During the Dog Days of summer it’s not uncommon to see combines out in the fields, but what struck me about this particular opportunity enough to make pictures was, of course, the dramatic sky.
I was around 10 years old when I first saw the rolling hills and rich black soil of the Palouse —the name used to identify some 19,000 square miles of Northern Idaho and Eastern Washington.
It was a magical experience watching it all roll by outside the car window on our way to Spokane. It was no wonder that I would attend college and start my adult life there. I love that country to this day.
The Palouse has a rich agricultural heritage dating back to the 1880s. Farming there is dry land — the only water the wheat and legume crops receive is what nature provides over the winter and early spring.
The fickleness of nature aside, farming in the Palouse is not an easy task. Unlike the flat ground in production most everywhere else, this is contour farming on hillsides — some of them disconcertingly steep. In fact, technology had to be developed to allow the harvester itself to stay perpendicular on the slope with only the cutting head leaning downhill, otherwise, the results would be disastrous.
A hundred years ago, an organized harvest crew might consist of 120 men and 320 mules or horses — with appetites to match. Efficiency and working conditions had improved significantly when this picture was taken — the combine operator even had the luxury of an air-conditioned cab! Today, autonomous combines can harvest crops guided by GPS and do so with or without an operator.
All of this makes me think of Don and Loris Jones — they would be shocked at the idea of self-driving machinery. In 1981, I decided to move my young family to Boise but stayed in Moscow an extra few weeks to help truck their grain from field to depot during harvest. Loris was the Ag reporter for the newspaper where I’d been the photographer and Don an incredibly self-reliant wheat rancher. I always smile when I think of Don’s incredulous look and sarcastic reply when I asked if he had a pocket knife.
“I’ve got my pants on, don’t I.”