Community in the Heartland

Pope John Paul II made explicit reference to farmers’ charitable obligations to the poor during an unprecedented papal visit to the American heartland in October 1979 hosted by the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. The pope celebrated an open air Mass where a vast crowd of some 300,000—the largest in Iowa history, had assembled on a broad hillside at Urbandale, Iowa’s Living History Farms. Local St. Mary’s parishioner Joseph Hays had sent a hand-written letter to the Pope inviting him to witness the church’s “Community in the Heartland” ministry of rural study and outreach. The pontiff’s decision to visit the Iowa countryside led to weeks of preparation by members who broke from customary harvest routines to host the special ecumenical event. Surrounded by area church and civic leaders, the pope led the service from a massive platform fashioned of white oak from a century-old corn crib. The temporary sanctuary was draped with an enormous quilted banner designed by Fr. John Buscemi of Madison, Wisconsin showing a cross with four colorful contoured field patterns symbolizing the seasons. From this peculiar setting, Pope John Paul II delivered a homily urging his hearers “in the middle of the bountiful fields at harvest time” to embrace “three attitudes… for rural life”—humble gratitude, land stewardship, and generosity toward the poor.

Jeff Whitton, Northwest Harvest Poster Art (2010), Columbia Heritage Collection

Jeff Whitton, Northwest Harvest Poster Art (2010), Columbia Heritage Collection

General Convention of The Episcopal Church Banner, Salt Lake City (2015), Elizabeth DeRuff

General Convention of The Episcopal Church Banner, Salt Lake City (2015), Elizabeth DeRuff

American farmers participated more directly in domestic gleaning programs in the 1980s as well as in similar global aid projects. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, for example, a group of Pacific Northwest growers formed WestWind Ministries in 1991 in response to appeals from newly independent Russian leaders to provide food and medical assistance to schools and orphanages in the Russian Far East. A coordinated effort involving the National Association of Wheat Growers, Washington-Idaho Pea & Lentil Association, and The McGregor Company of Washington, Idaho, and Oregon led to delivery of over a thousand tons of aid to areas in greatest need. Farmers hauled truckloads of wheat for processing into flour while Northwest barley, lentils, and beans were combined into nutritious soup mixes.

When Russian President Boris Yeltsin made an unprecedented visit to Seattle in September, 1994 to report on newly normalized relations between the two countries, he cited “this help in our hour of need” in the context of the food campaign as a key factor in his historic decision. Yeltsin’s gala reception was hosted by Washington Governor Mike Lowry, himself a native of the Palouse Country hamlet of Endicott, Washington, where his father had managed the local grain growers cooperative in the 1950s. Lowry’s dedication to humanitarian causes and migrant farm worker causes was the subject of many tributes following his passing in 2017. Officiant Kacey Hahn of St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church in Renton opened the late governor’s memorial with explicit reference to moral responsibility from Leviticus 23:22: “And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner.”

Penry Williams, Mass for the Reapers (1858), National Museum of Wales

Penry Williams, Mass for the Reapers (1858), National Museum of Wales

Kansas farmer-philosopher Oren Long has contributed for decades to agrarian periodicals and his local paper, the Valley Falls Vindicator, to offer insight on topics ranging from food security and social unrest to seed rates and meaning in art. In a 1983 New Farm article, Long underscores the vital understanding that rural experience is at once terrestrial and transcendent. “My farm is my refuge from the deception and hopelessness that haunts this intrusive commercial world. …I am an inseparable part of a great biological scheme of things and the greater contribution toward the complexity and harmony of that scheme, the greater will be the beauty of my world and the greater my significance to it.” In this way rural experience is understood to impart beauty to life in ways long expressed by agrarian painters and writers who have shown the abiding value of sowing, reaping, and other “cooperative arts” practiced with attention to land care and the less fortunate.

21st Century Gleaning at Home and Abroad

French film-maker Agnès Varda’s documentary, Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, winner of the Mélès Prize for Best French Film of 2000, offers controversial interpretation of Millet’s iconic painting The Gleaners (1857). Distributed in the United States as The Gleaners and I, the movie shows how poverty need not deprive individuals in any age of dignity and humor. They may be compelled, however, to overcome significant social and economic obstacles to eke out an existence. The film has contributed to a broader, contemporary definition of gleaning to include the gathering of unwanted foods of all kinds—bread, fruit, vegetables, and fish, as well as other castaway resources. Varda’s sobering images of oppressed, vulnerable  and often young souls, illustrate the disturbing trend of income inequality in modern societies where “gleaning” remains a salient reality for many, and its potentially harsh consequences. Her work also suggests possible solutions in the food service sector through the stewardship of surplus distribution via urban pantries and community food banks.

