What’s the worst harvest you can ever remember? Do you judge it by the worst yields, the repeated breakdowns or the sheer amount of stress that any one farmer can take?
Looking back, my worst yields were in 1976. Simply dreadful. My wettest harvests were 1985 and 2012. They were bad too. But 2021 has possibly been my worst ever harvest. Why? Because I simply cannot remember a more dismal and gloomy August.
Temperatures during the month seemed stuck at about 16C. They weather forecast might have been mostly dry – but it was cloudy and most days all it seemed to take was a light drizzle to stop the combines.
Having been relegated to grain carting, this year for me was somewhat easier. I still sit on a tractor seat alongside the combine for a neighbour. But it makes no difference stress-wise whether the grain comes off the field at 15% or 25% moisture.
Having put a foot outside the farming world, I have realised looking from the outside in how much stress I used to be under during the summer. It sounds harsh to say such things – and I am a very sympathetic person – but my neighbour’s stress levels have been through the roof.
Watching him these last few weeks, his manner and demeanour have gradually headed south. Stop-start harvest tempers have become shorter and shorter. And then, with just 20ha (50 acres) left and the end in sight, the dreaded breakdown appeared.
Not with my neighbour fortunately but with his combine harvester. An electrical fault. Perhaps a dodgy wire or sensor suggesting a problem that may or may not be there. A couple of hours stopped when a pressure warning light comes only to find out that the problem does not really exist. Or does it?
A worried combine driver contacts the local dealer who sends out a fitter who confirms the problem is electrical. The following Sunday morning, he rings again only to be told the office is closed and additional charges may be incurred.
So with no dealer support and the weather uncertain he presses ahead, eating into the last of the crop only to stop in a plume of white smoke and a large hole in the engine. Harvest grinds to a halt within sight of the finishing post.
It is the first harvest engine failure in my experience. And it sums up the summer of 2021. Thinking back to the past 50 years or so, I can recall many trouble-free harvests. Mainly good weather – but not always above average yields. And hence stressful.
I remember three inches of rain and strong winds laying flat large fields of wheat. The combine nearly stuck several times and a set of chains following it around wherever it went to pull it out of the mire.
I also remember from seasons past a different array of animals getting into the drum. From dogs to deers. It’s surpising what a combine will almost swallow – a drone, a fridge, a tumble dryer and a tent in the oilseed rape with the kids still inside.
Tales of woe
It’s a litany of disasters almost avoided. And sometimes not. A smouldering piece of linseed straw in the combine caused by a sharp flint? Luckily no damage done. Or the time my neighbour only half-changed the oil in his combine only to forget next morning and seize the engine.
One of our trailer boys backed into a farm van in a field. He only had 16ha (40 acres) of spare space but still managed to find the parked van. I too have had my share of mistakes – but taken over nearly 50 summers, it hasn’t turned out too bad.
There is not much of a better feeling as a farmer than sitting on a combine with clear blue skies, the yield monitor touching nearly 10t/ha (4t/acre) and the engine purring away trouble free. But that hasn’t been the case much this year.
Many farms have questioned their combines and drying facilities. Bad weather often brings about those kind of thoughts – and many a rash decision has been made on the back of a dull, rainy summer.
Few growers questioned their harvest capability last year – and maybe any possible answers are best left to a wet January day in the farm office Here’s hoping your harvest has long finished and your stress levels have receded.
To read more opinions, why not check out our editor’s piece on Clarkson’s Farm.