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Column: That old feeling

There’s a 1937 B John Deere sitting quietly in my shed, and a 2007 Caterpillar combine roaring around in the wheat field just north of that shed. The combine is harvesting wheat. The tractor is retired, so it’s doing nothing.

There is more than just a 70-year age gap between these two machines — way more. Farming has turned into, like most everything else, a high-tech, quite complex undertaking; one so complicated that when the combine was delivered a few days ago to the farmer renting my land, a guy came with it and spent the entire day instructing in its use.

Furthermore, he left a cell phone number, which he said he would answer day or night.

“How many times have you called him so far?” I asked the farmer while I was riding around in the combine with him in the field of wheat north of the house, the 35-foot header in front of us mowing down wheat left and right with an ease that was hypnotic.

“Oh,” he replied, at the same time toggling away at several control buttons on the single joy stick that operates a whole bunch of stuff, “maybe three times.”

He went on to explain how every time he started this thing up in the morning, the computer ran down a check list, and lights came on and off, making him wonder if all H-E-double-L isn’t about to break loose because, well, just because.

From the all-glass air conditioned cab, with wheat dust and debris storming outside, I watched sensors on the outside ends of the pickup feel for the ground, because land is never ever going to be the same level 35 feet apart, and as the ground changes up or down, the header follows it, up and down. Magic, no doubt about it.

There’s more magic where that came from.

I noticed that it was a good thing he was right-handed. Everything except steering is done with the right hand: forward velocity, header raise and lower, engine rpm, you name it. There are no gear boxes in this combine, almost everything is operated by rubber belts. The combine came from Europe, where belts are, I guess, preferable to gears. (Gears are less efficient.) While he’s explaining this, a light comes on, blinking on a control panel that seems more suited for a rocket headed for outer space, and he says, when I ask him what that is, that it has detected a slight increase in the numbers of wheat kernels that didn’t go into the hopper, but got thrown out into the field.

 “It what?” I asked, unable to fathom something capable of counting a few stray kernels of wheat amidst the enormous gush of straw leaving the back end of the machine.

He went on to explain that if the waste continued, he could readjust the concaves or the sieves or other stuff, but he thought it was not a permanent waste, so he wouldn’t worry about it yet.

This experience pretty well confirmed why I didn’t farm. Riding along in the air conditioned cab, looking at all the moving parts in front of me, listening to all the moving parts out of sight behind and below me, all I could think about was what was going to break first!

I spent my working life repairing broken stuff. I couldn’t help it. Stuff breaks.

Even if I could have put up with breakdowns, this assumes that I could have put up with the unknowns of weather and crops. Two unknowns. Weather. Machines. Nope.

 “How about rocks?” I asked him, knowing there were some in my field. (Rocks are notorious combine killers.)

“The cutter bar automatically flexes and yields to let rocks pass underneath it.”

He explained some more about that, but I still couldn’t picture how something 35-feet wide could flex in one spot.

Even more to the point, I couldn’t get over the difference between a B John Deere and a Caterpillar combine like this.

I got off, and watched this behemoth shear its way off across the field.

I felt like a B John Deere.