By the beginning of September, the Hansons were nearly finished harvest.
“Not that getting done fast is anything to brag about,” Jeff said. “This is the worst harvest ever.”
Jeff’s father Dale, with his fully detailed recall of 1988, insisted that 2021 wasn’t anything like the worst harvest in Hanson history, but it was still the lowest-yielding crop Jeff had seen since he’d started farming.
The long summer of heat, smoke from northern forest fires and just-missed rains took its toll on everyone. Eight-year old Jenny turned out to be sensitive to smoke. “I don’t think she’s taken a breath through her nose in two weeks,” Jeff’s wife Elaine said in early August.
Eleven-year old Connor had his own struggle. He’d been thrilled when his parents said he was finally old enough to run the lawn mower and be in charge of the yard. But after a few cuts in May and June, the grass hadn’t grown an inch. For once, Jeff and Elaine were happy about the patch of weeds at the north end of the lawn. At least there was one place Connor could mow.
Jeff and Elaine did their best to hide their worries about the farm from the kids, but it wasn’t easy. Their crops had gotten off to a good start with the moisture already in the soil. They had a nice catch of canola, and early in the growing season their spring wheat and durum were dark green and lush.
But it didn’t rain in June. And then it got hot. Hotter than they’d seen in years. Every day for a week. Jeff mentally cut his canola yield forecast by a third. Then it got hotter, and Jeff cut his forecast down to half. Then a little less.
“It would be easier to take if it had been bad from the start,” Jeff said to Elaine after the kids had gone to bed. “Watching our profits dry up in the field is tough.”
Jeff was keeping in touch with a couple of his friends from university who had pre-sold canola when the prices were hitting record highs in early spring. They had a whole extra layer of stress, wondering how much it would cost to buy out their contracts.
Elaine was spending a lot of time with her computer spreadsheets, revising and re-revising their income estimates and cash-flow forecasts. Now that she was a commodity group board member she was also getting calls from worried farmers around the province, phoning to debate whether the government should do more to help farmers. Most of the callers lived in areas with a drought much worse than the conditions the Hansons were facing.
“The saddest calls are from the farmers with cattle,” Elaine told her husband. “I don’t know what to say to them when they tell me how hard it is to find feed.”
“If you figure it out, let me know,” Jeff said. “I’ll say the same thing to John.”
Jeff and Elaine’s neighbour, John Hunter, had been having trouble coping with the stress of farming for the last couple of years, even when things were going better than they were now. John didn’t have enough hay this year, and Jeff and Elaine suspected the Hunters would be forced into some tough decisions about their herd.
“John’s drinking quite a bit these days,” Tara Hunter had confided in Elaine one morning over coffee. “Those damn cows.”
When there finally was some rain at the end of July, it was too late to help the growing crop. “We can always use it next year,” Dale said, taking on the role of optimist.
With the crops browning up early, the Hansons started harvest in mid-August with Elaine in one combine and Jeff’s mother Donna in the other. Jeff and their employee Mark Edwards hauled the grain from the field to the farm, swathed some of the canola, and made sure to run the combines now and again to give Elaine and Donna some time off.
Even with two combines in the field, running the grain cart was barely a full-time job for Dale. “Time to read all those copies of The Western Producer that piled up during seeding,” Dale said, still finding the bright side.
The wheat and the peas took almost no time, and it was only a couple of days later when Elaine finished combining the last acre of green lentils and climbed down from the cab. She joined Jeff and Dale at the edge of the field.
“That went fast,” Elaine said.
“I don’t think we’ve ever got the lentils in the bin this early,” Dale said, thinking about harvest dates from years past.
“I don’t remember a year when we’ve got through this much of harvest with no breakdowns,” Jeff added. “Lowest yields I’ve ever grown, but it’s not as terrible as I thought it might be.”
“Things usually aren’t,” Dale said.
“Guess we should take the combines over east and get started on those red lentils,” Elaine said, turning away to get back to work.
“Well, we could…” Jeff said, carefully considering what he was about to say next. Jeff did not think the Hansons had ever done what he was about to suggest. Not during harvest. Especially not on a sunny day in the middle of the week. When no machinery was out of commission and there were no emergencies in progress.
Elaine turned back around, and she and Dale looked at Jeff, trying to guess what he was thinking.
“Could we…” he hesitated. “Take the rest of the day off?” Jeff looked to his father, checking to see if this suggestion was too ridiculous to consider.
Dale looked bewildered at the very idea. He spoke as if he was thinking out loud. “There’s no rain in the forecast. We’re well ahead of schedule. There’s not many lentils out there anyways…”
Twenty-five minutes later the combines were back in the yard, Elaine was lifting a cooler packed with snacks and drinks into the back of the truck and Jeff was getting his tackle box out. Mark was on his way home to get his boat. He’d offered to meet them down at the lake and take Connor and Jenny tubing.
“That’ll clear out her sinuses,” Jeff said.
After Elaine made a quick call to Tara, the Hunters realized the world wouldn’t end if they took the afternoon off too. The families made a plan to meet at the beach. “The girls made cookies this morning. We’ll bring those,” Tara said.
In almost no time, Dale and Donna and the Hunter girls were out on the lake in Mark’s boat, while Jeff and Elaine lounged on the beach with Tara and John, drinking cold drinks and reapplying sunscreen. Jeff looked out at the lakeshore where the browning hills were eerily beautiful in the smoky haze.
Eventually Connor and Jenny were too exhausted to carry on tubing. They splashed up to the beach, dripping and laughing together.
“I’m having so much fun!” Jenny yelled as she ran to Elaine for a towel and a Kleenex.
“This is the best harvest ever,” Conner called out. Jeff supposed his son was right.