Giants in their field Combines: This is the busiest season of the year for the massive harvesting machines.

November 10, 1998|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

If a tractor married a tank, the offspring would look something like a combine.

A king among farm machines, this giant harvester is in its busiest season as grain farmers around the state use them to pick more than 40 million bushels of corn and 14 million bushels of soybeans by the time Thanksgiving tables are set with turkey and trimmings.

Even farmers admit they reserve some awe for the giant grain pickers.

"I cuss them a lot," said Carroll County grain farmer Lawrence Meeks, 52, waiting on parts yesterday for a broken combine in the middle of his 2,000-acre harvest. "But a lot of us that have been around farming all of our lives have seen the progression. Now, we've grown to machines that have air-conditioned cabs and can cut 30 feet of grain, compared to the 5-foot head my dad had me riding when I was 11 years old." This time of year, combines are harvesting corn and soybeans. Wheat, barley and other small grains ripen in June and July.

This is a harvest that is invisible to most consumers until it shows up as a steak or a chicken nugget: The corn harvested in the Delmarva Peninsula will feed cattle, poultry and other animals. Each bushel of soybeans will produce between 12 and 14 pounds of soybean oil, which is used for everything from frying potato chips to running diesel engines.

Something about the way that combine faces a tall stand of corn, chews it up and spits out kernels as clean and dry as premium popcorn fascinates Donald Lippy of Lippy Brothers Inc., one of the largest farms in the region with 8,700 acres.

"I don't know why, but picking corn is fascinating. And I've been around it all my life," said Lippy, 56.

The top-of-the-line combines are equipped with computerized yield monitors that can tell a farmer, in the midst of the harvest, how well a particular field is producing and how much the grain will fetch when it's sold. Connected to the monitor inside the cab is Global Positioning System technology, which pinpoints the latitude and longitude of a particular trouble spot, so it can be found and treated any time of year.

These little boxes in the combine can store the information on a disc, which the farmer can later pop into a computer for analysis.

Lippy has these monitors. Meeks doesn't, but he wants them. And fellow Carroll grain farmer Melvin Baile Jr. has one, but it's on the blink.

A wide swath

High technology aside, size is what matters when it comes to combines. The wider the head, the fewer trips the farmer has to make up and down a field.

Baile, 37, a grain and beef cattle farmer, enjoys the look on the faces of passers-by when he has to take his combine onto the highway to travel from one field to another.

The grain head, attached to the front of Baile's combine to pick soybeans, looks like a giant rake. It measures 25 feet across and takes up two lanes. The cab sits about eight feet off the ground. The front wheels are taller and wider than the average adult.

"This poor girl was coming around the road here -- she was going more than the speed limit -- when all of a sudden, she sees me taking up the road from white line to white line," Baile said. "She ducked into a driveway. Poor girl."

If the grain head resembles a rake, the attachment that picks corn looks like a giant shark, with conical teeth that glide through a cornfield, snapping ears off the stalks and sucking them into the machine. The kernels are rubbed off and the rest of the plant -- called the fodder -- spits out the back of the combine. Farmers either leave it on the field to prevent erosion or bale it up for their animals' bedding.

Job allure

The job holds allure, farmers say.

"They can't wait to start picking corn," Lippy said of his workers. "It's the highlight of the year."

Compared to other farm jobs, harvesting a field of corn on a nice day is like a Sunday drive in the country. It requires some preci- sion, such as getting the conical teeth placed between the stalks so they're picked instead of just flattened. But the combine moves along at speeds of 1 to 3 mph -- slow enough to correct mistakes, Lippy said.

A dirty job

Picking soybeans is grimier. After combing through one of his 7-acre fields recently, Baile stopped to pull fistfuls of chocolate-brown dust off his combine. The lack of rain and the low humidity this year has made picking soybeans dustier than usual, he said.

Once, he said, he was working in a field and noticed his neighbor had hung her wash out to dry before going to work. He knew what would happen if he proceeded as usual, so he discreetly took down her wash and put it in the basket on the patio.

"She grew up on a farm, so she understood," Baile said. "She was a little embarrassed, though."

The work of 20 men

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