On his first day swathing canola, Jeff was surprised when he checked the time on his phone and realized he’d accidentally finished his lunch before 10:30 a.m. “Have to adjust to the harvest schedule,” he thought.
With his lunch finished, the GPS finally auto-steering correctly, and the crop feeding through the swather — as Jeff’s grandfather Ed might have said — “as slick as grease through a goose,” Jeff had time to think.
Jeff was pleased with what he saw, but also remembered how he had worried after seeding while they waited for rain.
“How did we go from epic flood to disastrous drought in just six years?” Jeff’s wife Elaine had called out from the office one evening back in June while she was at her desk, entering the final seeding expenses into their accounting software. Jeff had gone in to see if he could help.
“We just got our heads above water, literally, after the 2011 flood,” Elaine said as she hit the “print” button so she could file the May bank reconciliation. “And now here we are again, wondering if we’ll get our costs back from this year’s crop.”
“It’ll rain,” Jeff said. “All the forecasts are calling for rain.”
“They called for rain last week too,” Elaine said. “But the lawn is yellow and half my garden didn’t come up.”
“We won’t have to eat zucchini,” Jeff joked, looking for a bright side. But it wasn’t until a week later, when it finally rained, that Jeff started to believe their 2017 crop had a chance. With two inches of rain, clouds in the sky and more moisture in the forecast, Jeff and Elaine were both optimistic.
Only six-year-old Connor was unhappy. “Soccer’s cancelled,” he complained while he and Jeff stood in front of the patio door, watching raindrops land on the deck.
A few weeks later, Jeff and Elaine took Connor and three-year-old Jenny to the field to show them what the rain had done for the crop. Jeff launched the small drone he’d just bought and flew it out over the canola field.
“It’ll take pictures,” he told the kids. “We can put them on our computer and see how big the plants are.”
Once the drone was flying steadily, Jeff passed the controller to Connor. “Your turn.”
Jeff was patient, showing Connor which buttons to push while the drone travelled over the field.
“Mommy, Connor’s flying!” Jenny shouted.
Connor picked up her mood. “I’m flying! I’m flying!” He forgot he was a mature first-grader and jumped up and down.
Connor wasn’t normally clumsy, but watching the drone and holding the controls made jumping up and down one task too many. He landed in a gopher hole, fell to his knees and slammed the remote into the ground.
Elaine rushed to see if Connor was okay; Jeff watched his drone zoom left, then dive into the field.
“Connor crashed,” Jenny said sadly.
Jeff and Elaine packed the kids back into the side-by-side and drove to where they thought they’d seen the drone land. They searched until Connor and Jenny were bored. Then Jeff took his family home and went back out to look some more.
“Can’t ask for a better crop,” Jeff told his father that evening. “Thick enough to hide a drone.”
“How much did that toy cost again?” Dale answered.
By the time it was ready to swath, the crop was still looking good. “This might be the best crop we’ve had in years,” Jeff told Elaine.
“It has to be our turn,” Elaine said.
Now, in early August, with nothing to do but watch the the sturdy canola stalks pile up on the reel and feed into a thick swath, Jeff’s mind drifted over to their new problem.
A few weeks earlier, the STARS air ambulance had flown ominously near the Hanson farm. Jeff’s phone had started ringing right away, as people who’d seen the helicopter tried to find out who was hurt or sick. After a few calls, Jeff learned the helicopter had come for their neighbour Brian Miller. He’d been in an accident on the grid road in front of his own yard, hit by a semi hauling oil when he slowed his grain truck to turn.
The Hansons were sad and upset when Brian didn’t survive. They immediately agreed to help harvest his three sections of land when the time came. But the next decision would take more thinking. Brian’s only son had been working in the oil patch for years and had no interest in farming. The Millers were selling the land.
“Should we bid?” Jeff’s father asked when they heard the news. “It’s good land. A great location.”
Jeff didn’t know what to say. Land only 20 miles from them had just sold for $1,250 an acre — maybe not a high price in some areas of the country, but hard to pay back with the profits from dryland farming.
“That’s $200,000 a quarter,” Elaine had said, shaking her head. “This has to be the top of the market. Can we make back more than a million dollars?”
Jeff’s grandfather Ed had also been in the shop that day. “Kids like you’ve never lived through a real drought. Over the last 10 years anybody who could run a tractor could print money. But there’s tough times ahead. Mark my words.” Then he changed his tune to point out the other side of the argument. “But it’s land. They’re not making any more of it.”
“Interest rates have to go up,” Dale said. “But not back to the double-digit rates of the ’80s.”
“The weather’s been so crazy,” Elaine said. “Floods. Hail. We almost had a drought. How much more risk can we take on, when every year seems so close to financial disaster?”
Not for the first time, just when the Hansons thought Connor wasn’t paying attention to the conversation, or wouldn’t understand them if he was listening, the little boy piped up from the corner where he was playing with the cat. “If we have more land there’ll be more fields for me to combine when I’m old enough!”
With the Miller family wanting to settle the estate relatively quickly, Jeff knew they didn’t have a lot of time to decide. He appreciated input from his grandfather and his parents, but, in the end, it would be Jeff and Elaine living with the decision for the rest of their careers. This purchase might build their farm for the next generation. Or it might give them just enough debt to drive them out of business.
Jeff was distracted from thoughts of profit margins and debt ratios by a glint of light in the corner of his left eye. Something shiny on the swather canvas was reflecting the midday sun. He jerked the reel to a stop and climbed down from the cab to look.
It was the drone. It had faded in the sun, but otherwise, it was relatively undamaged after spending the summer out in the canola. Jeff wondered if he might even be able to pull the midsummer photos from the camera chip.
“Maybe it’s a sign,” he texted Elaine.