Paul Turner: Some things don’t change
Roy Dube doesn’t brag about his combine.
He’s quick to point out that it’s about 20 years old. He notes the header unit (the rotating front of the machine) is only 30 feet wide. He says new combines are way more high-tech.
But then the tanned 63-year-old Whitman County grandfather looks up at the big faded red machine and offers the highest praise you’re apt to hear from a Palouse farmer at harvest time:
“It keeps getting the job done.”
You could say the same about Roy.
In charge of the family farm since 1984 – about a century after his ancestors started working the land about 10 miles from Rosalia – he has seen his share of Northwest agriculture’s twists and turns.
“It’s not like it was forever.”
He says that a lot.
Climbing about 6 feet up a set of metal steps, Roy eased into the cab of the combine Saturday morning. Once there, he began adjusting the rig’s multiple settings.
Harvesting the winter wheat just completed, it was time to start on the barley.
Maybe it will become feed for livestock. Perhaps brewers will want it. In any event, it was ready and waiting.
Roy switched on the engine and the combine roared to life. Looking a bit like a metallic dryland crustacean, the workhorse farm implement lumbered forward and began to cut a wide swath through a field near Roy’s 1909 farmhouse.
The air-conditioned cab has a sound system. But when Roy plays music – he loves string instruments – he doesn’t play it too loud. He listens to the combine’s staggering number of moving parts. Is everything as it should be?
At first glance, a combine can seem an unlikely Rube Goldberg contraption, full of belts, sifters and augers. But it’s actually one of the greatest machines ever.
It keeps getting the job done. It rakes in the plant stems, shears them off and separates the component parts, storing the grain inside its belly.
As Roy cut through the straw-colored sea, a hawk glided behind to see if anything tasty has been revealed.
Looking out from the cab, he saw his land undulating before him. He tugged at his weathered WSU cap and wondered about the future.
Nothing had to be decided right away. He and his wife, Carley, weren’t going anywhere. Well, not yet.
Their daughter, Laurel Ponzoha, a mother and school counselor on the West Side, was eager to leave the farm when it was time. But she came back this summer to help her dad with the harvest.
Roy is the sort of guy who would rather eat bees than sound immodest. Just ask him how many acres he has and watch him squirm. (He says it is less than most.)
But his pride in Laurel could not be contained as he told about how, just the other day, she could tell from the sound that a bearing in the combine was about to fail. The subsequent pre-emptive replacement saved a potentially costly repair.
Laurel waved the compliment away. But she did admit driving the combine is a gas.
“It’s like riding a huge lawn mower,” she said.
After the combine’s hold was full of grain, Roy pulled it up beside a long dumptruck parked near the house. He snugged the combine up impressively close to the truck. Complimented on his handling of the rig, he offered a thin smile and said he’d been doing it a long time.
The barley is expelled through a large hollow arm into the back of the truck. Then it is driven a few miles over what the family refers as a “Third World road” to a storage facility that weighs it and credits Roy’s account.
Back in the fields, Roy maneuvered the combine around a cluster of lilac (he called it a tree). It was a small redoubt of green in the tawny waves of grain.
Asked why it hadn’t been cut down long ago to allow him to keep going in a straight line and make harvesting a little easier, he scrunched up his face.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “It’s been there forever.”
In Roy Dube’s world, that means something.
Markets disappear, prices fluctuate and the politics of farm policy can make him scratch his head.
But his quiet pride in being a farmer has not changed. And it won’t.
Perhaps that lilac cluster has become a symbol. So many aspects of 2018 agriculture are matters Roy cannot control. It is nice to be reminded of the things he can.
So he steers around it.