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The Last Wheat Harvest
Elton Fischer piloted his Gleaner combine through the last few rounds of a 40-acre wheat field in Stafford County, Kansas, and asked a question: “How much do you think this wheat is going to make? 40? 45?”
I deferred to Elton and his 61 years of farming experience. Sure looked like 45-bushel-per-acre wheat to me, and the next patch looked even better. But neither of us knew for sure; Fischer’s 1983 Gleaner L3 combine doesn’t have a yield monitor. Fischer will never know what it’s like to farm with GPS, yield monitors, and yield mapping: he is retiring after the 2016 wheat harvest.
It’s a good crop to end with, says Elton’s daughter, Penny Fischer-Ellis. “Dad is 83,” she says. “It's time for him to enjoy life a little bit. He works so hard every day.”
Each wheat harvest, Penny and her husband, Chris, come back to the farm from their home and business in Wichita, to help their folks out. This harvest is bittersweet for her, too. “But I’m happy for him,” she admits.
61 Years on the Farm
Elton began farming on his own in 1955, two years after finishing high school. He was newly married to Shirley, whom he met during high school in Hudson, Kansas. They raised two daughters: Penny, and Tina Christians, who lives in nearby Hoisington.
Except for a two-year stint in the army – including 18 months in Germany during the Korean Conflict – he’s lived and farmed near the town of Seward his entire life.
The Fischers’ farm eventually grew to 2,000 acres with 1,100 owned. Their farm enterprise included dryland crops and hay. They once had a large herd of registered Polled Hereford cattle, traveling all over the Midwest to various stock shows. When the girls moved away after high school, the shows ended, and the herd began to shrink. Now, he has a bull and six mother cows with calves.
Wheat harvest used to be a much bigger affair. Elton and Penny both ran combines, while Shirley drove trucks, keeping both combines moving. “She could really fly down the road,” Penny says.
This year, he’s harvesting 100 acres of wheat, with one combine, a tractor and grain cart, and truck. “All my stuff is getting old. I’m getting old,” Elton laughs. “The fire is over.”
Leaving the life he’s known since he was a little kid isn’t easy, but there are no regrets.
“We’ve raised good crops over the years. There is a little luck involved, but getting things done on time is the biggest thing,” he says. He may be harvesting wheat today, but Elton also grows soybeans and alfalfa. Good hay, he adds, is a challenge to produce. “But you can make money with a good hay crop.”
He is loyal to Gleaner combines and Case tractors. He bought a new Gleaner in 1958 for $5,800, paying for it in that first harvest. The first combine he ever operated was a 1941 pull-type Gleaner, pulled by a DC Case tractor. The DC sits in his farm shed, restored.
Elton likes the older equipment. It’s easy to maintain, and he did much of the work himself. “I don’t like paying $100 per hour in shop labor. On a good day in the winter I can make $500 a day working on my own equipment in my own shop,” he reckons.
Ready to Fish
In retirement, he’ll still dabble with the farm, keeping 110 acres to work with. Most of the land will be rented, although half is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. “When you get my age, that’s a pretty good deal,” he points out.
He may tinker with old tractors in his retirement. Shirley and Elton are sports fans (Penny was a collegiate basketball player, while Elton used to hold his own on the local town team), and they will watch the Kansas City Royals baseball team on television. “I've got an old fishing pond nearby, too,” he adds.
If you ask him, he'll offer some advice: “If we couldn’t afford it, we didn’t buy it,” he says. And maybe more importantly: “Work hard, and play hard.”
Maybe – just maybe – those who follow these words of wisdom can have an equally long and rewarding career.
“There have been lots of ups and downs,” he says. “But it’s been good.”