High Plains Journal All Aboard Wheat Harvest

Tracy: The impending disaster
Z Crew

Claude, Texas – Thoughts of how I was going to write this blog post have been swirling in my head for several days.

Harvest 2017 is still very young. Most of the custom harvesters were on the road and in the fields by the end of May – just barely a month ago. However, before we even left home, we began to see a glimpse of what we might be up against. The three major variables that I am thinking about are low wheat acres (smallest on record since 1919), low commodity prices and the weather.
Z Crew: Because it's what harvesters do!
To me, there’s nothing prettier than a cut wheat field.
We all know farmers have to do what is best for their business, and with the price of wheat being what it has been, they’ve made the decision to eliminate a crop that so many of us have come to rely on for income. Wheat acres were replaced with different crops with the hope that the change might help them make a profit again. They aren’t thinking about the custom harvester – and I get that. So, we deal with what’s available and try to do the best we can. Anyway, that’s the outlook Jim and I had. You can always hope maybe you’ll be able to pick up a few more acres along the way to help cover those you’ve lost.

Now, let’s add one more variable to this picture. Due to the higher commodity prices the farmers had been getting, quite a few of them purchased combines so they could do their own harvest. The need for the custom harvester was eliminated and the producer became more self-sufficient at harvest time.

And then there’s the variable none of us have any control over – the weather.
Z Crew: Because it's what harvesters do!
Photo by our farmer, Bryan.
A month into this northward journey, the custom harvesters are beginning to see the effects of all three of these variables and are looking straight into the face of a disaster. The word disaster puts a pretty awful picture in your head, and agriculture has seen its fair share of those recently. Nearly every harvester that I’ve been in contact with lately is struggling.

When we prepare for our journey, it begins immediately after we’ve finished the previous harvest. There may be a break in the action for a month or so (if we’re lucky) for the harvester, but the expenses and preparations for the next year’s harvest never take a break. During the six months of winter, equipment will be replaced or repaired, insurance premiums and equipment payments continue to be made, and crews are hired. Who in their right mind would spend up to $400,000 to trade or upgrade a combine with no certainty of income? It is a year-round preparation for the services we provide, and we don’t prepare for a disaster. We prepare to do our job with no guarantees of income… much like the farmer, except there is one major difference. When the farmer suffers from a disaster, there is generally some sort of assistance to help him get back on his feet. The custom harvester has no safety net whatsoever. There is no insurance. There is no government assistance. When we’re knocked down, we can only hope the money has been managed well enough to get us through the next stop or even the next year. The custom harvester is the final step in the producer’s harvest, the one piece of the puzzle that is still negotiable, and the contract is still signed with a handshake. 
Z Crew: Because it's what harvesters do!
Jamie sent me this picture of Eli doing a little carpet combining. Wrong color of machine for this crew but a good one, none the less.
Now, let me paint the picture of the trickle-down effect when the harvester has experienced loss. It doesn’t just affect us. A loss for us is also a loss felt by the community. When the “Wheaties” pull into a small community, I’m certain they feel the impact we make on their business. For the next two weeks to ten days, the cafes, the grocery stores, the CO-OPs, the post office, the implement dealers, the trailer parks, etc. all see an increase in their final numbers. When we don’t show up, the economic impact is felt. In some places, the small communities will double in size due to the return of the harvesters.

It’s very easy to listen to other harvesters tell me their stories of not having the acres (some not even leaving home until much later than usual) when you’re sitting on a job. It’s another thing to be able to fully understand what they’re up against because now you, too, are feeling the very real struggle they are. A week ago today (6/23), we received the phone call from our farmer in Colorado (job #3) we didn’t want to receive. We knew in the back of our mind it might be coming because of the reports of drought in their area. Of the 5,000 acres they had planted to winter wheat, only 2,000 was going to be spared from being sprayed and killed. They have two combines of their own, so they would be able to harvest what was left. So, we hung our heads for a little while but knew we had the next job to get through before we really had to figure out what to do next.

