After the Storm

Article 17.05.2010 17:29

A farmer in coastal North Carolina labors to harvest his remaining crops after hurricane Floyd.

Mechanical problems are one of the facts of life that the farmer has to deal with regularly. Machinery and dirt do not mix. No piece of machinery, no matter how well designed or how new, can be expected to work perfectly in the dirtiest environment imaginable. A combine is a particularly complex machine. Belts, pulleys, chains, gears, and a host of other moving parts make it one of the few human contrivances with the built-in potential for frequent mechanical breakdown. Still, one can only marvel at the beauty of seeing one of these machines at work. It is like music and it thrills the heart of any true lover of machines. Today's farmer must be able to address mechanical problems on site. In many cases, broken parts can be refurbished without a significant loss of time. Much time between the planting and harvest is spent maintaining equipment. Few outside the profession realize this aspect of the farmer’s routine.

After the soybeans were planted in the spring of 1999, they grew beautiful and hardy. However, when harvest time was approaching, hurricane Floyd struck on September 15th and left the fields submerged under several feet of water. A period of six weeks of drying was required before a harvest was possible. What follows is a narrative of the events that transpired during that harvest at the Johnson farm in Bladen County.

John Johnson, “J.J.” to his friends, encountered a number of problems with his combine during the 1999 soybean harvest. Hurricane debris was partially to blame in at least two instances. One field, shaded by pecan trees on three sides, was the first to present problems. These trees contributed a number of broken limbs to an assortment of organic and synthetic items that littered the field. Roy, a young man working for Mr. Johnson, had spent a better part of the day gathering up debris from this field in preparation for harvesting. John and Roy walked the field prior to bringing in the combine. When both were satisfied that the field had been cleared of any objects that might damage the combine, John proceeded to harvest it. Beginning at the northern edge of the field, he followed its boundaries with the combine. On the third pass the combine picked up a branch that had previously gone undetected. The branch was drawn up into the combine and damaged the shaker trays in the rear.

At this point, no further harvesting could be accomplished without replacing the damaged tray. The combine was driven back to the shop. After several hours of work the shaker tray had been removed and the branch that had caused the damage had been dislodged from a difficult position to the rear of the trays. This branch was stubbornly wedged and as a result the whole rear tray assembly had to be dismantled. The December sun had set by the time this project was completed.

A friend from the neighborhood joined Roy and John in the machine shop at this point. The broken shaker tray had been previously damaged and the welded joints had broken apart when the branch became lodged between the upper and lower trays. The branch had caused such severe damage to the upper tray that it simply was not worth fixing. About 9:00 PM that evening, John decided it would be best to send his crew home and begin again the next morning. He planned to travel to White Lake early the next morning to retrieve a replacement tray from a combine stored there that John had purchased for spare parts. The crew would begin afresh the next morning.

The next morning the John traveled to a farm outside White Lake, approximately 8 mi. outside Elizabethtown, and removed both shaker trays from the broken combine. About 10:00 AM that morning the combine was ready to resume harvesting. Roy scoured the field looking for branches as before. Finding no more offensive branches, they proceeded to harvest successfully 5 acres of soybeans before noon. When the combine's hoppers were at capacity, Roy brought up the grain truck, swung the auger over the rear of the truck, and began to discharge his load from the hoppers.

Midway into the task the wooden wheel that maintains pressure on the chain driving the lower auger broke and ceased to function. Once more a mechanical problem that could not have been anticipated brought the harvest to a standstill. At first the men attempted to use bailing wire to hold the split pressure wheel together. This did not work very well, and soon the wooden wheel broke beyond the point where it could be repaired. At that point the John's friend drove up. After he and John discussed this new development, they decided to apply pressure to the drive chain of the lower auger with an ax handle. This did not work, and they decided to return to the machine shop. The winter sun had started to set. Roy drove the grain truck with a load of soybeans that had already been gathered to the barn, with John following with the combine. His friend followed him with the equipment truck.

With all the equipment safely at the machine shop, the crew considered the next course of action. An industrial strength space heater resembling a detached jet engine was turned on inside the machine shop. They pondered the latest mechanical problem while consuming the first meal of the day, two-piece boxes of fried chicken and canned sodas, sitting on bar stools around the roaring heater. Roy was dismissed for the day with instructions to meet at the barn once again at 7 o'clock the next morning. John's friend examined the fragments of the shattered wooden pressure wheel. He recommended that for the time being they make a substitute wheel. Ordering a replacement through the parts shop in Lumberton might take a few days. Two days had already been lost to mechanical problems. The solution, though, was found behind the barn. Several tall oak trees had been knocked over by Hurricane Floyd. Finding a branch about the same diameter as the wheel was not difficult. The two men cut off a length of oak branch and took it inside the shop for finishing. About ten segments of the branch were cut and drilled through the center. The most promising of these were fitted with washers and soaked in oil, and one was fitted to the combine's chain guide. The others were placed into an empty fried chicken box as backup and put into the equipment truck with the tools. After starting the combine, John engaged the auger to test their handiwork. The repair had been effective. John's friend backed the grain truck out of the barn, and in a short time the combine's hoppers were empty. The combine was ready for the next day's work.

