“I’m not sure,” Elaine said. “It runs so fast.”
Her husband Jeff laughed. “I’ve ridden with you in the car. Fifteen miles an hour is nothing like the speed you like to drive!”
Elaine rolled her eyes, not even bothering to point out that she didn’t use the car to spray herbicide on a delicate crop. And that the car wasn’t 120 feet wide. Over the past few years, Elaine had spent enough time in the cab of the combine to be confident, and this spring she’d taken a few shifts in the air seeder and things had gone well. But the sprayer moved almost twice as fast in the field as the combine or the tractor, and operating the sprayer involved a whole new set of complicated decisions.
“Now that we’re going to spray the Winters’ land too, we really need one more operator to get everything done in time,” Jeff said. “With Dad off to Yorkton for a week, and Mark wanting to get his new boat in the water… I can’t do it all myself. Even I need a break sometime.”
Seeing he was getting nowhere, Jeff tried a new direction. “And you like learning new things.”
He saw a gleam start to develop in her eye.
But Elaine still wasn’t sure that saying yes to Tim Winters had been a good idea. Tim had called two weeks earlier to ask if the Hansons could spray two quarters of land for him. The Winterses had just moved into the area and were renting a bit of land and getting by with an older line of equipment they’d picked up at auction sales. They seemed to be nice people, with kids close to the same age as Connor and Jenny, but they didn’t have a high-clearance sprayer.
Elaine argued it would be hard to charge enough to break even on custom spraying, once they considered depreciation on the Hanson’s sprayer. But Jeff had argued that it was a good idea to help a new neighbour. “And if he doesn’t get those quarters sprayed, we’ll just wind up with his kochia in our field, and we’ll have to pay the full price to spray it next year.”
In the end, Jeff won. Both with the custom spraying, and with having Elaine help out.
On Tuesday morning, Jeff’s mother Donna agreed to take Jeff and Elaine’s kids to town for swimming lessons so Elaine could ride in the sprayer with Jeff and learn how things worked.
“I’m glad to do it,” Donna said. “I was looking for an excuse to go to town.”
“Since when do you need an excuse?” Jeff asked, knowing his mother had spent more time in town in the past five years than anyone else on the farm.
“Since the new carbon tax,” Donna said, frowning. “But I can’t not go to town. I’ll go crazy.”
“Swimming lessons are a great excuse,” Elaine said. “Connor and Jenny have to learn to swim if they’re going to grow up in a yard with a dugout.”
By 9 a.m., Jeff had already taken Elaine through a basic lesson in filling the sprayer and running the monitors, and they were seated in the sprayer cab at the end of the field. Jeff had ignored Elaine’s objections and started out in the buddy seat while she took the wheel. “You might as well hit the ground running,” he’d said.
“Don’t say ‘hit,’” she warned, as the sprayer started moving.
“Do we really have to go this fast?” Elaine said when they were at half speed.
“Well…” Jeff thought about it. “Yes. Between the hourly depreciation and the limited time, we can’t afford to go much slower.”
She sped up, with one eye on the screen. By the time she’d covered the first half of the outside round, she was getting the hang of it. But she wasn’t wild about the speed. It was hard for a new operator to appreciate the grace of a hawk circling overhead or notice a coyote lurking at the edge of the field.
“Nice work,” Jeff said. “You see that rock pile up ahead, right?”
“Of course,” Elaine lied.
“You can still get around it. Just take a quick right turn,” Jeff said.
“Maybe I should switch off the booms and make a semi-circle out in the field?” Elaine said.
“Just turn,” Jeff said, sounding urgent. “There’s not enough time for a semi-circle now.”
“I don’t know…” Elaine was panicking.
“You can do it,” Jeff commanded.
Elaine turned far enough to the right to avoid hitting the rock pile with the boom, but when she swerved back to the left to get back onto the GPS line, she overshot. The left sprayer boom caught up in the wire fence that ran along the length of the Winters’ field.
“Stop!” Jeff yelled.
“Oh no!” Elaine yelled, remembering to shut off the booms before she hit the brake, lurching to a stop and throwing Jeff forward onto the cab floor.
“I told you it’s too fast,” Elaine said while Jeff picked himself up and rubbed the spot on his forehead where he’d hit the steering column.
“Don’t tell Connor you let me ride without a seat belt,” Jeff said. “I always make the kids use it.”
They climbed out of the cab to find the boom caught between two fence wires, nozzles spewing the last dribbles of spray onto the ground.
Jeff looked at Elaine, who looked devastated.
“It happens,” he said. When she looked unconvinced, he said, “The end of that boom was probably going 30 miles an hour during the turn.”
Seeing how unhappy she still looked he added, “You should’ve been out here the day Dad hit the truck.”
Soon Elaine was back in the cab, lifting the booms while Jeff held the tangled wires out of the way. “A little lower,” he yelled, pointing down at the ground so she could see him from the cab. “Now back up,” he shouted, pointing to the sky.
They got the boom out of the wire right away, but hitting the fence post had done some damage. Jeff got back in the cab and into the buddy seat. “Better go to the yard,” he said. “We’re going to need tools. And probably some parts from town.”
“You drive,” Elaine said, standing up to switch places. “I’ve caused enough trouble for one day.”
“Are you kidding?” Jeff said. “Now that you’re experienced? You’ll be really good now.”
Elaine smiled, and lifted the booms to put the sprayer into transport mode.
By the time they got back to the Hanson’s yard, lowered the booms and parked the damaged sprayer in front of the shop, Donna and the kids were home from swimming lessons. Connor and Jenny ran out to see their parents, with Donna trailing along behind them.
“Grandma let us get Slurpees!” Jenny announced.
“Shhhh!” her big bother hissed. “We weren’t supposed to tell Mom!”
Elaine pretended not to hear them and ignored their neon-blue lips and tongues.
“Good news for you, Donna,” Elaine called to her mother-in-law. “I’ve got a great excuse for you to go back to town.”