Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Evolution of the Custom Harvest Industry

Submitted by Tracy Zeorian, U.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc.

The custom harvesting industry dates back to the 1920’s.

During WWII:
  • Steel was rationed.
  • There were limits on the number of machines manufacturers could produce.
  • Gasoline for farmers was rationed.
  • Farm workers were drafted or finding defense industry jobs, so there was a severe manpower shortage.
  • Yet, the world needed American farmers to produce much more wheat and other food products.
Let’s back up a little. Prior to the war, Massey-Harris, an agricultural equipment company, was testing a new machine—a self-propelled machine that would cut the wheat and separate it from the chaff. The first of its kind! Prior to this machine, combines were pulled behind a tractor or a team of horses.

Joe Tucker, sales manager for Massey-Harris, saw an opportunity that would promote the new machine while getting the nation’s wheat crop cut in a more efficient and fuel-saving manner. He approached the War Production Board with his idea … if they would allow Massey-Harris the necessary steel to produce 500 of the Model #21 combines (more than their normal quota) the company would sell them exclusively to farmers who would agree to harvest 2,000 acres with the machine.

The War Board bought the idea, the machines were made, and in 1944, 500 farmers were chosen to purchase the machines (for around $2,500). The combines were loaded on the back of trucks and headed for Texas. These 500 machines were part of the very first “Harvest Brigade,” and would chase the ripening wheat to the Canadian border. The Brigade was a huge success, with each combine cutting an average of 2,038 acres.

In 1945, Massey-Harris expanded the program to 750 brand-new machines. Thus began the lifestyle that so many of us continue to lead year after year.

The reputation of the custom harvest businesses has changed since the early days. When the industry was in its early years, crews were made up of only men. There were no trailer houses. The custom harvester camps had none of the luxuries of today. Men would sleep in partially filled grain trucks or under grain trucks, tents or barns. The men relied on farmers’ wives for food and often bathed in rivers and lakes.

Custom harvest businesses have evolved in the past 69 years. Combines are larger and headers are longer. The modern-day custom harvest crew is more than likely a family-owned business. They have modern RV’s with all the luxuries of home, including a shower AND washer/dryer. Some crews opt to stay in motels while on the road and eat in restaurants. Children have grown up helping, either at the trailer house or in the field. If they’re really lucky, they’ve experienced both. We still chase that ripening wheat from Texas to the Canadian border! Fall crops, such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers, keep some of these crews on the road for up to six months.

U.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc. (USCHI) was founded in April 1983 out of frustration due to rules and regulations that were affecting the industry. A group of harvesters set a meeting to discuss their shared mission—to have one voice. Today, USCHI has more than 500 members—professional custom harvesters and businesses that support the industry at home and on the road.

The organization is a vital link between the harvester and State and Federal governments. Representatives of USCHI have been making trips to Washington, D.C., to build relationships with our policymakers and other pertinent agricultural organizations.

Safety is of utmost concern while in the fields or on the road. Recently, USCHI had a four-part DVD series professionally produced and distributed free of charge to each member. The video was created with the hope that custom harvester owners would use and share the information with their employees before the wheat ripens and it’s time to hit the road. The series covers combine and forage harvester safety, truck safety, grain auger safety and general first aid. Videos are also available to the general public for $25.

My favorite benefit of U.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc., is networking with other custom harvesters. We have an annual convention, which is usually held the first weekend in March. This is the time we can come together in a non-working atmosphere to learn about changes in the industry, see new equipment, and become educated on new rules and regulations. Most of all, we come together as a “family” and enjoy each other’s company … it’s like a family reunion!

In 2013, U.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc., is celebrating 30 years. We have come a long way since that first meeting. I expect 2013 will be one of our best! We look forward to being a part of Ag Day and sponsoring events that will help people understand where their food comes from. To find out more about USCHI or becoming a member, visit www.uschi.com.