2nd Harvest Delivery Truck Trailer Mural (2018), Spokane, Washington

2nd Harvest Delivery Truck Trailer Mural (2018), Spokane, Washington

This more broadly defined concept of gleaning was described in The Other America (1962), Michael Harrington’s influential study of hunger and homelessness that shaped Lyndon Johnson’s 1960s War on Poverty. In the wake of growing public awareness, social service and religious groups have formed new partnerships in recent decades to develop food security programs to distribute perishable produce and processed foods. At least one-third of food produced annually today in America—as much as 40 million tons valued at approximately $75 billion, is wasted due to spoilage and inefficient storage and distribution. Applying the idea of gleaning to such lost resources, a group of Phoenix activists organized the country’s first urban food bank, Second Harvest, in 1975 (known as Feeding America since 2008). Similar humanitarian efforts followed in Portland (Interagency Food Bank, 1975), Chicago (Food Depository, 1978), Seattle (Food Lifeline, 1979), New York City (City Harvest, 1982), and spread to many other large cities. Some of these endeavors are affiliated with denominational benevolent ministries including the Society of St. Andrew Gleaning Network (United Methodist Church), Evangelical Lutheran of America Church World Hunger, and Catholic Relief Services Hunger Campaign.

Palouse Heritage Landrace Sonora Wheat at Lenwood Farm, Connell, Washington, John Clement Photograph

Palouse Heritage Landrace Sonora Wheat at Lenwood Farm, Connell, Washington, John Clement Photograph

Brad Bailie of Lenwood Farms near Connell, Washington, produces organic grain and vegetables, and regularly works with local churches and crews of Feeding America gleaners to supply 2nd Harvest and other regional food banks. He explains his and other farmer-contributors’ motivations in both practical and moral terms: “Sometimes growers have surpluses because commercial buyers have certain commodity specifications by size or weight. This can leave a considerable amount of quality produce in the field, and we don’t like seeing such waste. We also believe that the blessing of a bountiful harvest brings responsibility to share with others.” The opportunities and responsibilities that come with abundant harvests are also evident in revivals of the ancient Passover Festival among religious fellowships throughout the world. Israel’s celebrated and prolific composer, Matityahu Shalem (1904-1975), wrote numerous folks songs for contemporary Jewish worship including Passover celebrations when the first sheaves of barley are cut for presentation at the temple. His popular Shibbolet Basadeh (Ear of Grain in the Field) is sung and danced to traditional choreography shaped by Shalem’s experiences on a kibbutz in western Galilee where he tended flocks and fields after relocating to Palestine before World War II.

For religious thinkers like Shalem, meaning still retains a supernatural sanction derived from humanity’s simultaneous temporal and spiritual nature. Contemplation of the harvest labor and its bounty can be perceived in the particularities of agrarian experience whether along a Galilean shore or Dakota slope. 

“Header in the Wheat”—The 2019 Harvest Commences

Our grain harvest began the first week of August as we joined with our Palouse River neighbor Joe DeLong to cut our crop of Crimson Turkey (“Turkey Red”) wheat at his farm. The DeLong place is located several miles upstream from our Palouse Colony Farm between the communities of Endicott and St. John. We’ve been working with Joe for several years as he takes meticulous care of his land and is a master mechanic whose magic touch keeps equipment of almost any vintage purring like new. Below is a picture of the first round in the Turkey wheat with Joe at the helm of his Model 453 International Combine. (The “header” is the detachable assembly in front of the combine with sickle cutting bar and rotating reel that feeds the grain back into the machines threshing mechanisms.) Crimson Turkey is a high quality hard red winter bread wheat indigenous to the Black Sea’s Crimean Peninsula. Flanking the strip of ripe grain is a lower stand of green oats that Joe will use for livestock feed, and above is a colorful hillside of Sonoran Gold soft white spring wheat which should be ready to harvest in about two more weeks. The latter is one of the earliest grains raised in the Pacific Northwest as period accounts trace its origins to at least the 1850s after seed stock had likely found its way north from California. Sonoran is a Mediterranean landrace wheat that was introduced by the Spanish to Mexico as early as the 16th century and eventually became a staple of Southwest cuisine for flour tortillas, Indian frybread, and numerous other flavorful foods.

Crimson Turkey Harvest

Crimson Turkey Harvest

The picture below was taken this past spring when colorful native “sunflower” balsamroot set the hillside overlooking our Palouse Colony Farm ablaze in vibrant yellow and greens. The brown summer-fallow field covering the lower flat now hosts a fine crop of golden Scots Bere barley, the “grain that gave beer its name.” This ancient variety has grown in the northern British Isles since at least the 4th century AD when it was likely introduced by Roman legionnaires sent north to occupy the region.