The next morning Roy and John began to harvest the soybeans. No problems were encountered this day. From time to time, as the grain trucks reached their capacity, they transported their load to Bladenboro. Although that was a short drive, there was always a line of other trucks unloading their soybeans because of the late harvest. The result was it could take two hours. Also complicating the wait were the shortened operating hours at the grain market because of the Christmas season. Nothing further could be done at this point. The grain trucks were filled to capacity. The crew decided to postpone harvesting more soybeans until he could unload the trucks the week after Christmas.

The week following Christmas would prove to be one of unending irritation. After a few passes with the combine, the engine began to overheat; the bearing in the fan assembly had frozen. The whole fan assembly had been torn from its mount and driven into the radiator. This was particularly discouraging since only a few months ago the radiator had been replaced at a cost of about $600.00. After allowing the engine to cool, John drove the combine back to the machine shop where he received a realistic assessment of the situation.

Mr. Johnson drove over to a relative's farm where he too was harvesting soybeans. He arrived to see this fellow’s combine broken down in the field, also. His crew was tightening the belts. John explained his predicament and expressed his desire to enlist the aid of his crew to help with the soybean harvest while he dealt with the mechanical problems. The man agreed to assist him, and another farmer in the neighborhood, also agreed to help. These men had been John’s mentors from the time he first expressed a desire to farm. Now, when he was in a terrible bind, both were willing to set their own work aside to help him. With two combines at work, and the grain trucks of both farms to take they yield to Bladenboro, John had a chance to make up for lost time.

The repair of the damaged radiator would prove to be three days' labor. Its repair would require the removal of about 200 bolts around the radiator assembly. John would have to remove the radiator and attempt to repair the damage rather than order a new radiator. Once again, there simply was not enough time to wait for replacement parts. Carefully, he removed the damaged fins from the radiator with a pair of needle-nose pliers. He trimmed the ends of the fins with metal shears and soldered them closed. He filled the radiator time and time again with water to detect any leaks. After a full day's work, he was satisfied that most of the leaks had been sealed.

The next morning he would take the radiator into Elizabethtown to have it tested under pressure at the local radiator shop. As it turned out, for the most part, his repairs were successful. The radiator shop repaired the few leaks that revealed themselves under pressure, and it was ready to be installed a few hours later. Meanwhile the older farmers had started harvesting John’s fields that morning. They periodically had to stop to do maintenance on their machines. One was having trouble with a shaker tray and had to remove debris from the trays manually with a pitchfork. The other had to stop and repair the cutter teeth on his grain head. By sundown they were working on a field that had not been harvested earlier. The spotlights on their John Deere combines cast beams of light down the rows as the darkness and chill overtook the operation.

After encountering a mangled branch still hanging from one of the ancient pecan trees that surround the field, the older farmers decided to call it a night. The next day would be New Year's Eve. By then they hoped to have three combines in the field if John could get his machine up and running by that time. As both crews were preparing to go home, John arrived and informed all present that he expected his machine to be operational by morning.

At the machine shop, John's combine had already been fitted with a repaired radiator. Left was the reassembly of the remaining mechanism with its 200 bolts, its pulleys and belts, and hoses and clamps. The cold evening made the whole greasy task a miserable affair. By 9:00 PM most of the work had been completed. What remained was to install two battery-powered electric fans to substitute for the belt-driven fan that had been ripped from its mount. As of yet no one was sure how to go about it, and it was questionable whether the fans would really help cool the radiator at all. Still, it wouldn't hurt to try. That problem would be addressed the next morning when the crew met at sunrise. Mr. Johnson closed up shop and retired to the main house for supper.

The next morning, New Year's Eve 1999, the so-called Y2K bug was the last thing on anybody's mind. The technology that concerned Johnson's crew was not computerized. They joked that if the whole civilized world were thrown into the Dark Ages there would still be truckloads of soybeans to nourish the men and their families for years to come. However, not a one of them had ever cooked up a pot of soybeans. Given that tomorrow, the beginning of the year 2000, most likely wouldn’t be any different from the day before, no one would try to satisfy his curiosity.

About 9:00 AM, three combines were at work in the fields. Surprisingly, the work proceeded without any major mechanical problems. Mr. Johnson's electric fans, along with the cool weather, proved to be more than adequate in keeping his engine cool.

By the first week of January 2000, the 1999 soybean harvest had been completed. Mr. Johnson managed to make a modest profit. However, hurricane Floyd had delayed the harvest by about six weeks. The soybean pods, which had already begun to dry before the hurricane, had to undergo drying a second time. The late-fall and early-winter cold, dry air was not ideal for this process. By the time harvesting had begun, the bean pods were almost open. The slightest vibration would send the beans to the ground. Though a great volume of soybeans was harvested, far too many pods, overripe, released their beans onto the ground. Had the harvest proceeded earlier as planned, the yield would have been greater.


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