Corn prices are down and the farm bill is stalled in Congress. So there's a lot of uncertainly in the air as harvest season gets into full swing across the Midwest. But this is a time of year when farm families like the Friesens in Henderson, Neb., come together to focus on the big task at hand: the corn harvest.
Everyone in the family has a job to do.
"Like my dad — he drives auger wagon," Curt Friesen says. "He drives auger wagon only. That's all he's done since 1976, I think. ... My wife, Nancy, she drives the combine; that's her job."
Curt drives a truck. So does his son-in-law, who's new on the farm. That's how the Friesens are harvesting 1,100 acres of corn this fall, about middle of the pack in terms of its size.
With roughly 97 million acres of corn to pick nationwide, farmers are pulling in family and friends as part-time help to haul in the crop.
Nancy Friesen grasps the orange joystick that controls the Friesens' giant John Deere combine, which is so big, it makes the cornstalks look like matchsticks.
"It is a humongous piece of equipment," she says, "and it is intimidating. It's got all kinds of bells and whistles to let you know what's going wrong."
Nancy Friesen isn't totally comfortable in the driver's seat. Even a modestly priced combine costs $350,000, and most of the year she's in the garden, not the field. But she expressed some relief as she mowed down the cornstalks and watched the grain flow in.
"It is a good feeling when the corn is in the bin and we don't have to worry about it out here anymore," she says. "So many weird weather things can happen," like last year's drought, which was the worst since the 1950s.
The drought caused corn yields to dry up across the Midwest. The Friesens were lucky — irrigation saved most of their crop. And farmers who irrigate reaped the rewards last year, as drought shrunk supply, pushing corn prices to record highs of over $8 a bushel.
Of course, drought can also be disastrous at harvest time, as Albert Friesen, Curt's 92-year-old dad, knows firsthand.
When Albert Friesen started farming he used horses, not green tractors. In 1938, at age 16, he took over the farm after his dad died. The next year a drought hit and the crop was ruined.
"There was nothing here," he says. "Everything dried up. I went to Minnesota to pick corn by hand."
He brought home $69, just enough to keep the farm. That was a tough year.
"But I think we're in for some tough times yet again," he says.
Tough in comparison to last year, at least — 2013 could be the biggest corn harvest in history: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated 13.8 billion bushels. With so much supply, corn prices have been shrinking since the beginning of the year and are down around a three-year low, though prices remain quite healthy by historical standards.
Still, it's not clear what the crop will be worth by the time it's in the bin. That uncertainty comes just as Jason Lewis, the Friesens' son-in-law, is joining the family farm. A year ago, Lewis was in a college classroom. He wasn't a student — he was the professor.
"This time last year, I was at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and I was probably teaching turf grass science class," Lewis says.
Now the 35-year-old Ph.D. from Kearney, Neb., is hauling corn and wearing earbuds so he can listen to podcasts while he's in the field.
During a break in the action, Nancy said she is grateful to have extra help on hand.
"I love it when I can hear Curt and Jason talking in the shop and he's got somebody to talk shop to," she says. "I love having the kids back. It takes the pressure off so much."
But Nancy couldn't talk for long. Albert had an empty grain wagon. Jason had a truck to fill. She plunged the combine into the standing corn. The harvest grind will go on for another four to six weeks.
"It's just pretty much harvest," Nancy says. "I try to clear the schedule. I just figure nothing really happens in October."
At least, not until the last load of corn comes in.
Grant Gerlock reports from Nebraska for NET News and Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production issues.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, here's a reality about farming. From the earliest days of this country, it's been an uncertain business, and for many decades, national policies have been designed to smooth out that risk. But, of course, the risk never entirely goes away. You can never control the rain, for example, and lately the uncertainty has been growing. Corn prices are down. The farm bill is stalled in Congress and there's a sense that good times may be fading.
From Nebraska, Grant Gerlock of NET News brings us his report.
GRANT GERLOCK, BYLINE: I'm standing in a corn field owned by the Friesen family in central Nebraska near the small town of Henderson. This field is about half picked, which kind of gives it the look of an unfinished haircut.
CURT FRIESEN: The truck drivers have the easy job.
GERLOCK: Sitting in the cab of his blue semi in a sea of yellow corn stalks, Curt Friesen says harvest is hectic, but its favorite time of year. From this truck, he choreographs a dance of people and machines between corn fields and grain bins. Everyone in the family has a job to do.
FRIESEN: Like my dad, he drives auger wagon. He drives auger wagon only and that's all he's done since 1976, I think, he's driven auger wagon for us. My wife, Nancy, she drives the combine. That's her job. She doesn't like driving truck.
GERLOCK: So Curt drives the truck. So does his son-in-law, who's new on the farm. That's how the Friesens are harvesting 1100 acres of corn this fall. Middle of the pack as far as farm size goes. And with roughly 97 million acres of corn to pick nationwide, this is how much of the crop will be hauled in, with farmers pulling in family and friends as part time help.
The Friesen's giant John Deere combine makes the corn stalks look like matchsticks. Nancy Friesen says it's stressful to be at the controls. These machines cost far more than most houses.
NANCY FRIESEN: It is a humongous piece of equipment and it's intimidating. Yeah, it's got lots of bells and whistles and lots of things that will tell you if something is going wrong.
GERLOCK: Most of the year, she's in the garden, not the field, but she feels some relief as she mows down the corn and watches the grain flow in.
FRIESEN: It is a good feeling when the corn is in the bin and we don't have to worry about it out here anymore. So many weird weather things can happen.
GERLOCK: For instance, last year's drought, the worst since the 1950s. Irrigation saved most of the Friesen's crop last year, but Albert Friesen, Curt's 92-year-dad, knows firsthand how disastrous drought can be at harvest time. I climb in the cab of the gleaming green tractor he's driving. When he started farming, he did this with horses.
In 1938, at age 16, he took over the farm after his dad died. The next year, a drought hit and a crop was ruined.
ALBERT FRIESEN: There was nothing here. Everything dried up and then I went to Minnesota to pick corn by hand.
GERLOCK: He brought home just $69 that harvest season, just enough to keep the farm. That was a tough year.
FRIESEN: But I think we're in for some tough times yet again.
GERLOCK: He could be right. This could be the biggest corn harvest in history, nearly 14 billion bushels, but it's not clear what it will be worth. After peaking last year, corn prices are around a three-year low, just as Jason Lewis is joining the Friesen family farm. He's the son-in-law I mentioned earlier. A year ago, Lewis, was in a college classroom, but not as a student.
He was the professor.
JASON LEWIS: Let's see. This time last year, I was at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo and it's - I probably was teaching turfgrass science class.
GERLOCK: Now, the 35-year-old PhD from the small town of Kearney is hauling corn with earbuds on so he can listen to podcasts while he's in the field. During a break in the action, Nancy Friesen says she's grateful to have extra help on hand.
FRIESEN: I love it when I can hear Curt and Jason talking in the shop and he's got somebody to talk shop to. We love having the kids back. It takes the pressure off so much.
GERLOCK: But Nancy can't talk for long. It's time to start back up. Albert has an empty grain wagon. Jason has a truck to fill. She plunges the combine into the standing corn. The harvest grind will go on another four to six weeks.
FRIESEN: It's just pretty much harvest. I try to clear the schedule. I just figure nothing really happens in October.
GERLOCK: At least not until the last load of corn comes in. For NPR News, I'm Grant Gerlock.
INSKEEP: His story comes to us thanks to Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting project focusing on agriculture and food production. It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.