ST. JOHN, Wash. – Take a drive through the Palouse these days and you’ll see a time-honored routine playing out in the rolling wheat fields of Whitman County. It’s harvest time, and farm crews dot the landscape in their combines and grain-hauling trucks.
The Todd and Becky Dickerson family approach to farming is pretty typical in Whitman County, where more wheat is grown than in any other county in the United States. Todd Dickerson and his second cousin, Jim Kile, harvest about 3,000 acres together, sharing the cost of a combine rental as well as sharing trucks and drivers. Becky Dickerson and Kile’s wife, Barb, share lunch duty, depending on whose ground the crews are working.
An estimated 3,000 wheat farms exist in the state, about half the number of 15 years ago. Most are run by families.
The Dickersons’ oldest daughter, 14-year-old Gracie, participates in the harvest, which began last week. A mature and energetic worker, Gracie has a permit that allows her to drive grain trucks to the elevator to unload grain. And she’s able to drive the mammoth CaseIH combine, which the family rented for this season. Her younger sisters, Glory, 11, and Roxy, 9, join the crew for lunch and sometimes tag along in the air-conditioned cab of the combine.
New combines carry a $600,000 price tag, replete with the latest technology including a global positioning system and a computer display monitor. The screen provides immediate information such as the moisture content of the wheat, the number of bushels per acre and updates on a variety of engine functions. The GPS unit maps the field for the driver.
Dickerson said the combine is controlled by “amazing technology. It’s there for us to use.”
“I think you could train a monkey to run one of these,” he said.
The unit can feed 220 bushels into a grain truck at the rate of 4.3 bushels a second. This year’s yield is about 90 bushels per acre, less than last year’s but still a number that is the envy of wheat farmers across the world.
The Dickersons, like many farm families, will be devoting most of their daylight hours, seven days a week, to the harvest for the next couple of weeks.
Last Wednesday, they brought in 10,000 bushels. And with wheat selling upward of $8 a bushel these days, in part due to drought conditions in the Midwest, Palouse farmers expect a good season even after they factor in expensive fertilizer and fuel. The harvest is not Todd Dickerson’s favorite part of farming, he admits. He finds driving the combine boring and prefers the fall and spring crop preparations. Dickerson, who has been involved in farming since he was 12 or 13, jokes that if he wasn’t a farmer he’d be homeless.
He has often had construction or other work in the winter, but of late he finds himself “chasing the girls” for basketball and other school events. Gracie plays basketball and her dad has coached some of her teams.
In the course of a three-hour ride-along last week inside the combine, Dickerson explained the complex system that guides the 40-foot-wide header that churns across steep hillside wheat fields, and answered a variety of questions about farming and its challenges. Dickerson rarely made mention of the government’s impact on what he does, but in reference to grain embargoes used as diplomatic tools he said, “Politicians holding our wheat hostage for political gain perturbs me.”
Dickerson said he would be very pleased if his daughters go into farming when they grow up. “Farming is a way of life. That’s what’s good about it.”
Becky Dickerson, who is editor and publisher of the Community Current, wants to make sure their children receive a good education, too. Not that she is opposed to the farm life.
“Todd loves being a farmer. He is a very good man, and we have a beautiful life,” she said.
She recalls many years ago working as a cook for farm crews in the Palouse. At the end of one season, a worker informed her it was tradition that the cook gets tossed into the horse tank on the last day.
The guy who picked her up and threw her in the water? Todd Dickerson.