The national custom harvest industry got its start during World War II.

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The Crop Brigade is a little-known, but very important, part of American WWII activities. In the early 1950s, a special group of farmers pooled their resources and, starting each year in Greensburg, Kansas, headed north. The cutting of wheat and the harvesting of grain were of the utmost importance at this time.

It all started when the war was going on abroad. Americans have been hit hard by rationing. Steel, rubber, gasoline, sugar and many other foodstuffs necessary to support the troops could only be bought by the public if they were accompanied by ration coupons.

The economy improved dramatically during the Great Depression, but it took more than money to buy products. Factories were retooled to manufacture airplanes, tanks, and other warfare needs. Against this backdrop, the War Food Administration asked the Americans to plant 13.8 million more acres of wheat than the previous year, and somehow it must have been harvested. As is common in America, ingenuity has come to the fore. In this case, Joe Tucker was the man with the plan.

Tucker was Vice President and Director of Sales for the Massey-Harris Company in the United States. He made a proposal to address the needs of the crop while keeping in mind the limited amounts of steel available. In 1944 Massey-Harris was given a quota to manufacture no more than 43,604 traction combines and 1,100 Model 21 self-propelled combines. Tucker proposed the Harvest Brigade theory to the US War Production Board.

His plan was to enable Massey-Harris to obtain enough steel and other scarce raw materials to manufacture an additional 500 Model 21s. In turn, the company would sell them with one condition: each buyer would have to sign a contract and agree to harvest at least 2,000 acres of wheat with their combine. The War Production Board approved the program and the models were delivered. Each combine costs about $ 2,500. A combiner typically charged harvest customers $ 0.25 per bushel; harvesters who billed per acre were paid $ 2-3 per acre harvested. The reapers made their payments, the producers were satisfied, and the bountiful crops were reaped. Each of the 500 red combines carried a sign that read: “Massey-Harris Self-Propelled Harvest Brigade, Brigade-Proved… in the famous Million Acre Harvest Brigade. “

The self-propelled combine harvester had entered the market in the late 1930s. Its forerunner, the traction combine harvester, required a tractor for locomotion; tractors had to be heavy enough to pull plows and this required much more gasoline than a self-propelled combine. Although the combine was only used for harvesting, it was suitable for a variety of crops ranging from wheat and beets and carrot seeds, to beans and peas, depending on the region of the country.

By the end of the Harvest Brigade, it was estimated that 500,000 gallons of gasoline had been saved over what would have been used with tractors and traction types. Because the combines could be driven faster and were more efficient, resulting in a cleaner and more complete harvest, it was calculated that 365,000 man-hours were saved and a higher yield was produced.

Among the members of the Harvest Brigade was Alfred Seder, a farmer near Oral, South Dakota. With additional gasoline ration coupons to use during harvest, he was able to combine the 2,000 acres needed in the Fall River County area where he lived. By 1944 the area was a farm of barren lands and a land of wheat, giving it vast acres. For others, the Harvest Brigade was the time when the national contract harvesting industry really got its start. Before combines, threshers were moved from farm to farm in community areas, but they didn’t go far.

A few years later, from 1950 to 1952, Russell Wyatt and his brother, Harold, rented combines and embarked on contract harvesting, starting each year in Greensburg, Kansas, and heading north. It was the lure of combines that prompted Russell to purchase the Seder combine in order to preserve history. The Crop Brigade is a little-known, but very important, part of American WWII activities.

* Peggy Sanders writes from the WG Flat ranch east of Oral, South Dakota, and can be reached at [email protected]


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