Then we got the text late Tuesday afternoon from job #2. The ugly monster of a cloud that we were watching on radar hanging over Garden City did, in fact, drop hail that completely destroyed all of the acres we would cut. It is sort of ironic, the acres we had been holding our breath for in April (due to the late season blizzard) were now gone due to another act of nature. And from what I understand, those acres received 22 inches of wet, heavy snow, stood back up, filled and the farmer was looking at another bumper crop.
Z Crew: Because it's what harvesters do!
Storm clouds on the horizon.
Within days, we lost everything we left home for, everything we prepared for and everything we hoped for. NOW, I know how they feel. Now, I can fully understand what the other harvesters are feeling. It’s the sinking feeling in your gut of not knowing what to do next. How do we make up lost acres? Where do we go? Should we just lick our wounds, gather everything and head home? Do we close our eyes and point our finger on a map? As of today, we have nothing certain lined up until September, and let’s hope the proso millet crop holds on over the next couple of months. In all of our 35 years of being on the road, we’ve never experienced anything like this. The one comfort is knowing we’re not in it alone. 

We are a low-budget operation… two people with one combine. We are such a little piece of what the larger harvester operations experience – the number one difference being the expense of labor. We have chosen to be a smaller-scale operation for that reason. BUT… it doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect us any less in a situation as this. Some have told me, “Yes, it’s bad for you but just look at so and so.” I understand all of that; but in our world, this is just as much of a disaster to our low-budget operation as it is to the larger crews. And, yes, it could always be worse.
Z Crew: Because it's what harvesters do!
The morning servicing called for adding oil to a gear box.
Jim made some phone calls the next day to a few people asking them to keep their ears open for us. We now have the possibility of a job in the Garden City area. It’s a start – one foot in front of the other. We have to persevere. We have to have faith. If we didn’t believe in a God who is looking out for our well-being, it would certainly make this job much more difficult! God is good ALL the time – it’s just hard to remember we have to let go.

A follower on the Zeorian Harvesting & Trucking Facebook page presented me with a question that I felt was worthy of sharing. “I know it’s hard telling, but do you personally think this is just a low point in the custom harvesting industry that will eventually rebound, or heaven forbid, is the custom harvester demand on a steady decline to where eventually acres will be few and far between every year? You guys seen times this tough before? Hate to even imagine the ‘Great American wheat harvest’ becoming a thing of the past.” My reply was, “I’m hoping it’s just a slump.”

We’ve finished our acres here in Claude (last night – 06/22) and will spend the next several days cleaning equipment, loading and heading north. It was a good run… probably one of the hardest 13 days of non-stop cutting we’ve ever done (thanks to dry conditions)! I’m going to guess the final outcome for yield will be around 30 bushels per acre, and that could be more or less depending on how heavily grazed the field was. The weights were good at 60-62 pounds. And again, no rain delays.

Z Crew: Because it's what harvesters do!
We started the process of cleaning the header last evening after it cooled down from the afternoon high of 106 degrees to 90 degrees. We went from this…
Z Crew: Because it's what harvesters do!
…to this.
All Aboard Wheat Harvest™ is sponsored by High Plains Journal and John Deere. Tracy Zeorian can be reached at zcrew@allaboardharvest.com.
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35 Responses to Tracy: The impending disaster
Z Crew

  1. We were in this same situation a couple of different harvest seasons, but when those doors closed, there were two more that opened up. It took a lot of calling and being ready to move at the drop of a hat…but you know this all too well.

    Al likes to think every roadblock is the end of the world…at the time. It makes me laugh because I know, down the road, I will hear him say “If you’d have told me two weeks ago that (insert catastrophe here), I would have said you were crazy…”

    I’m going to get him a Tshirt with that saying on it…

    And I’ll be waiting for your next post with “If you’d have told me…

    • I pray you’re right. But in all honesty, we’ve been at this for 35 years. I’ve never seen a summer quite like this one.

    • Marilynn, harvest is NOT like it was 5 years ago or 10 or 15. Myron has said and we believe as well that of the 38 years he’s been doing this none have never been like this. Drought, hail, and disease have wiped out big portions of 4 major wheat states. No one is lucky or immune and most simply don’t want to talk about it. I can remember the days of one state having concern but never 3 or more.
      Time will tell but it is a situation of BIG concern.
      Tracey hit a lot of points directly on the head.

