Life takes you a lot of places. Growing up on the Grand Prairie surrounded by farms of thriving rice crops, I never thought I’d be traipsing around fields with farmers who’ve known me since I was a kid.
But that’s exactly what I’m doing. As the Public Relations Coordinator for Riceland Foods, I wear many hats. I love the fact that I get an opportunity to do that. I’m surrounded by people who support me and believe in what I do, and I believe in supporting the farmers who grow our rice.
This idea to follow the rice crop from start to finish this growing season has been my favorite thing. Each week I get to satisfy my curiosity of learning how rice grows from the men and women who grow it.
I’m lucky to have a handful of farmers that are willing to pick me up on the side of the dirt road to teach me about rice farming. Now that it’s harvest, every minute of the day is precious to our farmers. They are busy from sun up to sun down. So getting face time with one is a blessing.
Case in point, I’ve walked rice fields with farmers in a dress and rubber boots, punched gaping holes in poly pipe for rice irrigation and kept my cool when I was three-feet from a “juvenile” cotton-mouth snake. But nothing comes close to what I did last week.
I drove a combine.
If you’ve not seen a combine, it is a truly massive piece of machinery. Every farmer has one because it’s what they use to cut their crops. Think of it like a gigantic lawn mower.
I went out to a field where a farmer was cutting rice. I asked if I could ride with him in the combine.
He said, “Sure, as long as you drive.”
I laughed it off, thinking he was joking, and I climbed the three-foot ladder into the cab of the combine.
The cab is spacious and enclosed with massive windows from floor to ceiling. My farmer friend explained to me how combines work. The header rotates and pushes the rice stalk into the blades, where it is cut and moved on a conveyor belt into the inside of the machine. The rice kernels are separated from the stalk of the plant, and then spit into the massive holding tank of the combine until it get full. Then, the kernels are moved from the combine into a grain cart. The grain cart takes the rice from the field and loads it into trucks to take the freshly harvested kernels to Riceland.
As I’m soaking up my crash course on combines, my farmer friend says, “Look you’ll never learn this by me telling you. So switch places with me. You drive, and that will teach you better than anything I could ever tell you. Come on.”
Immediate anxiety hit me. I can’t drive a combine. I may be from Arkansas County, but that doesn’t make me qualified to drive a combine.
But I didn’t argue. Curiosity won out again. So I switched places with him. My feet didn’t even reach the floor.
He showed me the two steering implements: a classic steering wheel and a joystick. The steering wheel actually directed the combine left or right. The joystick directed the forward, backward or stop motion, the speed and the lifting or lowering of the header. To the right of the joystick was a complex screen showing fuel levels and data from the hopper, or the combine’s holding tank.
He said, “Keep with the line of rice that was just cut. Don’t go too fast, but don’t go to slow. And when the tires get to a levee push the header down into the rice and when it makes it over the levee raise the header a little.”
To me, he might as well have been speaking French.
He throws it in gear. And we start moving. At a blistering 1.5 miles per hour.
I was freaking out.
As I got familiar with the two concepts of steering, he would remind me to stay close to the edge of the cut rice, an endearing “get back into the rice…You’re not even cutting anything.”
So I’d turn back into the rice. Turn too much. Miss some rice. Re-correct. Hit a levee. Freak out. Lower the header when I should have raised it or vice versa.
Combine manufacturers should know to make the buttons on the joystick where down is down and up is up. But in this particular case, the plus sign representing raising the header was on the bottom of the joystick, and the minus sign was on the top. So up was down and down was up. Mind boggling.
But I managed to keep it together and make my way around the entire field. While most farmers make passes down and back in straight lines, my farmer decided to cut this particular field in a circle. So I was constantly turning and correcting.
It’s like driving a giant turtle that can turn on a dime. Slow and methodical and precise.
Just the slightest move of the steering wheel. Boom. Crooked line. Leaving rice behind.
Turn too fast. Boom. Rice kernels spilling out the back.
I asked about 900 questions in a two-minute time span. How am I doing? Am I losing rice? How do I slow down? What button raises the header? What happens when I hit a levee? What happens when the hopper gets full? How do I turn this thing? Are you sure you want me to do this?
Absolutely the most nerve-wracking 1.5 miles per hour of my life. So many things you have to pay attention to. So much hand-eye coordination. So much care and concentration. My farmer friend had been driving a combine since he was 8-years-old. Thankfully, I had an experienced teacher in my combine driver’s ed crash course.
The farmers that grow our rice are amazing people. So much preparation goes into the planting. They spend months watering and caring for the rice as it grows and matures. Then, they spend days on end harvesting the rice. Riding long hours on the combine alone. All to give us the best rice they can.
Farmers care. And it shows in how they do their jobs every single day.