by Sterling Allen & Meagan Dee Allen
for Agri-Times NW
Following my sophomore year of high school, in the summer of 1970, I took my first job driving pea combine for B.L Davis Ranch in Adams, OR. I joined classmates and returning college students from throughout Umatilla County who came together for the summer harvest. Not only was the work an opportunity to earn money for my college education, it was a chance to be a member of a crew of young guys and gals who knew how to work hard and have a little fun. Therefore, when Dennis Rea of HT Rea Farms Corp in Milton-Freewater allowed me the opportunity to drive combine, I jumped at the chance. After all, it would be a trip down memory lane. I was an experienced pea combine operator and excited for the opportunity to relive those summers, just like I was 16 again!
Pea Combine 301
5:45am I arrived at the Rea's farm shop, water and lunch in hand and ready for the day. Nathan Rea met me there. As we drove to the pea field we reminisced about a trip my son, Riley, and I had taken nine years ago when we visited Nathan in Washington D.C. Nathan worked in various positions for Congressman Greg Walden for 8 years following college and recently returned to the family farm.
The combines had been moved to a fresh field. While we waited for swathers to finish cutting the pea rows, I assisted Domingo in washing my combine. I was now ready for my shift.
8:00 Nathan volunteered to be my coach. Apparently, although I hardly look old enough, he recognized the fact it had been a few years since I was in the driver's seat of a pea combine. We started up the classic Hamacheck SP 40 pea combine, which was manufactured in the 1960's. The combine had originally been purchased new by Frank Tubbs and later sold to Reas . These antique machines are likely some of the oldest pea combines still used in the U.S. today.
8:15 It is all coming back to me. There are 8 lever controls used to operate the combine and I think I have it about mastered. I am eager to demonstrate I have a handle on things. Nathan however, keeps telling me to slow down, as the combine can easily plug up. We drive the combines counter-clock wise as the conveyer is on the right side.
8:40 We signal the Smith Frozen Foods truck driver by flashing yellow lights that the bin is full and ready to dump. I thank Nathan for his guidance and assure him I have it all under control, because after all, I am an experienced pea combine operator.
9:15 Ugh; a pea vine plug. The swather left a big pile in the row, and I failed to pay close enough attention and therefore did not ease into the vines slow enough. I stop the machine and crawl up the conveyer belt to pull pea vines out of the throat of the viner. Thankfully, I remembered this exercise from years ago, so I did not need any help.
9:55 Plugged again.
10:23 And…plugged again. It is starting to sink in that I should have listened to Nathan's advice and slowed down a bit.
11:01 Yep, plugged again. This time, the plug was in the header. I had slowed down a little and apparently was paying a little less attention as well. I did not steer the machine straight into the swathed rows, resulting in a plug.
11:55 I've really got the hang of things now. I am successfully dumping peas every 35-40 minutes without having to stop and clean a plug.
11:57 Plugged again.
Noon I eat my box lunch while I continue to operate the combine. ( I am not sure what the imaginary "International Brotherhood of Pea Combine Workers Union" would think about not having a mandatory lunch break) Meanwhile, I give myself a pep talk. Five plugs before noon is not showing my prowess in the field. I will improve, because after all, I am an experienced pea combine operator.
12:15 Ryan Rea , field foreman, signals to me that the combine hillside stabilizer was not on automatic, as I had forgotten to switch back after unloading peas. He handed me a bottle of Gatorade which was a welcome treat following my box lunch.
2:30pm As I drive, I try to take in the view from my combine seat. It is stunning! The various crops lay like patchwork across the valley. The quilt-like landscape lies gently against a backdrop of the beautiful Blue Mountains. In the field six combines work simultaneously to harvest the day's crop. I feel blessed.
3:15 My pea combine operating skills are steadily improving. I am dumping the pea bin every 30 minutes.
My best time of the day was just 25 minutes. I was confident and managing the variable speed stick for optimum performance. With a competitive spirit, I set a new goal of dumping peas in 20 minutes. I wanted to demonstrate that I was not only an experienced pea combine operator, but the best on the farm!
3:30 Nooooooo! You guessed it, my combine is plugged. This time the plug is not from the front but deep inside the chamber. Visions of having to crawl into the combine barrel to throw out vines 45 years ago came flashing back like it was yesterday. The guck. The smell. The humidity.
This was not good and contrary to what I might like to believe, I am not 16 anymore.
Thankfully, Rea's staff came to my rescue. We lowered the back of the combine, adjusted the belt tighter, and finally expelled the excess pea vines.
Lesson learned. I decided not to attempt breaking my pea bin dumping record.
5:00 Dennis Rea motions my combine to the side and proceeds to fill it with diesel. I remember stopping by pea harvest 15 summers ago and seeing Dennis's father, Tremayne Rea, in bib overalls and covered with dirt, hop off the pea swather.
Though not in bib overalls, it is nice to see the working tradition continue. The next generation of Reas, Nathan and Ryan are following the family tradition, on the farm, with hard work.
5:45 Dennis signals me to stop the combine, clean out the vines and dump the pea bin. He explains that the peas were too green, displaying a low tenderometer value. There will be no night shift and likely no harvest tomorrow.
6:10 I arrive back at the shop feeling both tired and dirty after a 12 hour day on the job.
In 1970 I earned $19 for a 12 hour day of pea harvest.
In a little over six days I could earn enough money to cover one term's tuition at Oregon State University, which at the time was $120 a term. In comparison, today's workers earn $111 day.
With the rising cost of tuition however, it takes over 27 days of work on the farm to earn the $3000 quarterly tuition at OSU.
Pea harvest has not changed much in the last 45 years. It is still an opportunity to work hard with a handful of great people. I appreciate the Rea family reminding me what it was like to be a kid on the farm again.
Hopefully, they will let me come back in another 10 or 15 years.
After all, I am an experienced combine operator.