think, ‘Well, one percent of moisture would be one percent of shrink,’” Rick told me, “but no. They dock you one and a half percent.” At 15 percent, they’re apt to reject the whole load.
So to make your best profit on soybeans, you need a sunny day (but not too sunny) with a dry breeze (but not too dry), and you need that day to fall exactly when the plant has received the precise number of hours—yes, hours—of sunlight from the moment you planted it months earlier. To make hitting such a tight window even remotely possible, seed companies, like Rick’s supplier DuPont Pioneer, have hybridized soybeans for nearly a century—and genetically modified them in recent decades—according to bands of latitude, called “maturity groupings.” They number these photo-regions from zero in the northern growing zones of Canada up to seven in the light-drenched flatlands of Florida. If you’re lucky enough to have ground in the middle of a maturity grouping, then you can buy a single variety. But Nebraska is almost exactly divided between groups two and three, the line bisecting the state into north and south. Which means that farmers here, especially in central regions like York County, plant both varieties to spread out maturity, allowing them to harvest one group or another first, depending on the weather, and still get a consistent yield. Some daring farmers like Rick will formulate a guess as to what the weather holds for the growing season and plant more of one group or another, hoping for higher yields and higher returns.
In 2014, after several years of drought, Rick bet on another dry year—and planted incredibly short-season beans. While most of his neighbors were planting 3.5 maturity groupings, Rick had planted 2.4. And he was dead on, right up until the rains started in August. If he could have gotten out early, ahead of farmers in other parts of the country, and caught the market at its peak, he was positioned to make up for all the other setbacks going into the harvest. But if you guessed right on the growing season, as Rick did, and then got an extremely wet fall, you could end up with hundreds of acres of mature soybeans and fields too wet to run the combine. With each storm that rolls up on the horizon, you move from making a hefty profit to incurring a crippling debt.
Rick knew prices would hold for a time, on the chance of an unforeseen, late-season catastrophe, a hedge against an ice storm freezing crops or a line of thunderheads dropping hail that could send prices skyrocketing. But as grain started pouring into the elevators, prices on futures were sure to slump. With the market already in free fall, some farmers had decided not to wait: they went out as soon as the mucky furrows would allow and used propane or electric dryers to deal with the high-moisture grain. But this was yet another expense, and if the moisture levels were too high, the cost of drying could cancel any profit. Other farmers, like Rick, had held out as long as possible, but eventually everyone had to make hard choices.
“Every day that the beans sit out there,” Rick said, “you’re under risk of a big, smashing storm. And then, every day that we wait, the days get shorter. And beans get harder and harder to get out, because they just soak up moisture like crazy. And then, the more that happens—when they’re dry, wet, dry, wet, after they’re mature—they’re prone to shatter. They’ll split wide open in a big wind.” So when the rains finally let up, he decided it was time to go, soggy fields or no. It wasn’t worth risking the return on this field this year just for the promise of above-market prices on seed corn next year. He had Dave set up the harvester, and he started across the field to judge for himself if the beans were ready.
Now halfway to the end of the swath, Rick checked the level of the grain tank. He needed to empty it out before he turned the combine and aimed back toward the barn and cluster of outbuildings on the eastern edge of the property. He radioed over to Kyle on the CB, “Can I dump on you?” Kyle pulled up alongside the combine with the tractor and grain cart, moving in perfect parallel. While the harvesting reel kept spinning and the combine inched across the field, the unloading auger arm started pouring out soybeans, sputtering and thrumming until the tank was empty and Kyle peeled off to unload into the trailer of the big rig. Rick’s mind was already back on the moisture levels. At the end of the swath, he took a wide sweeping turn and set the harvester back on autosteer.
“This here is instant yield, instant moisture,” Rick said, pointing to the screen, “and this is average yield, average moisture.” As we moved, he could see in real time if he was on track to hit his production targets or falling short and whether the moisture of the entire load was within the acceptable range or inching high enough that he’d have to pay a penalty for drying. He watched the data rolling across the screen, giving the minute-to-minute condition of the crop, like watching the stock market ticker rise and fall. The colors of our current twelve rows shifted back and forth from green to yellow, from profit to loss. All the perils of modern farming seemed to crawl across the four-inch screen, teetering from making a living to accruing debt.
So far, everything looked fine. “They’re about thirteen and a half,” Rick said. “We’ll get a little dock, but that’s okay. A year like this, if you can get a couple of loads in, you just keep pecking away at it.” So he continued across the field, until the sun was almost gone and the night cool made the beans too wet to cut. By then, Kyle was at the wheel of the harvester and had cleared the clogged cutting blades four times, trying to get just a few more minutes in. Finally, he came over the radio. “It’s time,” he said. “It’s past damned time.” And with that, everything was over for the night. Dave and Kyle parked the tractor and seed cart next to the outbuildings, but left the combine precisely where it sat. Dead in its tracks until the sun and the wind came up again in the morning.
But harvest, at last, was officially underway. Now, Rick just had to get his crops in as soon as possible. It was going to be a race.
All photographs © 2017 by MARY ANNE ANDREI
FALL: AN EXCERPT
Captures the complex reality of farmers in America today both in terms of the future of the industry and of their everyday lives. It is an unvarnished portrait striking for both its depth and humanity.”