Ohioan Helps Harvest Wheat on the Great Plains

Combine operator Matt Yarnell looks past a cloud of wheat chaff(Photo: Photo by Sam Hendren)
Combine operator Matt Yarnell looks past a cloud of wheat chaff(Photo: Photo by Sam Hendren)

Members of the harvesting crew call him Slim. He’s 23 years old and comes from several generations of Ohio farmers. But this summer – just like last year – he’s helping to bring in U.S. wheat crop. Matt Yarnell works for Westlake Harvesting, a custom cutting operation that travels through the Great Plains.

“My name’s Matt Yarnell, I’m originally from Delaware, Ohio. I now live up in Marion.”

His parents sold the family farm in the Polaris area when he was 15 – and that, says Matt Yarnell, left a void in his life. Now he’s getting his fill out west as part of a custom harvest crew that travels through America’s grain belt.

Yarnell is piloting a new $300,000 Case combine through an endless sea of western Kansas wheat. From his air-conditioned cab he watches as a 36-foot-long spinning cylinder grabs wheat stalks and pulls them inside.

“The reel that goes around rakes the crop across the cutter bar and this being a draper here it sets it down on conveyor belts and it’s fed into the feeder house where it’s taken into the rotor where it’s separated and the clean grain is put in the grain tank for the truck.”

Yarnell and several co-workers began cutting America’s amber waves of grain several weeks ago in Oklahoma. He says it’s fun and a lot different from farming in Ohio where things are done on a smaller scale and where the harvest lasts only a few days.

“It’s not a traveling harvest like this is,” Yarnell says. “You don’t sit in a combine for six months long. We start up in northern Minnesota; we pack every thing up in the spring and head to southern Oklahoma, start combining, and work our way up into North Dakota and Minnesota.”

As they follow the ripening grain northward toward the Canadian border, Yarnell and his co-workers move in a caravan of trucks that transport combines, grain trailers and the RV that they call home. Last week it was Kansas, this week they’re working in South Dakota. Though this year’s wheat crop is one of the poorest in decades, Yarnell says he still gets plenty of time behind the wheel.

“Usually we’ll start as early as we can in the morning and run as late as we can at night until the dew settles in. So the days can get pretty long – upwards of 16 hours or so. But it’s not bad,” says Yarnell.

The job’s only drawbacks, Yarnell says, are the constant winds and the almost continuous flurry of wheat chaff.

Though the number of custom harvesting operations is dwindling they’re still important to U.S. agriculture. Many small farmers don’t have the capital required to purchase machinery that’s only used a few days a year. So far, Yarnell’s employer, Westlake Harvesting, has been able to keep its equipment up to date, but just as important according to the company’s owner, are the people who run those machines.

“It takes a good crew. It takes a good bunch of young men,” says Al Westlake.

“It’s a young man’s game. It’s hard work, but you try to make it fun.”

This year’s crop, though, has been ravaged by hot dry winds and drought on the lower Great Plains. That probably means the usual 2.4 billion bushels grown annually will be smaller. Matt Yarnell says this may be his last year as a custom cutter. He says he’ll wait and see what the winter brings.

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