Farmers give city dwellers a taste of harvest

CHAMPAIGN — Climbing into a combine was "a rush" for Brooklyn-bred Alan Kurtz.

Kurtz, the chairman of the Champaign County Board, said when he was growing up in New York, "the only corn I saw was in the grocery store and the only plants growing were weeds coming out of the concrete."

So when the Champaign County Farm Bureau gave him a chance to accompany farmer Scott Kesler as he harvested corn near Sidney, Kurtz saw it as a learning experience.

Kurtz was one of about a dozen people who took part in the Farm Bureau's combine-ride program this year, Champaign County Farm Bureau Manager Brad Uken said.

The program helps public officials — many of whom serve an urban constituency — understand the underpinnings of agriculture, one of the most important sectors of the Champaign County economy.

Kurtz said this was the third fall he has taken a combine ride.

"For me, it's a rush — something I don't get to do often," he said, marveling at the computers aboard combines that instantaneously monitor crop yields and moisture levels.

Kurtz said he was struck by how harvest is "a team effort" that requires long hours from farmers.

"They start at the crack of dawn and work until late at night to get the crop in," he said.

Champaign City Council member Karen Foster accompanied farmer Jerry Watson as he harvested a field close to Villa Grove.

She said the corn Watson harvested was destined for processing by Frito-Lay for Tostitos chips.

"It's just eye-opening to me to think we're harvesting corn that we might eat as chips at Christmastime," she said.

One farmer who hosted a combine ride, Mark Pflugmacher of Thomasboro, said harvest is his favorite time of year.

Harvest generally doesn't have the big rush common to spring planting, "when you're worried about the next rain," he said.

Pflugmacher, who has been running combines since he was 12 years old, uses a John Deere 9760 with a 12-row head to harvest the rows, which are 30 inches apart.

As he traveled through a field aboard the combine, his father, Ed, and brother-in-law, Tim Dillman, stood by with augur wagons. They awaited Mark's signal for them to drive up alongside the combine so it could empty its corn into the wagons.

One wagon holds up to 1,000 bushels of corn; the other, about 750 bushels.

Once they're full, the wagons were driven to the end of the field, where their cargo was transferred to semis from The Andersons elevator in Champaign.

At one time, farmers drove their loads to the elevator or hired someone to do it. Now, Uken said, an increasing number of farmers rely on large elevator operators, such as The Andersons or Premier Cooperative, to provide semis and drivers to come to the farm for harvest.

Each time Pflugmacher traveled up and down the field, he covered a quarter-mile. Before he traveled a half-mile, he had to empty his load into an augur wagon.

Speeds in the field aren't fast. Generally, the combine moves at 3.7 to 4 mph — slow enough that birds darting about in the field can stay ahead of the combine and the noise and dust it creates.

They're not the only creatures taking refuge in the field.

"There are a lot of rabbits this year," Pflugmacher said.

Pflugmacher doesn't worry about running out of fuel mid-field. The combine's tank holds 300 gallons of diesel fuel, and Pflugmacher said he can get through the whole day without refueling.

Pflugmacher — who farms for both himself and other landowners — said he was generally pleased with his corn yields this year, which ranged from 150 to 200 bushels an acre. He said he had yet to combine his two best fields and hoped yields on them might exceed 200 bushels an acre.

Yields on soybeans, he said, ranged from 45 to 60 bushels an acre.

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