Arrowhead Balsamroot overlooking Palouse Colony Farm

Arrowhead Balsamroot overlooking Palouse Colony Farm

Although we transport our grain to a cleaning and storage facility in the rural community of Thornton about eighteen miles northeast of the farm, grain handling modernization has recently come to our nearby hometown Endicott. In the early 1880s, Endicott was platted by the Oregon Improvement Company, a subsidiary of the Northern Pacific Railroad, on its strategic branch line that tapped the fertile Palouse grain district along a route from the main NPRR transcontinental line at Palouse Junction (present Connell, Washington) eastward to Endicott, Colfax, and eventually Pullman and Moscow. A complicated network of feeder lines then tapped the northern and southern parts of the region. Construction of the central line, known in the late 1800s as the Columbia & Palouse, led to use of heavier rail than along other tracks which came to be an important factor many decades later for upgrading regional grain shipping operations.

Whitgro Unit Train Loading Facility, Endicott, Washington

Whitgro Unit Train Loading Facility, Endicott, Washington

With the merger of local farmer Endicott and St. John grain storage cooperatives in recent years into a larger entity known as Whitgro, a decision was made to construct a new storage and train loading facility in Endicott since the line there had been constructed with rail weight capable of carrying 110-car unit trains. The project called for construction of seven new immense steel grain silos to be located adjacent to a series of several other larger ones which brought total capacity in Endicott to approximately 3,100,000 bushels. The new storage facility was designed for rapid one-day loading of the trains which are capable of holding 100 tons of grain per car for a combined unit capacity of 420,000 bushels. Grain is trucked to town from farms and other elevators in all directions for shipment downline to tiny Hooper and then on to Portland for shipment worldwide. Work commenced on the enormous project last fall and the facility became operational just in time for this year’s bountiful harvest. The two R. R. Hutchison photographs below show grain storage at Endicott about 1910 when men worked long hours to carefully arrange 110 pound sacks along the railroad in tall stacks and in wide wooden flat-houses. Makes one grateful for trucks and augers.



The McCormick Reaper

I couldn’t help but smile at the special childhood memory brought to mind recently when local historian Manton Bailie, lifelong resident and farmer in rural community of Mesa, Washington, showed me some old farm equipment in rusty retirement at this place. When Manton told me about playing on the old horse-powered mechanical reaper it instantly brought back memories of my own Palouse Country boyhood. Although the old McCormick reapers on the hillside above our house had largely been invaded by the branches of cherry tree, a skinny youth could still wiggle down between wooden draper roll and outside iron wheel and dream of driving a tank.

Edwin Fulwider,  Manton Poe  (Manton Bailie’s grandfather of Mesa, Washington),  The Ford Times  (September, 1953)

Edwin Fulwider, Manton Poe (Manton Bailie’s grandfather of Mesa, Washington), The Ford Times (September, 1953)

The effectiveness of mechanical reapers like Manton’s and my grandfather’s equipment led to their widespread use throughout the country and subsequent improvements further reduced the need for rural laborers and rendered traditional field gleaning virtually impossible. While some loss of kernels took place as grain heads could shatter from the reaper’s wooden reel paddles, the stalks were effectively captured to be bound, carted, and threshed. But the ancient grain varieties native to Europe for thousands of years and introduced to the New World as early as the 1500s remained essentially unchanged until twentieth century plant genetics spawned hybridized cultivars resistant to shattering and lodging. The inexorable shift to technological modernity eclipsed eons of social and economic relationships that had guided human endeavor since the beginning of recorded history.

Reaping in the Olden Time;  Above:  Reaping in Our Time  (1857)

Reaping in the Olden Time; Above: Reaping in Our Time (1857)

“Reaping at Syracuse,”  Harper’s Weekly  (August 1, 1857)

“Reaping at Syracuse,” Harper’s Weekly (August 1, 1857)

The momentous tilt that brought greater productivity can be dated with some specificity through art and literature from the period. Explicit depiction of the new horse-power order was shown graphically in an August, 1857, issue of Harper’s Weekly. The unattributed author and artist depicted a gathering during the previous week of the influential U. S. Agricultural Society near Syracuse, New York. Crowds had surrounded a grain field there to witness a competition among ninety-five different mechanical reapers. A grand parade of contestants preceding the event led through an impressive castle façade adorned with colorful flags and banners casting mythic significance on the mechanical marvels, jousting drivers, and patron inventors.

“…[T]he days of the sickle are over,” proclaimed the reporter, who advised readers, “Lay it up—the old tool—in a museum, on a fair cushion; label it, number it, …for the time is coming when the sickle will be as rare as the headsman’s axe or the Spanish blunderbuss. We must have a machine like a steam-engine, with two horses to draw it, which shall tear devastatingly through a field of oats or wheat, cut ten feet wide of grain at a stroke, and lay it all ready for sheaving.” The advent of this “startling mechanical enterprise” would lead to the manufacture of an estimated 200,000 machines the following year, with one of the biggest beneficiaries of such land office business being the manufacturer of the Syracuse contest’s gold medal winner—the McCormick’s Reaper.