  2. Terrible to read this story. Normaly good times always follow bad times. Some time you get the bad, and the best is just after the corner. Population is growing fast, wheat will be always needed. But the weather become awful.
    Good luck !!!

  3. well written article, Like I told mt grand daughter,going thru rough times, one day at a time, just keep on moving forward,

  4. You hit the nail right on the head Tracy. The area that the weather covers, as well as the lack of price that affects all farmers and subsequently all harvesters. The drought map in the north is getting larger and larger, 40% of the state of Montana in the last one I saw. Farmers aren’t making it with current commodity prices and harvesters aren’t either. This is a first for us.

    • It’s definitely a first for us, Dan! It’s just discouraging BUT I know it’s not just us. However, even knowing it’s not just us helps, that doesn’t help cover the expenses.

  5. Is it possible to line up some corn & bean acres this fall ? Hopefully their will always be a need for the custom harvester. That 400,000.00 price tag for a new machine is the exact reason we don’t own a combine. The same neighbor has done our harvest every fall for a good many years. He depends on our acres to help justify his payments.

    • Fall harvest is not the same as the wheat harvest. Wheat harvest ripens from south to north in a pattern that allows for a constant move. Fall harvest does not. Fall harvest is generally all ready about the same time – first part of October. The added fall crops will not be easy for harvesters to work into their already full fall harvest schedules. It’s a whole different animal. Our fall run is already full – unless something happens to those acres between now and then. We work from home and are not on the road for the fall crops of beans and corn.

      And you said it well – “he depends on our acres to help justify his payments”…just as so many custom harvesters do. However, the difference with a neighbor compared to the harvester is also much different. The neighbor can cut it much cheaper than the harvester. The neighbor doesn’t have the expense of being away from home, the insurance that is required, the workers comp for the crew, the labor bills, etc. Being on the road as a custom harvester presents expenses beyond just the combine payment. Therefore, when the acres aren’t there, the stress level of making it all work is greatly increased.

  6. keep praying the good lord will get you through this hard time. I will (as so many are doing for you I’m sure) keep praying. As you said on a wing and a prayer

  7. I feel your pain to I also harvested for a lot of years and had all the stuff you talk about happen to me as well. You just have to get back up and forge on. Now I have a son that is harvester now and after they are done at Dodge City most of there work north is gone to. I farm at Goodland Ks. and most of my wheat was hailed out 100% memorial weekend.

    • I pray we can all hold on. The very real picture, though, is there just isn’t enough work out there for all of us. The acres are lower, the weather has zeroed out many more. I just pray we have all managed our income (so far) that will help pull us out of this. I want more than anything to say this is just a slump…

  8. Thanks for explaining the situation of the custom harvester this year, Tracy. Only those who were very lucky, didn’t lose several stops. The biggest issue you covered, is that absolutely every expense that we have continues. These expenses started last winter. Our crews still get paid and fed and housed. Our insurance is paid in advance. Payments are due on machinary. We cut one job and excitedly say, “That will pay wages for another month”. As many of you have said, this is the worst we’ve ever seen it, across multiple states. Every stop we have has been effected. 38 years of Harvest and who knows if there will be a 39th for us. But we know God has a plan. It may not be our plan, but God knows what the future has in store. So we will continue to pray and have faith that He is listening and will give us strength to face it.

    • Yep…we will continue to pray and have faith He is listening – He knows what we’re up against. We’re only seeing a small piece of a very large puzzle. It’s disheartening, though, to feel the feelings we’ve all been feeling and that being wondering if this is our last summer. I have started taking in every day a little differently because who knows what the next year will bring. Something we have taken for granted for so many years may be changing drastically and the day I never think about coming may just be on the horizon. Thank you for your thoughts, Paula!

  9. It’s nice to know that a contract is still negotiated with a handshake! I love it!!! So sorry to hear of your plight! BUT as you alluded to earlier when God closes doors He opens windows. I am praying that He does it soon for you and ALL the cutters!

