A Day in the Life of a Combine Driver (Featuring a Fire)

Note: This is a post about July 22, although I just finished it now. So it’s a month out of date, but it describes an actual day I experienced on the combine.

7:53 AM – I wake up. The sky is gray, so I know I’ll be starting work late. I got to bed late last night and I am still tired, so I go back to sleep.

8:30 AM – I wake up again. This time I get out of bed and make myself some tea and toast. As I pass the sewing room, mom tries to chat with me, but I just grunt a reply because I haven’t had my tea yet.

8:49 AM – Darrel sends me a text saying I’ll start work at 11:45. That gives me a nice chunk of time to relax before starting my day at work. I watch a little YouTube, chat with mom after I had my tea, and write in my diary about the interesting dream I had last night. I also do a little laundry and pack my lunch, but overall I’m pretty slow and relaxed.

I should explain that Darrel, my boss, is my dad‘s first cousin. His farm originally belong to my great-grandfather, as did my dad‘s grass seed cleaning business. My uncle Steve’s business is on that chunk of land as well, so at my job I’m likely to run into assorted relatives from time to time.

Also, I live really close to work.

11:25 AM – I get another text from Darrel saying that we won’t start until 1:00. This may seem like short notice but I was pretty sure this was gonna happen because the sky outside was still gray.

I don’t know how farming works with other crops, but with grass seed, we don’t get started until it’s sufficiently warm to dry out the crop. When the seeds are dry they thresh out better. It’s also important to have dry seed so it doesn’t spontaneously combust bus when you store it in piles.

Oregon nights get chilly, so it always takes a bit until we can get started for the day. I know it’s technically about temperature and humidity, not cloud cover, yet I always start later on cloudy mornings, and the time I start is typically correlated pretty well with the time the sun comes out.

11:50 AM – since I have a little extra time, I decide to do a bit of work for LifeX Marketing. I’m taking a break from my marketing copywriting job while I harvest, but I sometimes still do a bit of work if I have time.

I also eat some leftover soup from last night’s supper.

12:50 PM – I take my packed lunch out of the fridge, put it in my backpack, and rush off to work.

Back in June when I came to Oregon for the summer I left my car back east, assuming I could ride a bike to work and borrow a car if I need to go anywhere else.

Well unfortunately, we’re a bit low on cars right now. Mom, Dad, and Ben all have cars, but there are no extras floating around. Then Steven needed to borrow Mom‘s car for a bit while he was in the process of buying another one, making the situation even worse.

When I talked to Mom about borrowing a family bike for the summer, she informed me that all our bikes were old and falling apart, and she got rid of them. She’s been planning to buy some more but hasn’t yet.

For a minute there, I thought I was stuck with the following options:

  1. Walking to work
  2. Digging in the barn to see if Matt and Phoebe had left a hoverboard behind. And then learning how to ride it.

But then I asked Darrel if he had an extra bike lying around and he found one for me.

I really enjoy biking to work, actually. It’s so close that it doesn’t take much time or energy but I like getting a little bit of exercise every day.

12:58 PM – I get to work.

I never quite know how things are gonna go until I get there. Sometimes I’m supposed to take a farm vehicle to the field we’re working in, and sometimes I’m supposed to stay at the house for a bit and pick blueberries. Sometimes Darrel tells me this information himself, and sometimes his wife Simone fills me in on what’s going on.

It’s not a blueberry farm, but they do have a few bushes for their own personal use

Today when I arrive, Darrel is at the house. We get in the pickup and drive the back way to the shop, where he gets on the combine to take it to the field and I follow with the pickup.

A note about “the back way.”

One thing I never really thought about until I started working on farms is the way that so much land is not accessible by roads. Since all houses and businesses are built along roads, it feels like roads go everywhere. But they don’t, especially if there’s some geographical weirdness like a bend in the creek that doesn’t have a bridge over it.

So farmers create these little dirt and gravel roads to access their fields.

“The back way” is one such road.

Growing up I didn’t realize that this was its purpose, and I thought it was just a shortcut between my dad’s business and my cousin Stephanie‘s house. Also, we used it to access “the deep hole,” which was the only proper swimming hole along this section of the creek, and where I used to go swimming with my cousins.

I’m not even sure why it was called “the back way.” That’s just what we all called it.

Now, of course, I drive the back way all the time because it connects the house, the shop, and most of the fields.

1:09 PM – I start combining. Usually, Darrel has the combine all ready and I just hop on and go, while he drives off to do whatever farmers do all day. But today he wants to drive a round on the combine first.

I’m not 100% sure why, but I think he’s trying to get a feel for how well the grain is feeding through.

As we slowly make our way around the field, Darrel driving and me in the buddy seat, he tells me about how he doesn’t actually have a moisture tester. Typically he just keeps an eye on when the other farmers start for the day, and then we start too.

1:14 PM – We spot a plume of smoke in the sky. Where is it coming from? We speculate. Surely they wouldn’t be burning trash at the warehouse in hot dry weather like this? Darrel calls Simone and asks if she knows anything about it. She doesn’t.

We continue around the field.

Then Simone calls Darrel back. I can’t hear what she’s telling him, but Darrel immediately throws the combine into third gear and roars out of the field as fast as he can.

“Kenneth’s field is on fire!” he tells me.

My uncle Kenneth owns numerous fields, but due to the location of the smoke, I knew exactly which field is burning: The one right across the road from my house.

Darrel says we’re going to get in the water truck and drive over to see if we can help. I feel a bit like a firefighter as we sprint from the combine to the pickup, drive the pickup over to the shop, and then run from the pickup to the water truck. But the water truck doesn’t go very fast, which feels very frustrating in the heat of the moment.

