Wheat harvest progresses in Wash. high country
By Dan Wheat
LAMOINE, Wash. -- Harvest days usually start early, but it was mid-morning before the Nelsons' first two combines were running. They waited for wheat to dry from morning dew.
By mid-afternoon a third combine was cutting the golden grain right there on the western end of town -- or what was a town early in the 20th century.
LaMoine, 14 miles northeast of Waterville, never was large, but it had a store, blacksmith shop and school a long time ago. Growth was doomed when the Mansfield line of the Great Northern Railroad bypassed it in 1909.
It's still home to the Nelsons and to Alan and Margie Loebsack and to the ghostly shell of the old school that closed in 1924.
Nels Peter Nelson, a Danish immigrant, began farming here in 1888, one year before Washington statehood. This the 125th year of Nelson Farms.
Harvest was slower and harder in the beginning. Wheat was cut and hauled to stationary steam-powered threshing machines. Later up to 30 horses pulled each combine, cutting and threshing. The Nelsons bought one of the first horseless combines in the Pacific Northwest for $4,000 in 1915. It was manufactured by the Holt Co. of Stockton, Calif., and has long been in the Douglas County Museum in Waterville. Great in its time, it was a far cry from the air-conditioned, 200-horsepower, 300-bushel combines of today.
On Aug. 14, the Nelsons were midway through their month-long harvest. Severe wind with a thunder and lightning storm the night of Aug. 10 bent the heads of the wheat but fortunately cracking of kernels from the wind slapping them together was minimal, said Neil Nelson, 39.
Wind destroyed a small metal grain silo and tore shingles from the roof of one of their shops, but fortunately, he noted, there were no lightning strikes that could have resulted in fires consuming thousands of acres of wheat.
Others were not as fortunate.
"I don't know the extent of damage but wind and rain shattered quite a bit of uncut wheat," said Kevin Whitehall, manager of Central Washington Grain Growers Inc., a cooperative in Waterville.
"A lot of it's laying on the ground," he said. "Heads snapped off. Kernels were knocked out of heads. It will reduce yield."
Gusts up to 76 mph blew the roof off one of the co-op's buildings at Withrow and did enough damage it will have to be demolished, he said.
Rain is normally welcome to feed the Waterville Plateau's dryland wheat, but some places south of Waterville "got a couple of inches in 30 minutes. Big ditches were washed in the summer fallow. Those kinds of rains are not beneficial," he said.
At 2,600-foot elevations on the plateau to 3,000 feet on Badger Mountain, area wheat fields are among the highest in the state. It causes slower maturity and use to contribute to snow mold but better breeding has reduced that, Whitehall said.
The Nelsons harvest 4,200 acres of wheat at an average of 50 to 55 bushels per acre. Like most all plateau ranchers, they sell through the co-op where the price has been running about $6.40 per bushel.
That day Neil and his brother Darrin, 34, were driving trucks and troubleshooting any problems. Nelson's wife, Hillary, 38, operated their grain elevator. Hired hand Dawson Hoyt, 21, ran the combine on the edge of town. Another crew operated the combines and trucks in a field several miles to the north.
Left hand on the steering wheel and right hand on a stick controlling speed and header elevation, Hoyt slowed to a pause allowing the auger time to handle a heavy load of thicker wheat from the 30-foot swath.
A computer constantly updated him on moisture, average yield, header height, fullness of his bin and a track of ground covered.
There are areas near the edge of McNeil Canyon where operators have to be very alert, he said, because it's a couple thousand feet down to the Columbia River.
"It's the most adrenalin rush you can get going half-a-mile-an-hour," he said, "and you're on a quarter-of-a-million-dollar machine that's not yours."
Some spots near the edge have been taken out of production and turned to grass because they're just too steep, he said.
Other than a few loads to co-op elevator in Withrow, the Nelsons loaded that day's grain into their World War II vintage, 22,000-bushel wooden grain elevator near their 98-year-old barn. It was to be treated and used within a few week's to plant this year's fallow, next year's crop.
Hillary made sure the conveyor kept running that hoisted grain up 60 feet to the top of the silo in quarter-bushel cups so fast that you couldn't see them moving. She scooped excess grain into the elevator pit after trucks pulled out.
She said she enjoys driving combine and being part of harvest in contrast to her school-year job as a Spanish teacher at Wenatchee High School.