Shift switch: Harvesting soybeans
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There's no denying it, I'm a city boy through and through. Yet when the offer to ride along in a combine harvesting soybeans arrived in my inbox, I couldn't reply fast enough.
A mere 75 minutes from my desk at OnMilwaukee.com and I'm sitting in the jump seat of a John Deere 9500 – at about $250,000, by far the most expensive wheeled vehicle I've ever taken a ride in – on Jeff Gaska's farm near Columbus.
But first, when I arrive, I meet Gaska, who is walking his 3-year-old daughter back to the house. Gaska tells me later that she loves to ride along in the combine – always has – and cried when I arrived and she had to go home to take a nap.
After a little time in the cab of the great, green, hulking machine, I understand why. There's a persistent rumble of the inner workings, but there's something peaceful about slowly making your way through the field.
Ahead, through the giant windshield, you can see the machine's whirling auger pulling in the crops you've worked hard to bring to the harvesting stage. Through the window behind, you can watch the harvested soybeans filling the hopper.
And for daddy's little girl, the cab of a combine can be the scene of some pretty stellar daddy-daughter bonding.
"I bought this place in '94," says Gaska, adding that he also farms his parents' land and leases nearby fields from his in-laws. "I grew up just about four miles up the road at my home farm with my dad and I got three brothers. It's about 450 total acres, but 250 are tillable. (Here there's) about 185 acres and about 125 are tillable."
He grows soybeans, corn and winter wheat and keeps a small herd of beef cattle. He's got about 25 cows and ends up with about 25 calves.
Gaska's father was born in Poland and came to America as a boy, settling with his family in Chicago when he was 12. He grew up in the Windy City, where he became an anesthetist; a registered nurse. After his three sons were born – Jeff is the youngest – the family moved to Columbus. It sounds like dad was already feeling the urge to farm.
"We lived in the city of Columbus for about six months, and then we found this farm," Gaska recalls. "As my two older brothers started to get out more and play more, they wanted to mess around with farming. He kind of started from nothing, but this was back in the early 70s, and he just started slowly."
Now, Jeff's dad is retired, but helps Jeff with farm chores. So does his eldest brother, who works at UW-Madison as an agriculturalist. His other brother left farming and lives in Kentucky.
Other than this help – and the moral support of his little girl riding next to him – Gaska works the three farms pretty much alone. There's very little downtime, though he does manage to take the family on a few short vacations each year. Otherwise, he's always at work with the cattle, fencing, working in the pasture, planting and harvesting and pulling rocks out of the fields, the finances, repairing the barn, plus the usual household chores.
"Corn and soybeans we rotate through and we try to get wheat into the rotation every third or fourth year," he explains. "So I don't farm quite as much wheat as I farm corn and soybeans."
Gaska has also started to experiment with tillage radishes to help replenish the soil.
Climbing up the five stairs of the ladder, I take my seat in the combine and Gaska fires up the engine. He and his daughter got a little start around the outer edge of the field before I arrived, so he heads to where he left off and explains ...
"First thing we want to look for is to make sure that edge (of the combine head) is right along and then we watch the height of the crop, and here the crop is kind of laying down a little bit. So with this reel up in front I can make it go up and down hydraulically. When the grain is down I have to put that reel down, because it sort of helps pick that soybean plant up into the machine. And then as the soybeans start to get taller I can raise that reel up a little bit. You don't want that reel to be batting the soybeans, or else you start losing soybeans in the field. Because they're in the pod (and) if it hits the pods they could break.
"The whole plant is coming into the combine. When it's in the combine it goes through a presser which breaks it all apart. If you look back here, that's where the soybeans are harvesting and coming apart. The nice thing about the combine is there are so many moving parts and then there are the sensors. So if something goes wrong in the back of the combine, it can tell me and I can react to that. You would never know sitting in here if a belt fell off, but then the alarm system tells me what went wrong and I can go back and fix it. Luckily, you don't have to worry too much about the combine because it's taking care of itself. Sometimes you're digging; you've got to watch out for a big mound of dirt so that doesn't feed into the combine."
Gaska tells me that the combine pulls in the plant and removes the pods and shucks the soybeans. Behind us, we can see those seeds filling the hopper, and the combine seems like a magician at work.
While the beans mound up in the combine, the stalks and all the rest are tossed back onto the field, where it becomes compost.
"Next spring we will come in and plant more on this field and do no-till," says Gaska. "So this field is just going to stay like it is. We need to get the winter wheat in so it'll get about 3 or 4 inches tall. (With no till) you are not turning the soil over. There's a lot less erosion, its sequestering carbon, and once you till it, you release the carbon. You get a lot of earthworms in this soil because its not tilled. The other thing is it's a huge time saver – we don't have to go over this field again until I plant next spring."
A small family farmer like Gaska clearly pays a lot of attention to efficiencies. Every penny or minute saved improves his bottom line – and his quality of life.
Everything he grows in these fields is to feed livestock. He does not grow food-grade soybeans or corn, though it all ends up in the food chain anyway, via the meat we eat, the milk we drink and the cheese we shred on our pizza.
"All our soybeans are cash crop, which means we grow them for cash and then turn around and sell them; they will go to a mill," Gaska explains. "I have a friend who does custom hauling, so I might pay him to come out and bring the beans or the corn in. The bigger farms, bigger than me, will sometimes own their own semis, but I'm not at that point yet where it is cost effective. It's easier for me to just hire someone to do that.
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