We go back up the back way, past my dad’s warehouse and my uncle Steve’s pellet mill, and over the bridge to the main road. As we pass the office, my cousin Randy comes running out.

“You want to hop in?” Darrel asks.

“Do they need more help? We were going to bring our water truck but we heard they had it contained.”

“I don’t know, I’m just heading over to see,” says Darrel.

“Well, let me know if they need more help.”

“Okay.” And we drove off again.

When we drive up next to the field and can see the fire well, I’m very relieved to see that:

A: It is not that large, and

B: It is nowhere near my house

A firetruck pulls up behind us, flashing its lights, and we pull off to let it pass. Multiple firetrucks are in the field. “It looks like they have it contained,” says Darrel.

He’s nervous about driving his truck into the field since it’s not very high off the ground, so with the fire seemingly under control, we turn around and head back.

“The field hasn’t even been harvested yet,” says Darrel. “The fire must have been started from the railroad tracks.”

However, when I tell this to my family group chat, mom writes back and says “Lois said it started in Leroy’s field and his truck is on fire.”

(But amazingly, by the time everything was said and done, Leroy’s truck was still salvageable and most of Kenneth’s crop was saved as well.)

1:42 PM – We go back to the field we’re combining. I take a picture of the exact location where we sped out earlier.

I ask Darrel to tell me exactly what to do if I ever start a fire. It’s still my biggest combining fear, though in eight years of combining I’ve never started a fire.

When I get back around the field, Darrel gets off and I continue on.

“This has been an exciting day,” I think. “Maybe I should write a blog post about a day in the life of a combine driver.” I pull out my phone, open my WordPress app, and begin writing this blog post using voice-to-text.

When I tire of that I do some other activities, such as:

  • Listening to a Dear Hank and John podcast
  • Writing a novel in my head
  • Thinking
  • Listening to music on the radio

When people ask me what I do on the combine for hours on end, they often assume I listen to podcasts and audiobooks. Which would be an excellent use of my time if only I could make myself focus.

The truth is, my mind wanders to such an alarming degree when I’m listening to things that I pretty much only listen to podcasts if they’re a bit silly, and audiobooks if I’ve read them before.

That way it doesn’t matter when I completely miss big chunks due to a wandering mind.

Mostly I just spend my time thinking.

It occurred to me one day that as long as I’m alone, I’m never bored. I get bored in public places like church, waiting rooms, and airplanes. But never when I’m truly alone.

The hours tick by, and the field gets smaller and smaller.

Suppertime approaches. Sometimes I ask for a break at suppertime to go home and eat, but other times I don’t bother. Today is one of those “don’t bother” days. I packed a lunch in the morning but ended up being home at lunchtime, so now I eat my packed lunch for supper.

Including a banana. I don’t like bananas, but I’m trying to learn to like them because they’re such a handy fruit if you’re packing a lunch.

7:52 PM – I finish the field I’m in.

As I dump the last of the seed into the seed truck parked in the field, I give Darrel a call. “I’m done with the field,” I say.

“Okay,” he says. “You know that place where there’s that extra patch of seed? Drive there and wait for me.”

There’s a small bit of ground between this field, the hazelnut orchard, and the ditch, kind-of part of this field and kind-of not. Like an extra thumb. I don’t know how to describe it. Let me just add a google maps image.

So I park next to this thumb and wait there in the golden hour.

Different farmers do things differently when it comes to end-of-the-day protocol. The first farmer I ever worked for had me drive the combine back to the shop every evening. The next farmer had me park at the edge of the field, and wipe the dust off the windshield while I waited for the engine to cool down.

But Darrel typically takes my place at the end of the day, drives for a round or two until he determines that it’s too cool to keep working, and then parks the combine himself.

Usually I work until 8:30 or 9, but Darrel lets me off a bit early today. He’s going to just finish up the last thumb himself. He tells me to walk out to the middle of the field to fetch the seed truck, and that Simone will meet me at the edge of the field with the pickup.

I enjoy the walk through the field. The world is beautiful. But I do get a small sliver in my leg from walking through all that straw.

This, by the way, is the same truck I once drove into the ditch. It’s relatively easy to drive, though, once you get the hang of it. Especially if there aren’t any ditches around.

I drive to the edge of the field, and sure enough, Simone is waiting with the little white pickup. We switch places. I get into the pickup and drive up the back way to the house, and she takes the seed truck too…I’m not sure where.

8:19 PM – I am done for the day. I get on my bike and ride home.

8:30 PM – I get home and dig around in the fridge for supper leftovers. Then I get on my computer and mess around online. I post on Facebook about how there are more redheaded female protagonists than redheaded male protagonists, which is one of the things I pondered on the combine today.

When the temperature falls, I go outside and sit in the hot tub, easing my aching muscles. It still feels strange that we are fancy hot tub people. (We got it so Dad could exercise and potentially regain muscle activity after his accident.)

Finally, after my soak, I get into my PJs, read a little Daniel Deronda, and go to bed.

Thus ends the day in the life of a combine driver.

Was it a typical day? Yes and no. The fire was unusual, and yet unusual things are not uncommon. One day you might have a major breakdown, the next day a friend might come and ride with you, and the next you might drive a truck in the ditch or something.

Overall it’s my favorite summer job, full of sunshine, wildflowers, and plenty of time for a wandering mind.


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2 responses to “A Day in the Life of a Combine Driver (Featuring a Fire)

  1. I always enjoy reading of your adventures!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed your story! Very interesting 😊


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