Faces Behind Farming—
a series on the people, not the politics
Wrangle, at least for me, feels like a way-out-West kind of word. The only things we could possibly wrangle in central Florida are alligators and tourists, neither of which I recommend wrangling. But come to think of it, I did wrangle my Wrangler off of New Smyrna Beach recently. (But you can read about that story later). For now, let’s talk farming. I don’t know what I thought I’d be rounding up in Montana, but maybe my wrangling thoughts had more to do with relief from COVID and summer heat. Whatever it was, I set out to do some wrangling in Scobey, Montana.
It all Started with some Chocolate Chip Cookies
Gary and Lori, my neighbor’s son and daughter-in-law, live on the prairies of Northeast Montana in Scobey, population 1,200. They graciously invited me into their world of farming, something I admittedly knew little about. Their extended invitation started with some chocolate chip cookies.
When Gary was in Florida visiting his mom (my neighbor, aka Mummu, Finnish for Grandma), Mummu had invited my husband and me over to meet him. Gary had a bag of lentils, which led to a brief synopsis of Scobey farming.
“Take these chocolate chip cookies,” he had said, pointing to some homemade goodies that Mummu had just baked. “Those started in a field.”
Being a writer, my mind wandered to a field. Or at least it tried. I couldn’t quite visualize the field Gary referred to even though I had grown up in the middle of fields. That was so very long ago. Instead of Googling the clichéd, “Where does our food come from,” and sort through a million opinionated virtual stories and videos, I wanted to be in the very field Gary had referred to. I wanted to see for myself from where chocolate chip cookies originated.
“That would make a great story,” I said.
“You should come up during harvest season,” Gary said.
“Don’t invite me unless you really mean it,” I responded.
And that’s how visions of wrangling began. Four months later in August 2021 and after shopping for farm clothes at Tractor Supply Co. (who knew a tractor supply store could be so much fun!), I was heading to Montana to learn about farming.
Off to Farming in the Middle of Nowhere
To get to Scobey, the second most isolated town in the United States according to The Washington Post, I flew to Denver, then caught a smaller claustrophobic jet that trapped too many mingling body odors and cooled down about the time the pilot announced preparation for landing. Scobey doesn’t have an airport, so I flew to Williston, ND, two hours east, arriving at 8:30 p.m. I offered to get a hotel for the night and drive to Scobey the next morning, but my hosts insisted on picking me up. Driving cross country is what people do in Montana. The nearest Wal-Mart after all, is in Williston too. And besides, Lori could pick up a much-needed combine part while in Williston.
Lori, accompanied by Mummu, who escapes to Montana during Florida’s summer heat, met me at the airport. The three of us arrived to Scobey at 11 p.m. (1 a.m. EST), 15 minutes before Gary returned from harvesting wheat. (And I thought my travel day was long). Even though Montana is sitting in a drought with too many hungry grasshoppers, Mother Nature decided to shower the land during harvest time (of course), increasing the urgency to get their meager amber grains out of the fields. To put “meager” into perspective, Gary typically threshes 40 bushels per acre. This year, he’s threshing 20. Regardless, what crops they did have could germinate and sprout, and then all of it would be worthless for human consumption.
Atta Boy! Atta Boy! Atta Boy!
The next morning Gary and I headed to Cahill Seeds to attend an 8:00 meeting before heading to the fields.
“You might want a jacket,” he said.
“You have heat in the combine don’t you?” I asked.
“Yeah, but it’s not coming on,” he laughed…a little too hard.
“Oh, well let me get my jacket then,” I said laughing too, while thinking, What’s so funny about that? We’re in Montana.
Mental Note #1: High 60s is not considered cold in Montana.
We arrived to our meeting where Gary gave quick introductions, and then all the farmers debriefed the previous day. Charlie Cahill, the owner, offered an “Atta boy!” for a job well done, that quickly grew to multiple “Atta boys!” as everyone fished for more pats on the back. All joking aside, they had to get down to business, for on this new day, they needed to harvest the last 200 acres of the durum wheat before the rain came. With notes on a white board behind Charlie, they strategized what needed done, and somehow devised a cohesive plan in between their bantering. My narrow and past recollection of farmers was this: rise with the sun, drink coffee, and head out to fields. That simple.
Mental Note #2: Don’t be so naïve.
Meet Charlie Cahill
Charlie, a ski junky from northern California, founded Cahill Seeds in 1996. The short story? Boy meets girl at Montana State University. Girl grew up on farm in Scobey, and when her father needs help due to medical issues, boy steps in. Charlie was a fish out of water (so I’m told), but love prevailed—with Tammy, not necessarily with farming. And here is where the “you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up” comes in. Ski boy gets married, settles in the middle of a foreign nowhere, as in might as well be on Mars, and learns farming. In the process he notices there are no seed sellers in Northeast Montana and decides to start Cahill Seeds, now 11,000 acres and the largest seed grower in the whole wide massive state of Montana. Atta fish! And…atta fish!
