Riding in a combine in Indiana during harvest season provides a fresh perspective and an appreciation for our food supply chain.
Thanks to advancing technology, a combine is the largest remote controlled vehicle used on a farm. It’s programmed to run autonomously with the driver maneuvering the steering wheel when needed and work a joystick that resembles a video game controller. There are monitors collecting data on the crop and atmospheric
and cameras that show what is going on in the hopper behind the driver and a rear camera. Glass windows allow the driver to see for themself what is happening in the hopper.
The first field harvested was left incomplete due to excessive rains, “it was too green” according to McKinney Family Farm’s resident mechanical guru Andy McNew. Andy noticed a small percentage of pods that are not dried enough to allow the beans to be extracted. Andy, married and father of three active children, grew up a mile from the McKinney farm and according to owner Tom McKinney, “Andy can repair or rebuild or fix anything”. Andy is full-time on the farm and his responsibilities vary based on the time of year and demand of the machinery. Andy keeps everything working, including the tractor trailers used to haul the grain collected from the fields to the silos.
The combine has a couple attachments for its front: one for corn and another for soybeans. The front header, or grain platform, used for soybeans begins the threshing process by cutting down the soybean plant and a series of conveyors free the soybeans from their pods and eventually the beans are loaded into the grain tank. When tank is almost filled, alarms go off and lights flash on the outside of the combine to let a nearby tractor with a hopper attachment know it’s time to drive up alongside and transfer the soybeans. The hopper tractor then unloads the beans into the trailer of a semi-tractor which is on the side of the road alongside the field.
Harvest is organized chaos. There is constant feedback of data from field conditions and crop readiness which dictates what happens moment by moment. Tom McKinney drives his truck as a support vehicle for one of his teams to haul the front headers from field to field on a trailer behind his truck. The combine could not manage to drive down a road with it attached. McKinney is so experienced with his maneuvering of the trailer and its cargo, that he has it down to a science. The combine loads and unloads the header similar to how a forklift operates. After a few connections and safety features are in place, the transition is complete. It’s like watching a pit crew during the Indy 500.
Indiana is quite miraculous given what it supplies and to whom. It takes a village, too. With farming approximately five thousand acres across multiple counties, McKinney utilizes around 45 various grain silos, many are leased on smaller, private farms allowing close proximity to fields for optimal efficiency. One of these farms is owned by John and Jenny Snodgrass. John purchased his grandfather’s farm and acreage years ago and has leased out the land, and the grain silo remains in good shape and is unused, so he leases it to McKinney. The semi-trailer unloads its beans into the Snodgrass silo via a belt conveyor and then returns to the field within a short period of time for the next load.
Some of the McKinney corn harvested makes its way to TN to be in a popular whiskey, a portion of the crop is utilized for seed for next year, and all of it is accounted for prior to planting. In a previous article, I reported that McKinney farms Non-GMO crops, which have a specific protein level and are sold in packages to the pacific rim, including South Korea, China, Japan. The Non-GMO grain is used for tofu, coffee, and other specialized markets. A small amount of their soybeans are used in Plenish, a brand name for Pioneer high oleic oil, which is a healthy cooking oil. Some of the oil from the soybeans is placed in rail tankers, with a portion used to hold down dust on the roads in Clinton County.
Bean meal, which is acquired from soybeans through a crushing process, extracts oil, and the bean meal is the leftover once the oil is removed. Bean meal has a high protein percentage of 46% – 48%. China imports a good amount of soybean meal and the U.S. uses a lot of it with feed for animals.
The other half of what the McKinney Farm grows is corn. Sixty percent of their corn is designated as non-GMO. Once harvested, Tiptop Cargill distributes their corn to the southeastern part of the U.S. for use by a large poultry operation. Another portion is used in the distilling process of a popular whiskey in Tennessee.
The workers are hardworking and dedicated. It’s dusty, muddy, and beautiful in its own way. There’s an entire community supporting these efforts and obviously it happens in very rural areas. I’m grateful for the experience and for their commitment to their craft. This work is a vital part of our economy and food chain!