  10. It hurts so much to read all of this. We fought it with 3 machines and its the true independent Americans life, no guarantees or minimum income from anywhere. That also means it can be a very tough life. We had good years and very bad ones, hit a couple really bad ones in a row and just when it was looking very dark, God opened a door for us that required an immediate decision, we chose to walk through that door which meant selling out and changing direction entirely on a giant leap of faith. We did not look back and we have been blessed with the outcome. Whatever God’s plan is for you and all harvesters he will give you clues. Praying for the best and soon for you and that it includes vast new acres for all of you in the near future. Harvesters are some of the few remaining independent Americans, we can not allow them to disappear as a shinning example of American free enterprise. God Bless and keep you.

    • Sounds to me like you know exactly what we’re up against. I do know we’ve got a lot stacked against us all right now. It’s very discouraging to want to do a job and can’t.
      Thank you for your note, Gene!

  11. Tracy, first off I enjoy reading your blog along with the other contributors. Agriculture is a tough and difficult business. I’m a producer also and am questioning the next couple of years for wheat. 3 years of downturn, now the reality of those 3 years is taking it’s toll, due to burning up cash reserve. To make things worse, now we are dealing with hail damage, significant freeze damage and wheat disease due to bad neighbors. Its a mess. Cant control the hail and freeze, but the wheat disease was a manmade problem and I find it upsetting that bad neighbors have contributed greatly to this problem. Regards to financial help for farmers but the custom cutter gets none. I see and understand the concern, but the financial help for a farmer (ARC/PLC) is based on APH not current yield, price point triggers and a bunch of voodoo math. In the end, its a system devised not to pay, and if you do get paid, its the following year. Regards to MPCI crop insurance, more voodoo math based on APH. I don’t take hail insurance as I cannot honestly cover the cost of the premium unless totally wiped out. We get hail but not a complete loss hail storm, hence why I never take hail. It simply does not pay and when I hear comments about farmers making it on insurance I have to laugh in bewilderment. The current program is not direct payment like it used to be. Stay strong in faith. Its not over yet.

    • Thanks, Dave…I hope it’s not over but this could very well be a determining factor for harvest have already been struggling. This line of work runs deep in my family and in my soul. I certainly don’t want to see what I love come to an end but nothing is certain!

  12. Tracy, Bugger,I can understand your frustration, Drought plus low Wheat prices, small acres, a home run on the negative side. Plus last year Kansas had a huge wheat crop,Ah farming from the Pent House to the Out House!! Have you ever thought of coming into Canada to Harvest.it was a late spring across most of Alta. & Sask. so this might be a plus. It’s always darkest before the dawn. You & Jim Take Care.

    • No we haven’t considered going into Canada because it doesn’t work with our current schedule. Hopefully, there will be proso millet to harvest in September through the first of October. Then we’ll go home to do fall harvest (corn and beans) for our farmer there. Thank you for your encouraging words, Tom!

  13. Jim and Tracy, I have enjoyed. Your articles over the years. I have retired after 42 years at the Genoa, Hugo, and 2W locations. I feel your struggle. You are such nice people things are surely to work out. On a sour note our June has been really hot and dry. Can’t think the proso is in very good shape . Next 10 days in the upper 90’s with no rain. Good Luck & God Bless. Would like to see you if you make this season in our area.

    • Hi Ed, Jim says to tell you it’s nice to hear from you. We didn’t need that kind of news but I guess there’s nothing we can do about it. And from me, Tracy, it just doesn’t even surprise me. I know we’re not the only ones who are in this situation and even though that doesn’t pay the bills, it makes us feel a bit better knowing we’ve done all we can. It’s just not meant to be…this year anyways. I think we’re going to see a major change in the very near future. Thanks for taking the time to write us a note, Ed! And…IF we’re in the area we will definitely look you up!

  14. What about the job you had last year around Monte Vista? Hops and barley? Is there a chance that would be a fill in job?

  15. One man’s misfortune is another man’s gain! The spring wheat crop in the Red River Valley of northwestern Minnesota looks awesome. Farmers here could be looking at record breaking yields this year. Meanwhile, the price of spring wheat hit $7.70 per bushel last Wednesday at the grain elevator in Hazel, Minnesota.

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