Agriculture Reference
In-Depth Information
modern organization of custom combining on the Great Plains and show that the conditions
under which these contracts are used reflect the trade-offs derived in our model.
History and Organization. Custom combiners, also called “custom cutters” and
“wheaties,” emerged on the Great Plains in the 1920s shortly after the combine replaced
binders, reapers, and threshing machines. 27 By cutting and threshing the grain all at once,
the combine merged the tasks of several men into one step performed by just one man op-
erating a single machine. The main effect of this was to drastically shorten the length of the
harvest season, to as little as two or three weeks for wheat. The old system of reaping and
threshing allowed a farmer to cut the grain before it was ripe and thresh it weeks, or even
months, later. Effective use of the combine, however, required the grain to be harvested
when it was ripe, no sooner and no later. Unripe grain causes heat in storage and could spoil
grain or even catch fire. If the grain is too ripe, it becomes brittle and breaks on cutting
and is lost. Moreover, standing grain is subject to the potentially devastating threats of hail,
rain, and wind. In addition, the combine allowed a farmer to harvest his own grain and had
a radical effect on the organization of farms at harvest. 28 In particular, farmers took charge
of harvest operations themselves rather than hiring or joining large threshing crews. Even
as farmers switched to combines from reapers and threshers, many farmers hired custom
combiners from the beginning of their use in the 1920s, but most of these contractors were
locals. Outside of custom combining, most custom farm work is now highly localized. In
the 1940s, improvements such as rubber tires, self-propulsion, and better roads spurred the
modern migration of combines, trucks, and crews north as wheat ripens on the plains.
Since the 1940s custom combiners have begun their migrations by harvesting Texas
winter wheat in May and ending with spring wheat in September/October in Montana, North
Dakota, or Saskatchewan. The key states where custom cutting is important are Colorado,
Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas. The vast
majority of custom crews have the following basic structure. A custom cutting outfit is a
family-based business usually with a husband running the crew, a wife handling cooking,
and teenage kids operating some machinery. 29 Invariably other hands are hired to operate
machinery, so that a typical crew is comprised of from eight to twelve people. Hired workers
are paid monthly wages and have their room and board provided by the crew. The firms are
primarily sole proprietorships, but there are some simple partnerships, usually between
husbands and wives, fathers and sons, or brothers. The crew has from two to four self-
propelled combines (each worth over $150,000), several grain trucks and/or grain carts, a
couple of pickup trucks (to carry fuel and other supplies), and a trailer house or two for
living and cooking. The crew may travel over 1,000 miles north and harvest more than
15,000 acres of wheat in a season that can last more than five months. Some crews extend
this season by harvesting corn later in the fall on the return trip south. The crew will stop
at between five and ten farms, working for several weeks at each before packing up and
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