ST. XAVIER, Mont. -- They are the cowboys of Great Plains agriculture, the traveling salesmen of the harvest. And on this sunny afternoon in August their big cutting machines are thrashing like Mississippi paddle-wheelers across a rolling ocean Montana wheat and barley.
That is where we find Doug Neufeld squatting in the dusty wake of his machines, studying the leavings of stubble and chaff like a hunter reading the spoor of his prey. If there's too much wasted seed in the mix he'll be on the radio, calling out adjustments. But keep those combines rolling, because an ugly, slate-bottomed cloud is boiling up to the northeast.
Mr. Neufeld is a custom combiner, and the crews that he and his brothers run are among perhaps 3,000 outfits cutting their way across America's midsection, from south Texas to the Canadian border. Every May, they resume a nomadic ritual of trailer-home caravans, hot dinners served in the field and children who track down old, familiar playmates from summer to summer, town to town, as their families move north with the harvest on toward fall.
Of all the nation's wheat, these itinerant cutters reap more than half, first tackling the winter wheat of the Southern plains and then moving to the spring crop as it ripens in the North. That has been the general tendency since the 1920s, and with top-flight combines now running to $120,000 apiece many farmers are less inclined than ever to take on the job themselves.
So, as grain ripens and dries in sunny fields across the wheat belt, farmers dial up the mobile phones of such people as the Neufeld brothers -- Keith, Bruce and Doug, of Inman, Kan. -- then pace the floor, fret about hailstorms and watch the horizon for the distant plumes of farm-road dust that signal the approach of the machines.
The cutters are no less edgy. For all their technology and the comforting regularity of the seasons, they often move in fits and starts. As the ripening edge of the wheat crop sweeps north, it can leap forward by a whole state at a time when a heat wave settles over the plains, drying the grain to just the right level of moisture. But when the rains come and the grain gets as soggy as a day-old bowl of cereal, everything stops.
So it is that when Doug Neufeld and his crew come rumbling down the gravel road at noon here, about 40 miles southeast of Billings, farmer Ed Nessen is waiting in his 4-by-4 truck. He is eager to show them 2,100 acres of wheat and barley ready for cutting.
The eagerness is mutual. Mr. Nessen is a first-time customer, one the Neufelds have sought for years. Most wheat fields in this part of Montana are far apart on rough terrain, appearing from the air as scattered patches of pale yellow on the rumpled green blanket of the prairie. But the Nessen tract is the fat of the land, a sprawling mass of fields that stretches to two horizons. The acreage means a steady week of cutting if the weather holds, and at the going rate it will bring the Neufelds up to $32,000.
It is also one of the tracts where combines were first used in Montana in 1917, when the corporation that used to own the farm brought the first four machines into the state. That was in custom combining's earliest days, when harvest crews tended to be a rough-and-tumble bunch of transients and brawlers from all walks of life.
They slept in barns, in tents or under the stars, and wary townspeople usually kept women and children out of the way.
Today, as with the Neufelds, crew members are steadier, usually with a background in agriculture. They work for room and board and about $1,200 a month, six days a week (with Sundays off).
They live in their own rolling bunkhouses -- specially built mobile homes -- and it takes no more than a few minutes of CB chatter to tell that they're hardly just a bunch of flat-talking Midwesterners.
A Georgia drawl joins an accent from southern Pennsylvania, only to be followed by the clipped diction of an Englishman. Also in the 16-man crew are two workers from Denmark and one from Northern Ireland, although the predominant origin is the Eastern United States.
But the heart of the work force, as always for the Neufelds, is family. The brothers bought the business in 1984 from their dad. He started it in the late 1950s with a single combiner and a rattletrap trailer that sometimes housed both family and crew.
They're all from Inman, Kan., and still live there when they're not crossing the country. But even though they now have 10 combines, they work many of the same fields once harvested by their dad.
Custom combining tends to be that way, with strong ties of loyalty binding the cutters and their longtime customers.