Harvest truckers keep America’s crops moving to market
By Richard Middleton
Nancy Eberts is not your everyday trucker. Each year, this mother of four joins husband Myron on a six-month journey across America to ensure the country won’t run out of corn.
“We cut the crops that feed America,” says Nancy, standing with hands on hips outside the crew’s accommodation trailer in Kiowa, Kan. The Ebertses are experts in their field, with more than three decades of experience as harvest truckers. That means cutting crops, driving across the country in huge convoys and getting the crop from the field into the giant grain bins before the rains come. Trucks are at the heart of the operation.
The season’s first work began in March, when Myron left the family farm in North Dakota to make a series of journeys on his own in his Kenworth. Hauling each of the three combine harvesters as far south as Kansas, he put them at the ready for the coming season. Then, in late April, the Ebertses said goodbye to family and friends, loaded up the trucks and embarked on the 1,300-mile trip to Frederick, Okla., the traditional start of the harvest cutting season and a hive of activity as the crops ripen.
“We married in 1981. The summer of 1982 was our first harvest run,” says Nancy. “I’ve raised kids on the harvest run and been pregnant while working. Most children would go to summer camp or go fishing during their summer break. Ours came on the harvest run. You get to see a lot of the different cultures changing as you move south; it was a great way to raise a family.”
The Eberts convoy has a pre-set route moving north, with a number of farms that have become regular stopping points.
“We’ve cut for some people for 28 years,” Nancy says. “It’s a relationship. They know how we work. We’re quick and efficient and save them a lot of time. And we have the expertise to get the job done properly.”
Everything to go
The giant convoy of vehicles that snakes its way down through South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma includes everything Nancy, Myron and their six-person crew will need for the coming harvest tour. Five Kenworths haul grain carts, hoppers, customized flatbed trailers and two units that serve as living quarters, while a service truck and several pick-ups are used to pull the 40- foot harvester heads.
Each machine costs in excess of $400,000 and is often replaced as frequently as every other year due to the extreme nature of the work. Myron runs most of the machines up to around 1,300 cutting hours before selling them to farmers who will use them less frequently. Most manufacturers offer comprehensive support to the industry, running dedicated repair trucks as the harvesting crews slowly move farther north.
Once the convoy arrives in Frederick, the trailers are unhooked and the accommodations unit set up and linked to the main sewerage. Then three of the Kenworths are sent back to Kansas to pick up the three giant combines. On each, one of the two sets of wheels are removed to fit onto the trailers. The trailers are built specifically for transporting combines, focusing on ease of loading and unloading.
“Time is money,” says Nancy. “And loss of time makes a difference to Mother Nature. The sooner the crop is cut and in the bin, the happier everyone is.”
The harvest is a frantic business, based almost entirely around weather patterns. Corn cannot be cut if it’s too wet. Samples from each crop are tested by Myron before cutting to ensure water content is low enough. But the price the farmer receives is based upon weight, and a crop that contains some water is heavier and thus more profitable. That means that until each crop sample reaches that critical point of just the right measure of water, Myron and his crew must simply wait.
When conditions are right, the work is tough. While the combines do the glamour work in the field, the trucks put in the hard yards, taking every single grain of corn to the hoppers and transporting the machinery across the country, meaning logistics are vital to an efficient operation.
“Everyone has their role, and each is expected to pull their weight,” Nancy says. “We don’t have a huge crew, so each person must have all the skills needed to get the job done. I can drive a truck, and I have my own combine. It’s the harvester with the number one on it, of course.”
Though the harvest season begins in mid-May, interviews for positions on the crew begin in January. The Ebertses find they have the best luck with people who are just starting out.
“I’m able to train them in the way that I work,” Myron says. “Different crews work in different ways and you don’t want people who are stuck in their ways, and not prepared to listen to other ways of working.”
Each crew member is trained by the Ebertses to get a class A CDL. They find themselves pulling anything from grain carts to the 40,000-pound oversized harvesters. “When we work together, we’re like a well-oiled machine,” says Nick Nadai, a crew member from Michigan. “When the pressure is on, that’s when we really prove ourselves.”
The right stuff
With all the equipment on location, the real business of cutting begins. A quarter-mile plot, around 160 acres, can be cleared in as little as four hours and will require seven truck loads to be ferried from the field to the giant bins about 10 miles away, which hold the corn.
While some members of the crew drive the combines, others man the grain cart, which moves the corn from the harvesters making their way round the field to the waiting trucks on the edge of the crop. Once filled, other crew members race the filled trucks to the grain elevators, where they will queue up and unload.
“There have been times where the whole operation has been held up because the trucks have to wait in line for up to eight hours to unload their corn,” Myron explains.
Once the crops are cut at each location, Myron and his team will load up the trailers and move onto their next base. The calendar is always an issue. If they have been held up by rain, the crew can expect to work 18-hour days, week after week, to ensure the ripening crops are cut in time.
With the constant movement, rough terrain, and heavyweight loads — a truck hauling a tractor and grain cart can easily top 80,000 pounds — the trucks always get a tough ride.
They run five Kenworths. There are two 2004 Kenworth T800s with C15 475 hp engines, a 1996 Kenworth T800 with a 3406E 475 hp, a 2000 Kenworth T800 with a C12 430 hp and one 1993 Kenworth 900L with a 3406 425 hp.
“Myron looks for durability, and power in low range. He has always liked the CAT engine for its low-end torque and power in low range,” Nancy says.
The convoy also includes a 1999 International service truck, packed with all manner of spanners and tools, and two Chevy pickups. The Ebertses have their own mobile housing, and an accommodation trailer for the crew. Their rolling home includes washing facilities, a laundry, a kitchen and a lounge. The crew gets paid at the end of each month, with the Ebertses providing meals and tools for the season.
Moving from one site to the next is a complex operation, with the crew running back and forth between towns to get all the equipment in place. Myron must remain on top of the differing legal requirements each state has in place for oversized vehicles as he plans the convoy’s route.
“We can run in North and South Dakota with oversized vehicles without having to apply for permits every time,” he explains. “Kansas is trickier because we can’t run on the interstate in some areas. In Nebraska you usually just need to tell the authorities in advance.”
From Kiowa, Kan., the crew will head north to Turon, then Goodland. By July, the trucks and combines will have moved to Nebraska, cutting in North Platte then Martin in South Dakota. In early September, the crew will be back at the Ebertses’ farm in South Heart, N.D.
But the season is far from over. More crops, including soybeans and maize will be cut near the Ebertses’ own place throughout the fall. Then the crew loads up the trucks and goes back on the road. Winter wheat will be ready for harvest in Kenmare and Valley City in North Dakota.
Only in mid-December will the work finally be done. The trucks will be parked, the combines rested and the crew sent home. Just a few months later, the trucks will be back on the road and the harvest cycle will begin all over again.
“I have always said the prettiest field is a cut field,” Nancy remarks, looking over the results of a day’s work. “The harvester and the farmer are both at ease.”