“I couldn’t imagine staying home in the summer, having to stay in one spot,” says Marilyn Kuntz on a drizzly morning, over a cup of coffee, in Darnell’s Café, Sterling, North Dakota. Now and then her husband, Al, talks about quitting the business of custom harvesting, and Marilyn tells him, “You and your new wife will have a wonderful time staying at home.” Marilyn writes a weblog of her harvesting experiences (read it at kuntzharvesting.blogspot.com), while Al keeps a daily diary. The two of them are working on a play about the harvest business for presentation at the annual meeting of the Association of Canadian Custom Harvesters in Banff this winter.
The Kuntzes are everyday people who recognize they are part of an extraordinary profession. And part of a rare breed within the profession, as they are among the thirty or so Canadian combine outfits who still make a harvest run through the United States. As mentioned in a previous column, this summer I had the opportunity to visit with the Kuntzes, from Yorkton, Saskatchewan; Loren and Florence Brownridge, from Arcola, Saskatchewan; and Jerry and Lynn Prevost, from Rose Valley, Saskatchewan.
The Brownridge outfit, which entered the business in 1979, begins the season in Childress, Texas, and pursues a western run up the southern plains, which was fortunate this year, given the rains that plagued harvest on the central plains. They worked at Goodland, Kansas, before hopping up to Eagle Butte and Gettysburg, South Dakota, and then Sterling and Pingree, North Dakota.
The Prevosts, because of rain at home delaying seeding and rain in the south ruining the harvest, didn’t even attempt their usual engagement at Alva, Oklahoma. Instead they began the season at Monument, Kansas. From there they worked through Hoven and Gettysburg, South Dakota, before camping at Sterling, North Dakota. Their harvesting experience in the states dates from 1993.
The Kuntzes worked in Cherokee, Oklahoma, and Timken, Kansas; skipped their usual stop at Phillipsburg, Kansas, and headed on to Hamill and Gettysburg, South Dakota; worked jobs in Menoken and Tuttle, North Dakota; and will return to Pingree for fall harvest. They started harvesting with their own outfit in 1993, after Al had worked for the Roy Johnson outfit five years.
Since the 1980s there have been quite a few difficulties over the question of Canadian harvesters working in the U.S., but that’s not my subject here. Instead I want to point out several of the notable and perhaps even noble aspects of these international entrepreneurs. To begin with, like the Kuntzes, they all are conscious of their place in a distinctive profession. Jerry Prevost’s son speaks of the “passion” of his father for harvesting, and although on the basis of our conversation, we’d say Jerry is a hopeless romantic in various ways, he is simply like most other custom cutters in this way.
Second, this is a family business full of family stories. Every one is common, every one is unique. Falling in love, coming of age, driving ice roads to the diamond mines of the Northwest Territories, surviving accidents on the highway—the twists of plot are endlessly fascinating. These are people worth talking to.
Most of all, there are the relationships, within families, within crews, and with farmer-clients. Without exception, the Canadian harvesters treasure friendships with the American farmers they serve, and those feelings are reciprocated with after-harvest celebrations, wedding invitations, Christmas cards, kids grown up together, visits exchanged. Lynn Prevost, who serves as executive secretary for the Canadian harvesters’ association, obviously has a head for business, but she says her customers on the harvest trail are “like family.”
Florence, Loren, Al, Marilyn, Lynn, Jerry, and everyone—wishing all of you a safe journey and a happy harvest when you finally get home, too.