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Farm Families Pick Massive Corn Harvest As Prices Shrink

Curt Friesen is a fourth-generation farmer in central Nebraska.
Grant Gerlock
for NPR
Curt Friesen is a fourth-generation farmer in central Nebraska.

Corn prices are down and the farm bill is stalled in Congress. So there's a lot of uncertainly in the air as harvest season gets into full swing across the Midwest. But this is a time of year when farm families like the Friesens in Henderson, Neb., come together to focus on the big task at hand: the corn harvest.

Everyone in the family has a job to do.

"Like my dad — he drives auger wagon," Curt Friesen says. "He drives auger wagon only. That's all he's done since 1976, I think. ... My wife, Nancy, she drives the combine; that's her job."

Curt drives a truck. So does his son-in-law, who's new on the farm. That's how the Friesens are harvesting 1,100 acres of corn this fall, about middle of the pack in terms of its size.

With roughly 97 million acres of corn to pick nationwide, farmers are pulling in family and friends as part-time help to haul in the crop.

Nancy Friesen grasps the orange joystick that controls the Friesens' giant John Deere combine, which is so big, it makes the cornstalks look like matchsticks.

"It is a humongous piece of equipment," she says, "and it is intimidating. It's got all kinds of bells and whistles to let you know what's going wrong."

During corn harvest, it's all hands on deck on the Friesen family farm in Henderson, Neb. Nancy Friesen typically takes the controls of their John Deere combine.
Grant Gerlock / for NPR
for NPR
During corn harvest, it's all hands on deck on the Friesen family farm in Henderson, Neb. Nancy Friesen typically takes the controls of their John Deere combine.

Nancy Friesen isn't totally comfortable in the driver's seat. Even a modestly priced combine costs $350,000, and most of the year she's in the garden, not the field. But she expressed some relief as she mowed down the cornstalks and watched the grain flow in.

"It is a good feeling when the corn is in the bin and we don't have to worry about it out here anymore," she says. "So many weird weather things can happen," like last year's drought, which was the worst since the 1950s.

The drought caused corn yields to dry up across the Midwest. The Friesens were lucky — irrigation saved most of their crop. And farmers who irrigate reaped the rewards last year, as drought shrunk supply, pushing corn prices to record highs of over $8 a bushel.

Of course, drought can also be disastrous at harvest time, as Albert Friesen, Curt's 92-year-old dad, knows firsthand.

When Albert Friesen started farming he used horses, not green tractors. In 1938, at age 16, he took over the farm after his dad died. The next year a drought hit and the crop was ruined.

"There was nothing here," he says. "Everything dried up. I went to Minnesota to pick corn by hand."

He brought home $69, just enough to keep the farm. That was a tough year.

"But I think we're in for some tough times yet again," he says.

Tough in comparison to last year, at least — 2013 could be the biggest corn harvest in history: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated 13.8 billion bushels. With so much supply, corn prices have been shrinking since the beginning of the year and are down around a three-year low, though prices remain quite healthy by historical standards.

Still, it's not clear what the crop will be worth by the time it's in the bin. That uncertainty comes just as Jason Lewis, the Friesens' son-in-law, is joining the family farm. A year ago, Lewis was in a college classroom. He wasn't a student — he was the professor.

"This time last year, I was at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and I was probably teaching turf grass science class," Lewis says.

Now the 35-year-old Ph.D. from Kearney, Neb., is hauling corn and wearing earbuds so he can listen to podcasts while he's in the field.

During a break in the action, Nancy said she is grateful to have extra help on hand.

"I love it when I can hear Curt and Jason talking in the shop and he's got somebody to talk shop to," she says. "I love having the kids back. It takes the pressure off so much."

But Nancy couldn't talk for long. Albert had an empty grain wagon. Jason had a truck to fill. She plunged the combine into the standing corn. The harvest grind will go on for another four to six weeks.

"It's just pretty much harvest," Nancy says. "I try to clear the schedule. I just figure nothing really happens in October."

At least, not until the last load of corn comes in.

Grant Gerlock reports from Nebraska for NET News and Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production issues.

Copyright 2013 Nebraska Public Media

Harvest Public Media's reporter at NET News, where he started as Morning Edition host in 2008. He joined Harvest Public Media in July 2012. Grant has visited coal plants, dairy farms, horse tracks and hospitals to cover a variety of stories. Before going to Nebraska, Grant studied mass communication as a grad student at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and completed his undergrad at Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa. He grew up on a farm in southwestern Iowa where he listened to public radio in the tractor, but has taken up city life in Lincoln, Neb.