In the Shade of a Semi: Harvesting Wheat in Kansas

By Catholic Rural Life on June 27, 2016

Ethical Food and Agriculture

Editor’s Note: This story comes to us from CRL member Tom Murphy, and is part of our “Storytellers” series.  If you have a story to share about your faith, or rural life, please contact Cari Donaldson at cari@catholicrurallife.org 

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They sit in the shade of a semi, laughing and sharing a meal of lasagna, or maybe casserole. It’s 104 degrees in the Kansas sun, steadily windy. Perfect wheat harvest weather, and they’ve been at it for nine hours already. There’s three more until they can call it quits for the day.

There’s a number of them- brothers, grandmothers, friends and neighbors. They come together during this time like they have for generations, lending a hand in the field or the kitchen, driving the combine or cooking the next meal, because when the wheat is ready for harvest, there’s little time to spare, and all hands are needed to pitch in and help.

Tom Murphy is there, momentarily resting in that shady spot. Now retired, he worked with agricultural manufacturers like John Deere for 30 years. Tom and his wife live down the road from a farm belonging to a college friend of Tom’s. The friend passed away some ten years ago, and the man’s sons took over the farm. Now Tom, like others in the community of Dorrance, Kansas, help out where needed when the wheat is in.

Wheat, Tom explains, is sold by the bushel. Each bushel is weighed, and things like moisture content and foreign debris are calculated and affect the final price. Ideally, farmers aim for a moisture content of 10%, with little foreign debris. That’s why timing is so vital to the wheat harvest- start cutting too soon after a rain and not only will your combine get mired in mud, but your wheat will be too wet. Cut wheat too dry, and the berries will start to shrivel and throw off your weight. Like so much else in life, wheat thrives in that sweet spot of moderation.

Everybody runs their harvest a little differently, Tom says. He talks of “custom cutters”- people with combines and other harvesting equipment that start in Minnesota and follow the wheat harvest all the way down to Texas, cutting for hire wherever needed. “It’s a friendly competition,” Tom laughs, talking about how the farm hands try to outdo each day’s harvesting total, both in acres cut and wheat brought to the elevators in town for weighing.

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Tom Murphy is a man passionate about his faith and the rural way of life he loves. Specifically, he got involved with Catholic Rural Life because he wanted to make sure that it represented all of agriculture. “So much of what is seen in the food industry is built of the hype of marketing,” Tom says. “It loses touch with the actual process and people involved in agriculture.” Those people, those actual people who are involved in farming, are held in Tom’s high esteem. “They raise food ethically, morally, and feed the nation. They are people who have degrees in a number of subjects. They represent the lion’s share of people who are producing to feed the world.”

“All my years in Kansas, Iowa, and Missouri, the majority of what is labeled ‘corporate farms’ are family farms that are taken out of context,” Tom says. “This is the cash flow to a whole lot of Midwestern farmers. If you treat farming as a way of life, you’ll go broke. If you treat farming as a business, you’ll have a wonderful life. That’s how you live in this industry. It has to be treated as an industry.”

However, Tom realizes that in farming, there is room at the table for a variety of agricultural models. “What’s great about farming is you don’t have to be all or none. There is a place for small farms, too,” he says. As a man of deep faith, though, Tom ultimately turns the entirety over to God. “Put it in God’s hands and trust that he’ll figure it all out.”

There, under a blistering sun, sheltered by the shade of that semi, Tom looks around and sees acres of wheat rippling in the wind like curtains of gold. But that’s not all. He also sees our Catholic faith being lived out. “The wheat harvest,” he says, “brings family and farms and food together.”

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Thank you to Mr. Murphy for sharing his story and his stunning photographs.  We’ll be featuring more of his photography on our Facebook page this week- be sure to check it out.

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