Making The Cut

Much of America's Wheat Crop is Cut by Professional Custom Harvesters like Kent Braathen.

Products mentioned in this article: FD75 FlexDraper® Headers for Combine

“I just love being able to get out on the road, and see all the people again who I’ve met over the years.”

Every spring a dedicated group of people descend on the wheat fields of Texas and Oklahoma hoping to find work. If there is crop to harvest they will find it. If not they will need to look elsewhere; such is the risk in their line of work.

But these aren’t transient laborers looking for a no questions asked paycheck. Rather, these are the custom harvesters that much of North America’s annual wheat harvest depends on to find its way to the world’s tables. Many of them have been returning to the same fields for decades and they not only bring with them their own crews but also millions of dollars worth of combines, trucks, trailers and support equipment. Truly, their stake in the wheat harvest is as deep as the farmers who contract them.

Among this group of agricultural “guns–for–hire” you will find the President of the U.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc. (USCHI), Kent Braathen*. 

A second-generation custom harvester himself, Braathen has been cutting since 1971 when he started helping his dad with local contracts near the family’s grain farm at Starkweather, North Dakota. 

“I grew up doing this,” said Braathen who adds that the lifestyle is definitely not for everybody. “It’s either in your blood or you absolutely hate it. For me I just love being able to get out on the road, and see all the people again who I’ve met over the years. You make a lot of friends in this business.”

“In Kiowa, Kansas, I’m still working for one of my Dad’s original customers. It’ll be around 40 harvests that we have gone there. They probably look at me like their son. It’s relationships like that, that make this business so rewarding.”

Braathen now runs his business out of Grand Forks, North Dakota, and partners with Scott Brown from Devils Lake, North Dakota, says that the wheat harvest will take him from Vernon, Texas, all the way back to Kenmare, North Dakota, in the fall. After that, he will head back down to Onida, South Dakota, to harvest later ripening crops like corn, soybeans and sunflowers.

“We leave home around the 20th of May and get home around the 20th of November. I’ll get home a few times during the season to see my wife Sandy and son Jace, but spend most of the time on the road with my crew. You’re living in campers with other people away from your family. It’s not an easy life for some.”

But for Braathen, who’s in it primarily because he loves to drive the equipment says, “It’s like being a kid and getting to play with the big toys everyday!” Those hardships and challenges just make the whole experience more of an adventure. 

"You can get addicted to it; the chance to go harvest different areas and different crops. You make a game out of it to see how many acres you can do each year, and if you can do more than last year.”

Over his more than four decades of cutting, Braathen says that he has seen a lot of changes in harvesting, and one of the biggest is the increasing size of the farms he cuts for.

“When I was a kid in the 70s if we could find a farmer with 1,500 acres (607 ha), that was a big farm. Now a typical farm size is about 4,000 acres (1,619 ha) average and one of my customers has a farm of over 40,000 acres (16,187 ha).”

Larger farms are, of course, the result of the spiraling costs of agriculture production; costs that have forced farmers to get bigger, or get out of the business altogether. An unfortunate side effect of this trend has been fewer farm families in North America, and that means fewer sons and daughters learning to drive combines. Braathen says that this is having a significant impact on custom harvesters. 

“The biggest issue facing our industry today has to be labor. There aren’t as many kids who have grown up on the farm enjoying the harvest. That makes it harder for guys like me to get people to come out and do this kind of work. Of course we are always actively looking for US employees, but a lot of us now rely on foreign workers.”

Braathen, who had four South Africans on his crew in 2014, says that USCHI is working on two fronts to help custom harvesters acquire the foreign workers they need. First, they are working one on one with harvesters to navigate the labyrinth of regulations and paperwork involved in securing H-2A temporary agricultural work visas for their foreign workers. Second, USCHI is working to educate the federal government about the importance of these workers to the industry, so that they are not unnecessarily affected by legislation designed to address security issues.

“We are just trying to maintain what we have as far as the H-2A program goes so that we can cross state lines with our employees. Washington has some changes that they want to bring to that, but we’ve been trying to tell our side of the story.”

It has been an uphill battle, but they are making headway.

“When we (USCHI) first started going to Washington in 2009 nobody knew who U.S. Custom Harvesters, Inc. were, or what we do. Half of the time we had to explain what a combine is because who we were talking to didn’t come from a farm. It has been interesting to see how that has changed in just a few short years. Now we try to make two or three trips a year, and when we go, there is a much better understanding of what we are about.”

It is important that awareness in Washington continues to grow. According to USCHI, its almost 600 harvesting members are not only providing an indispensable service to
US agriculture, they are also contributing an estimated $87 million to the economy each year.

Another side effect of custom cutters’ labor challenges, is that many must rely on workers who have little or no experience harvesting. This means that they are forced to spend time and money educating their workers. Braathen says that he not only invests about a month every year training his new hires, he must also ensure that his equipment is as easy to operate as possible. Here, new technologies such as auto-steer and MacDon’s D and FD Series Draper Headers are essential to that purpose.

“Technology is making up for the lack of training in the workforce. Things like auto-steer have become very important. The simplicity of MacDon’s header is also a big benefit because it is so much easier for the guys to learn and operate.”

But simplicity isn’t the only reason he likes his MacDon FD75 headers. 

“You can always tell where a MacDon header has cut because it is as even as a table top. A MacDon always follows the contour because it has the wheels and the adapter on it. MacDon is the only one that gives you that kind of flotation. MacDon’s reel is also better. I’ve been in fields that I know that I couldn’t have cut with any other header, just because the crop is so flat on the ground and you wouldn’t be able to cut it without MacDon’s reel to pick it up.”

“MacDon’s pioneering work in the development of wider headers has also been huge for our industry. It allows us to cover more ground per hour, work longer days and take a bigger cut. It’s made a huge difference.”

And being able to take a bigger cut will only become more important says Braathen, as more and more of the harvest seems to depend on fewer and fewer people.

“The demand for custom harvesting is not going away. There will always be a need to get the crop off in a timely manner, and with less farmers to do it our services will only become more important.” 

*At the time this story was written, Kent was President of USCHI, now John Orr is the new President of USCHI.