City boy returns to his combine operator days

A chance meeting with a farmer puts the author back in the seat of a combine after being away from the field for many years

In late October, I found a time machine and jumped in. It sent me back 40 years to my Manitoba farm boy days. I loved it.

The machine was a slow-moving red monster that feasted off endless swaths of barley — a Case IH 8230 combine, owned by Darryl Shuttleworth of Balzac, Alta.

Darryl was in a bind. His 85-year-old father had suddenly entered an Airdrie nursing home and couldn’t help with the harvest. Darryl’s older brother, Wayne, recently retired, was fighting asthma and was good for field work only in short stints.

An out-of-work nephew had already been drafted, but with two combines, two trucks and a grain cart, Darryl needed more help. But why call a city dweller?

I had crossed paths with Darryl in a unique way. In early August I was at Pioneer Acres, the vintage farm show at Irricana, Alta. I noticed him and his elderly parents walking from afar. I yelled out “hello Shuttleworths.” Alas, time had dimmed memories. Darryl yelled back, “who are you?”

About 25 years ago, I ran a beef cattle magazine out of Calgary. I had known the Shuttleworth family as Charworth Charolais Farms, a purebred cattle operation. I had been on their yard once or twice.

Darryl later caught up to me. We chatted and found out we had things in common, like politics and a love for the farm. I blurted out that I had a flexible work schedule, and so I’d be open to helping with the harvest or otherwise. Did I tell him I was 40 years rusty running a combine, a truck, or a tractor?

August slipped away, as did September. Darryl never called. No worries. I absorbed myself in my regular work and into federal election tasks.

However, on voting day, Oct. 21, my phone buzzed while I battled Calgary’s rush hour traffic. I called the number back. Darryl’s voice answered. “Do you have time to come out this week?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered too quickly, too enthusiastically.

On a beautiful fall Friday afternoon, I abandoned the city and escaped to the country, about 10 kilometres northeast of the Calgary airport.

I was soon riding in the tandem grain truck while Darryl drove. He gave me a quick summary of the Shuttleworth farm: 4,500 acres to harvest annually, mainly barley and canola. A few minutes later I was in the ride-along seat in the combine cab while Wayne gave me the tutorial. My moment of truth was at hand — I was scared, anxious, and stressed. I should have run. I didn’t.

I had often operated my late father’s I-H 403 combine on our farm at Basswood, Man., in the late 1970s. That machine laboured and belched while chewing through 14-foot cut swaths. And now here, far away in time and place, I was a 17-year-old again.

Wayne switched seats with me after 45 minutes, and then after one round, and one unload-on-the-go, he left. I was alone with the diesel-drinking, growling mechanical beast.

The array of electronic readouts, levers, switches, and gauges began to make sense. My usual cautious approach served me well. I could almost hear my dad’s voice telling me that you can do new tasks if you take them slower. Don’t push too hard, too early, he would have advised.

If courage equals fear plus action, then I learned this emotional math. I settled down.

The 30-foot cut swaths disappeared in rapid succession as the barley cascaded into the hopper behind me. At 350 bushels, the 8230 held triple the old 403’s capacity.

I used the two-way radio and called Joel over with his grain cart. I got the hopper unload done uneventfully, nothing broken, nothing bent. Now 18,000 pounds lighter, the throbbing harvester rolled along easier.

By late afternoon, we finished the field and did a two-combine parade to the adjacent 40 acres, Darryl’s last barley swaths. However, we had hardly begun when the skies opened up with snow. Who needs that? We stopped, shut down, and went home.

With the intermittent snow, broken up occasionally by sunny days, the machines sat for weeks.

I later called Darryl. He said he had gotten in a few hours of combining canola one afternoon, and he had been on the verge of calling me for help, but then the weather interrupted again. All I could do was wait, which farmers across Western Canada were doing in one of the most difficult harvest years ever.

In late-November, Darryl still had about 1,000 acres of canola out in the field.

Meanwhile, my operator prowess spread among my city friends. I plainly told them that they’d guzzle beer all winter due to my expertise harvesting the barley. They may have not believed it, but they laughed. One accused me of seeking “grainful” employment. Groan. Still another quizzed me what it was like driving the huge 450-horsepower machine, devouring barley, and wanting more?

“It moves slowly, but with grace and aplomb. Sort of like a hefty shopper sauntering down the snack food aisle in Wal-Mart, gathering everything in sight,” I suggested. Another laugh.

The author is giving this toy Case IH 8230 combine, which is 1/32 the size of the original, to the father of the man he helped with harvest this fall. | Supplied photo

I was actually stunned how quickly my combine skills returned. Darryl’s wanting me back was proof that I did OK. I didn’t wreck the machine. I had returned to my past.

Later, I thought of Darryl’s dad, living in the nursing home. I decided to buy him a toy replica of the 8230 combine. With my dad’s dementia, replicas of his old tractors would evoke periods of lucidness and conjure up old stories. Maybe that would also happen with Darryl’s dad.

I called Don Risky, a farm-toy seller out of Lacombe, Alta. Did he stock that exact toy combine? A day later he called back and said he had one, but only one. He found it buried in out-dated inventory, and he’d be happy to sell it.

I’ll pick it up before Christmas and give the toy to Darryl for his dad. However, I won’t be able to answer these questions: will the toy provoke an old memory for him, or had the real combine created a new one for me? Both?

Editor’s Note: On Nov. 25, Mark met up with Darryl and handed off the toy combine. Darryl was thrilled, and he guessed his dad would be too. Darryl mentioned that his dad had come with him when he first bought the big machine.

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