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Custom grain harvesters in the Great Plains own harvesting machinery and typically move their combines and other equipment to Texas or Oklahoma in May or early June to begin the wheat harvest season, and then move north as the wheat ripens, ending the wheat harvest season in North Dakota, Montana, or Canada. Custom harvesters are also known as custom combiners, and many now harvest fall crops as well. They own combines, trucks, tractors, grain carts, and bunkhouses (travel trailers), and move all the equipment from place to place to harvest for farmers that do not have their own harvesting equipment. Most live in their own bunkhouses, while some stay in motels along the harvest route. Custom harvesting began at a smaller scale with the pull-type combine before World War II, taking the machines out of state to harvest wheat. The invention of the self-propelled combine allowed owners to more easily move the machines long distance to harvest wheat and other crops in multiple states. In the United States most of this type of custom harvesting work is done in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana. Custom harvesters also work in Canada in the Prairie Provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba.
The seeds of this project began in 2008, when Dr. Jason Holcomb, the project interviewer, recorded the oral histories of Geral and Margie Schmidt, owners of Schmidt Harvesting in Sterling, KS. Dr. Holcomb worked for Schmidt Harvesting for all or most part of the summers between 1988 and 2004 while he completed degrees in geography at the University of Kansas and Kansas State University and even after he started his work as a geography professor at Morehead State University in Morehead, KY. The Schmidt’s retirement from custom harvesting in 2006 provided the impetus to record their personal experiences, as both Geral and Margie were children of custom harvesters and thus spent much of their lives doing the work of harvesting crops and living this unique lifestyle. Mr. Schmidt suggested other custom harvesting families in the vicinity of Sterling to interview, and from there the project grew to include custom harvesters from multiple states. Dr. Holcomb recruited additional oral history participants by contacting members of the United States Custom Harvesters, Inc. Some interviews were recorded in 2008 or 2009 while the largest number were recorded when Dr. Holcomb was on sabbatical in 2010. Many of those interviewed were retired while others were still working in the harvesting business.
The primary goal of this project was to document the experiences of people with firsthand knowledge of the origins of custom harvesting in the first generation of custom harvesters after World War II, and how it developed in subsequent decades. As children of the first generation of custom harvesters, Geral and Margie Schmidt and other participants remember those early days. The project permanently preserves the memories of people who have taken part in this very important part of Great Plains agriculture. Another related resource completed by the Inman Museum Association is titled Sixty years of custom harvesting on the Great Plains: Oral histories, and is available at McPherson College’s Miller Library in McPherson, KS.
The project was funded through grants from Morehead State University in Morehead, Kentucky, and the Kansas Humanities Council.
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Biographical/Historical Note Author: Jason Holcomb