PENDLETON, Ore. – Sitting in the cab of a John Deere tractor overlooking golden hills of wheat, Kuper Bracher waited patiently one morning last week and watched as a pair of combine harvesters passed slowly in the distance.
This is the second year that Bracher, 13, has worked wheat harvest at the family farm north of Helix. His job is to drive the bank-out wagon, ferrying loads of grain from combines out in the field to delivery trucks bound for the storage elevator.
“It’s either fast-paced or it’s really, really slow,” said Bracher, adjusting his camouflage baseball cap. “Right now, it’s going pretty slow.”
Soon enough, Bracher receives a call over the radio and shifts his massive rig into gear. Traversing uneven terrain, he moves carefully into position alongside the closest combine ready to empty its cargo.
The process requires Bracher to keep his head on a swivel, maintaining the right speed and direction so none of the grain winds up spilled. Bracher remembers last year when he accidentally overloaded his wagon, and was forced to collect the spillage with a shovel and 5-gallon bucket.
Now, Bracher says he feels perfectly comfortable operating the wagon’s high-tech controls.
“After a while, it just comes to you,” he said.
Wheat harvest is playing out on farms across Umatilla and Morrow counties, and by most accounts local growers are seeing average to above-average yields thanks to heavy spring rains that finally put the kibosh on a multi-year drought.
The hours may be long, but Bracher – who is preparing to enter seventh grade at Helix School – said he enjoys spending his summers on the farm.
“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s not an ordinary job.”
Bracher’s grandfather, Cliff Bracher, is intimately familiar with the area in and around Helix. He calls it the “north country,” a catch-all name for the sprawling dryland wheat ground north of Pendleton.
Behind the wheel of his pickup, Cliff cruises the gravel roads that lead from one bucolic farm house to the next, reciting names of landowners without missing a beat. The north country is a pretty tight-knit group of family farms, he said, and come harvest time it is not unusual to see three generations out working the fields.
“The most grueling part of the whole harvest is just the long hours,” Cliff said. “We start harvesting at about 7:30 a.m., and we’ll call it quits at about 8:30 p.m.”
At that pace, Cliff said they can usually cut about 125 acres of wheat per day, per combine – and that’s only if the weather conditions don’t turn sour, like they did last Thursday when 40-mph wind gusts blew down Juniper Canyon. Windy conditions not only increase the risk of field fires, but can even blow wheat right out of the truck.
Yields are so far looking good, Cliff said, with some fields likely producing between 80-100 bushels per acre. Combined with soft white wheat prices that have finally clawed their way back above $5 out of Portland, he said most growers will likely wind up breaking even on profit.
“This is a decent wheat crop right here,” he said. “It could have been a crop insurance year.”
Back in Helix, Cliff stops to chat with his son, Randy Bracher, who began his day at 5:30 a.m. spraying fallow fields. Though harvest can be stressful, Randy said it is the culmination of a year’s worth of hard work.
“Personally, this is my vacation,” he said. “If you make sure you have a good crew … it makes it fun.”
John Thompson, another north country wheat grower who farms around Kings Corner Road, agreed that harvest time is the highlight of their year.
“That’s how we get our bread and butter,” he said.
It certainly helps that this year’s crop was bolstered by favorable weather.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Oregon wheat production is expected to come in at 43.3 million bushels, which is up 22 percent over 2016. A little more than half the state’s wheat is grown in Umatilla and Morrow counties.
Jason Middleton, region manager for United Grain Corporation in Pendleton, said the combination of increased moisture and cooler temperatures benefited wheat earlier in the growing season as the plants were still filling in their kernels.
Since October of last year, the National Weather Service has recorded 16.82 inches of precipitation in the Pendleton area, which is about 5 inches more than usual.
“Yields have been pretty good,” Middleton said. “It’s been a better crop than it was last year.”
Conditions also helped to delay the start of harvest until about July 10, Middleton said, which is generally a good thing.
“Typically, the later the start, the better yields you’ll have,” he explained.
Protein levels are mostly lower than they were last year, Middleton added. That’s good news for growers who sell overseas to countries like Japan, where customers prefer low-protein wheat to make products like cakes and noodles.
Randy Bracher said farmers are always at the mercy of Mother Nature, but this year things have turned out well across the Pacific Northwest.
“This year, we’ve been blessed,” he said. “Agriculture in general has been pretty dang favorable for growing conditions.”
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