Folio — From the September 2017 issue

Bringing in the Beans

Harvest on an American family farm

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The bright-green hulk of our John Deere combine 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 a touchscreen computer with the other. The reel of the harvester head spun steadily below us like the paddle wheel of a river steamer, standing up stalks so that the toothed blades could cut 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 were the Pong-like beeps from the computer.

The auger arm of the combine harvester off-loads soybeans into the grain cart. All
photographs by Mary Anne Andrei, from Nebraska, unless otherwise noted

“Okay,” Rick said at last, marking the 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 that were getting to be too much, he said, 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 G.P.S. 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 add inputs, and where to save money. The sun was setting now, just south of the Platte River in eastern Nebraska, turning the browned plants a radiant gold, but onscreen the colors of our current swath shifted back and forth from green to yellow, from profit to loss.

Kyle Galloway turns the harvester as the sun sets

The thin difference became especially apparent in 2014. At the end of June of that year, crop counters at the U.S. Department of Agriculture released new estimates projecting that the summer’s mild weather and above-average rainfall would result in a higher-than-expected yield. It’s the kind of prediction that sounds like good news, but for farmers it meant an upcoming glut of grain. One report calculated that the national soybean yield would be 3.3 million acres higher than expected at planting — not just cutting into profits but actually outstripping domestic demand. On news of such unprecedented surpluses, soybean futures, which had topped $17 per bushel, dropped below $10.

Then, in August, in the weeks just before harvest, a series of downpours moved across the middle of Nebraska, dumping two to three inches of rain at a time, pushing back the start date for bringing in the beans. While he waited anxiously for the fields to dry enough that a harvester wouldn’t mire in the mud, Rick watched projections for the national yield go up and up. Every day that the crops stayed out, unharvested and undelivered to the co-op, the per-bushel prices went lower. For weeks in nearby towns, at the firehouse in Hordville and the bar in Polk, even at the Iron Skillet at the truck stop south of York, the talk had turned to the traders in Chicago making bank on the backs of farmers. Rick didn’t have time for idle chatter. He moved an old grain bin in from a distant part of the farm to store as much of the harvest as possible and wait out the down market, and he tested the moisture at the edges of the fields every morning.

When he finally caught a day of clear sky and enough of a breeze to get going, the ground, after weeks of rain, was still so wet that bringing in all the equipment they’d need to work the field — the harvester, the tractor and grain cart, and 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. The decision might seem impulsive — why not wait just a few more days? — but “beans are weird,” Rick told me. Unlike most crops, which are planted in the spring, grow all summer, and begin to mature only 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. With every day of earlier nightfall, the beans grow riper.

This poses two major problems when you run into an unusually wet September. 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 moisture, 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 groups. They number these photoregions from 0 in the northern growing zones of Canada to 7 in the light-drenched flatlands of Florida. But Nebraska is almost exactly divided between groups 2 and 3, the line bisecting the state into north and south. Most farmers here, especially in central regions like York County, plant both varieties to spread out their risk, but 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, 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 3.5s, Rick planted 2.4s. And he was dead-on, right up until the rains started. If he could have harvested 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 a farmer guesses correctly on the growing season, as Rick did, and then gets an extremely wet fall, he can 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, he could 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 soaring. But once grain started pouring into the elevators, prices on futures were sure to slump. With the market already in free fall, some farmers 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. 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, 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 storm. 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 next year. He set up the harvester and started across the field to judge for himself whether the beans were ready.

Now halfway through another swath, Rick checked the level of the grain tank. He needed to empty it. He radioed over to his soon-to-be son-in-law, Kyle Galloway. “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 until the tank was empty. Kyle peeled off to unload into the trailer of the big rig, but Rick’s mind was already back on the moisture levels. At the end of the swath, he took a 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. All the perils of modern farming seemed to crawl across the four-inch screen. But harvest, at last, was officially under way. Now Rick just had to get his crops in as soon as possible. It was going to be a race.

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is the author of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food. A form of this article will appear in This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm, out this month from W. W. Norton. Genoways lives outside Lincoln, Nebraska. This article was produced in collaboration with the Food and Environment Reporting Network, a nonprofit investigative news organization.

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