Finishing the harvest each season is the reward for a year’s hard work. For wheat farmers who could afford it in the 30s, the work of harvest was made a lot easier and cheaper with the development of combines.
On the Plains, wheat had become a popular crop, in part because of another invention – toast. In 1928, the automatic bread slicer was perfected. Two years later, the automatic toaster was introduced. The two inventions helped change the breakfast habits of much of the nation, and wheat farmers moved to cash in.
At about the same time, combines began to take over the harvest from threshing crews and separate machines. In the 20s, one machine would cut the wheat and then bind the stalks into shocks just big enough for a man or boy to carry. The shocks were gathered and then brought to a centrally located thresher machine. The wheat was fed into the machine. The stalks were beaten and flailed to separate the wheat seeds from the stalks and chaff.
The combine brought all of those functions into one machine pulled by a tractor. And in 1935, manufacturers figured out a way to allow one man to operate the entire machine. Fifteen years later, the Farm Equipment Institute called the development of the one-man combine “one of those occasional milestones which upset the old pattern completely and changed the very courses of agriculture itself.”
The reason was economic. In 1921, a farmer who hired a contract threshing crew faced labor costs of between $86 and $116 a day. Even if neighbors worked together to harvest each other’s wheat, someone had to keep track of how many days each farmer took. Neighbors paid each other for their labor. One man was a lot cheaper than an entire crew.
In addition, the combine was faster. If a wheat field, for example, averaged 15 bushels per acre, it took over 4.5 man-hours to bind, shock and thresh the wheat. The same field would take only .75 man-hours with a combine. Even if you figured in fuel and repairs, it was estimated that a farmer using a combine could cut an acre of grain for around $1.50. The same acre would cost $4.22 with a binder and thresher.
Herman Goertzen was one of those who recognized the importance of the combine to farming. The combine also did away with the social gatherings that had always surrounded the threshing season.
LeRoy Hankel knew that even with the savings, not every farmer could afford to buy their own combine. LeRoy’s family started doing “custom work” – cutting the wheat of other farmers for a fee. They were the forerunners of today’s custom crews who follow the wheat harvest from Texas to Canada each summer.
Written by Bill Ganzel of the Ganzel Group. First written and published in 2003.