Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Shrewd King 15.3: Summertime, when the living is easy

Dmitri and Sam hit it off like two people from the same, small home-town who unexpectedly ran into each other at Disney World.

They could have been speaking Greek, for all the sense it made to Quinn. All Quinn needed to know was that Dmitri wanted Sam to be the go-to guy for all the fussy work of installing sensors and antennas. That suited Quinn just fine.

Quinn would far rather be on over-watch, holding a rifle than working fifty feet up on a pole where anybody would take a pot-shot at you.

Dmitri cobbled together a set of headphones that Sam could jack into the transmitter/receiver module attached to the antenna. Another transmitter/receiver module was mounted on a pole near Tim’s house and aimed by-the-compass to the site where Sam was installing. On the hour, a sixty second “ping” of 800Hz audible was transmitted from Tim’s antenna so Sam could dial the installation into the center of the 20dB lobe.

Sam quickly picked up a few tricks. He fitted the clamps to the antenna with just enough torque so he could spin assembly around the pole with hand pressure. Then he used a “Sharpie” pen to draw a vertical line across the mounting bracket and the pole when the audible signal peaked.

Experience taught him that the clamp wanted to spin as he tightened the screws and sixty seconds was not enough time to verify that it had not spun too much. It took him about five seconds to aim the antenna and draw the line, a fact that he figured might come in handy some day.

After drawing the line, he tightened the screws with the Allen wrench in a top-left, bottom-right, bottom-left, top-right pattern, a turn at a time. He rarely had to loosen them and realign the line segments.

Sam was surprised when Quinn publicly expressed awe at Sam’s intuitive grasp of electronics and comms. Quinn had botched an installation of an antenna early in the evolution. Frustrated after four attempts, each an hour apart, Quinn had stripped out the holes in the bracket as he savagely tried to finish the job in during the sixty second transmission.

After that, nobody gave Sam any shit. They figured Quinn would both kick their ass and then make them climb poles if Sam decided to stop doing installations. Besides, Sam was a likable guy, if a bit gullible. It is hard to dislike puppy dogs.


The end of July is notable for several things. The first tomatoes and sweet corn ripens. In the absence of sweet corn, the ears of field corn have enough substance to make them worth harvesting and cooking as roasting ears. They are not nearly as delicious as sweet corn but are far more filling.

Summer greens are growing with profuse abandon. Many weeds in the fields were edible: Lambsquarters and amaranth in the corn and purslane in the soybeans. The stems were woody and tough but the top three inches of the growing shoots were still tender and could be had by the hundred-weight with minimum effort. Greens do not have enough calories to sustain human life but they add variety, flavor and vitamins to diets that can be monotonous.

The end of July is often near the end of the summer drought. The river level is low and carp can be harvested by the wagon load with pitch forks or spears as they forage in shallow water. Sometimes the water is so shallow that the carp turn on their sides with pectoral fin gyrating in the air like a dizzy drunk, seeking to regain his balance.

Looming foremost in everybody’s minds, though, was the winter wheat harvest.

Winter wheat is planted in the fall. Sometimes it is spun or broadcast into a soybean field before the leaves fall off. The seeds germinate rapidly when in contact with soil and in the shade of the soybean leaves. Other times the seed is ‘drilled’ into the soil with a planter in October when the soil moisture and temperature is optimum for germination.

The winter wheat grows to a height of about six inches before lower temperatures and snow shuts down growth for the winter.

When spring arrives, the young plants grow rapidly and shade out weeds. By July 4 the wheat berries are mostly filled and the next three weeks are more about drying down than growing.

The last weeks of July are fraught with anxiety for the farmers. And, now that the line between a full belly and a successful farm had been shortened, fraught with anxiety for every soul in Capiche. The heads are heavy with grain and vulnerable to driving rain, high winds and hail. Any one of which can topple the straw and put the not-yet-dry ear of wheat into contact with the ground.

Farmers Ken, Don and Earl had all planted ten acres of winter wheat. Yields of 80-to-100 bushels to the acre were the norm before Ebola, but that was when they could supplement with additional nitrogen and spray with fungicides. When Milo Talon approached them and asked them what it would take to grow enough wheat to support Kates Store, they conservatively budgeted for 30 bushels to the acre, a number Earl remembered as being considered a reasonable expectation back in the 1940s.

Since the wheat had been planted, the community of Kates Store had been joined by Pray Church and Chernovsky’s Annex. Throw in Blastic’s Demesne and the population was almost five times what Milo had originally anticipated.

The farmers were guardedly optimistic. Nobody wanted to come out and say the harvest looked promising. They were afraid they would jinx it.

Each farmer walked his field daily, even when it was raining. They judged the density of the stand. They picked ears of wheat and rubbed the kernels of wheat off. They rolled the kernels between their thumb and the palm of the hand. They chewed them to judge moisture content.

They knew they weren’t going to get 80 bushels to the acre. But they sure as heck were going to get more than 30. While they didn’t have nitrogen fertilizer they had never added THAT much to wheat. More nitrogen made the stalks taller and more vulnerable to blowing over, called “lodging” in the farming business. More nitrogen also made the wheat leafier and more vulnerable to fungus diseases.

The big questions in the farmer’s minds were, “Will the harvest be closer to thirty or eighty bushels per acre?”, “Will the storms hold off until after the harvests?” and “How the heck are we going to harvest this grain when we don’t have diesel to run the combine?”


  1. Gonna be a learning curve learning how to make and use a scythe... And sharpening a curved blade is a lot harder than it looks.

  2. I tried once with a old flea market piece. Not for me I just ain't that coordinated.

  3. If they already know and have known all along that they do not have enough diesel (or any diesel) to run the combine, it begs the question of just how they are planning to harvest it. Even if they could come up with enough scythe, how many scythe operators would it take to harvest 30 acres, and how many days would it take them? Then it would also need threshing.

    It might be time to search out places like marinas, truck stops, and commercial or municipal truck refueling facilities where there might still be some diesel. I would start with the nearest marina, as they are more likely to have added some stabilizer before everything stopped.

  4. Those suggestions are great for diesel this year, but what about next year? I'd be looking for venues that host threshers reunions and trying to salvage the horse-drawn gear. For threshing, grab a few traction engines and the associated threshing gear. Those engines burn wood. And grab every scythe you can find and put the effort into learning to sharpen. It's an art, but one you might need.

    1. Good suggestions. And something else just occurred to me. They might want to contact the Amish. They probably know a thing or three about harvesting wheat the old fashioned way, and they just might have the old time equipment to do it.

      Failing that, it might be time to seek out and make a deal with Benecio. Offer X number of bushels or X percentage of the harvest in exchange for enough gallons of stabilized diesel to get the job done.

  5. Ah yes, the inevitable turmoil of the farmer coming on to harvest... Friends of mine in Colorado lost 'most' of their acres of wheat to a couple of random hailstorms. They ended up with about 180 acres that came in at 70 bushels/acre, but due to losses, they are in the hole big time.


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