Defining Harvest, Explaining Print-Making

Although the words “reap,” “thresh,” and “harvest” are often used synonymously today, important distinctions define their use in period literature and among many farmers today. To reap is to cut grain either manually by sickle or scythe, or with a mechanical cutting bar, while threshing, or thrashing, refers to the separation of kernels from heads (spikes) of grain stalks by striking them with a wooden flail, the treading of animals, or being machine-run. Harvesting in former days meant the gathering and storing of unthreshed stalks, but since Early Modern times harvest has also come to mean all of these summertime operations.

B. F. Wetherbee,  The Harvest Moon  (1881), 10 ½ x 27 ½ inches (c. 1900 reprint)

B. F. Wetherbee, The Harvest Moon (1881), 10 ½ x 27 ½ inches (c. 1900 reprint)

In addition to oil and watercolor paintings featured in this series, art prints represent several production techniques. Artists have used intaglio methods by incising an image into a copper plate with an instrument to render a soft etching, or by using a burin to create a sharper engraved print. Intaglio is also used for mezzotint by roughening the plate for a print of greater surface contrast. Woodcuts are made through a relief process in which grooves are carved on a soft wood surface bearing the artist’s design so it remains standing in relief and is inked for the print. Wood engravings are similar but the spaces between the image’s lines are left standing above the surface and the design itself prints in white. Lithography is a planographic process in which the picture is drawn and treated with inks and solutions on a flat stone or metal surface to make multiple black and white or color impressions.     

Richard's Interview for the Off-Farm Income Podcast


Our own Richard was interviewed recently for the "Off-Farm Income" podcast. It's a great discussion about our journey into raising landrace grains as well as old world farming practices, Volga German farming heritage, and Richard's highs and lows in high school FFA!

You'll definitely want to check it out:

P.S. Richard isn't exactly "technically inclined" as some may say. So when he shares our website at the end of the interview, he incorrectly states it as palouse colony dot com. He meant to say Safe to say he truly is more comfortable involving himself with the "old days."

The “Good Old Days” — Sweet and Sweat

Once in a while I’ll spot something on Ebay that has special relevance to my musings on agrarian art, and when it falls into my price range that makes it doubly rewarding. So it was recently when I found an exceedingly dog-eared copy of James Wilson’s Art Designs in Harvest Machinery (1884). I know, not exactly a best-seller back in the day let alone now, but it was filled with thirty large exquisitely rendered, large format steel engravings of farm scenes that offer many interesting details about equipment used at that time. Extensive recent research by agricultural historians Jerome Blum (1978) and J. Sanford Rikoon (1988) using period documents indicates how romanticized modern notions have been about social conditions of pre-industrial agrarians.

The emergence of medieval tenancies on terms that favored landlords and small free-holder properties demanded a single family’s devotion to their own limited holdings to make ends meet. Although farmers tended to cluster in villages throughout Europe where they gathered for worship and to socialize, little need existed to join with others for most field operations. To be sure, the weeks of summer harvest were a critical time to ensure sustenance throughout the entire year, and therefore demanded full and creative deployment of all able-bodied personnel from the vicinity and beyond. Modern perceptions endure of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century “golden age of threshing” that fostered greater cooperation and neighborliness. These values were needed for grand “harvest rings” to pool labor and equipment but were a relatively short-lived phenomenon.

James Wilson & Son,  Art Designs in Harvesting Machinery  (1884); Steel engravings on paper, 8 ¾ x 12 ¾ inches

James Wilson & Son, Art Designs in Harvesting Machinery (1884); Steel engravings on paper, 8 ¾ x 12 ¾ inches

As manufacturers in the U. S. and Europe developed more affordable mechanical threshers and steam engines, need for the larger cooperative endeavors diminished. The advent of internal combustion engines in the early twentieth century that replaced animals and steam to power threshing equipment further shifted the complex nexus of technological, economic, and social factors toward single family responsibility. Creative cooperative methods especially during harvest time have continued, however, with seasonal employment of additional workers, sharing and leasing of expensive combines, and organization of grain storage, transportation, and marketing networks.

Modern society’s reliance on convenience stores and relative abundance of provisions serve to obscure understandings of the stolid persistence required to seed, till, and reap lest the family and wider population suffer. Rural folk beckoned rain and sun in proper measure, and prayed that staples would not spoil or be stolen. Until recent times, much of the year for the masses was spent in hope and fear. Hope realized at summer harvest brought promise of sustenance through winter, and come spring it would all begin again. For rich or poor, survival came from what was grown in the good earth. The duties of sowing and harvesting, therefore, had religious connotations which have been reflected in a variety of creative forms of art, literature, and music.