Caretakers of the Land
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), farmers manage risk the size of Montana’s sky so the other 99 percent of us who do not farm can throw away 25 percent of the food we purchase.
Mental Note #3: Don’t be so wasteful.
As I quickly discovered, a farmer’s job runs deep and broad, is quite complex, and is difficult to wrangle. To try to understand farmer, let me first introduce some of Cahill’s:
The Two Charlies…
Charlie C.: owner of Cahill’s, whom I already introduced. (Fish out of water. Fish in water.) I think farming might be in his blood now.
Charlie A.: carpenter from Sweden, arrived to Scobey on an exchange program in the ‘80s, won a green card through a lottery. Previously worked for Charlie Cahill’s father-in-law. Laid back and polite, but when things aren’t going well, can let loose a slew of Swedish obscenities (so I’m told). Charlie A. operates the CASE combine.
Interesting Side Note: Montana farming has utilized work apprenticeship programs for decades where, according to Farm Link Montana, “a typical arrangement involves the exchange of labor for room, board, a stipend, hands-on experience, intensive training and skill development.”
Gary, John, and Troels…
Gary (my neighbor Mummu’s son): former reality TV celebrity and avid hunter. Both right- and left-brained. Born and raised in Minnesota, graduated college from University of Central Florida, retired from The Sunshine State to Scobey (yes, retired from Florida, not to Florida), married his high school soul mate, together they make wine, grow a garden, repurpose old stuff. Gary operates the Gleaner combine and helps with seed sales.
John: Cahill’s comedian and impersonator. Came to Scobey to clear his head and never left. Keeps the guys laughing and the stress of farming properly distanced, at least six feet away. John drives the big boy trucks.
Troels: arrived from Denmark in 2002. “I found a girlfriend and ladi dadi di.” Needless to say, he stayed in Scobey. Described our morning as a “kerfuffle,” a word I had never used. When I asked what a kerfuffle was, he said, “I don’t know,” shrugging his shoulders. “A kerfuffle,” like I should know, after all I was the writer. I looked it up not expecting to find any such word. But it is indeed real, meaning a commotion or fuss. Troels oversees all things mechanical.
Mental Note #4: Add kerfuffle to vocabulary.
Purging the Gleaner
Wheat and barley make up 50 percent of Cahill’s crops, with the other half consisting of canola, flax, peas, lentils, and chickpeas of different varieties and classifications.
The day I shadowed Gary, we harvested durum wheat. Before starting however, Troels helped Gary purge the Gleaner combine of backed-up residue from the previous day. Because of the drought, the wheat is drier and finer, causing the inner workings of the combine to clog. Purging consisted of removing the air filter, donning an apocalyptic-looking facemask, and then blowing out the wheat remnants with an air compressor the farmers had hauled to the fields behind a pick-up. Afterwards, John turned the air compressor on Gary to give him a full-body dusting. An hour later, and after the fuel truck pulled away—Cahill purchases about 20,000 gallons of fuel per year—we were finally ready to harvest some wheat.
Mental Note #5: Combines are not cars. You do not drop them off at the garage for servicing and you do not fill them up at the gas station.
Still trying to beat the afternoon rain, we climbed into the Gleaner, and Gary started her up. Hearing and feeling her rumble while watching rhythmic rotations of the 40-foot header churn wheat and spit its kernels into the back bin, amidst an amber sea of prairie and beneath the biggest blue sky ever, was truly a goosebump kind of day.
Ready, Set…and False Start
“Beep, beep, beep.”
Gary reaches for the two-way radio.
“The DEF notification is beeping,” he says. “Should I stop?”
The Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) pump minimizes nitrogen oxide into the air, making farm equipment cleaner and more environmentally friendly to meet strict EPA standards. The beeping started the previous day, but where does one buy a DEF pump in the middle of nowhere? If the problem isn’t addressed the Gleaner will automatically shut down, not from a mechanical problem, but from a mandated shut-off switch. Troels ordered a new pump from AGCO in Williston, who operates a seasonal Gleaner parts store out of a semi-truck during harvest time. AGCO set the new pump out by its gate for Lori to pick up after hours before meeting me at the airport the previous night, saving the guys from a 4-hour round-trip parts run.
Mental Note #6: Amazon isn’t quite everywhere.
“How long will it take to change?” Gary asks into the two-way radio.
“10 minutes,” Troels says.
“I suppose we should stop then.”
So, just 20 minutes after our delayed start, we stop. Troels meets us with tools, hands Gary a wrench and assists him through the DEF replacement process. 20 minutes and $1800 later, Gary and I climb back into the Gleaner. We crisscross through the field as we listen to weather updates interspersed between country music, classic rock, and oldies, on Scobey’s very own radio station, KCGM, call letters for kids, cattle, grains, and minerals.
The Peace and Quiet of Farming
“Do you ever get bored out here?” I ask.
“No. There’s no noise here unless you create it,” Gary says. “No planes. No trains. No traffic. You learn to hear yourself.”
Mental Note #7: Listen to self.
Harvesting is therapeutic for Gary. He also likes that there are daily goals, the comradery of a team, and the altruistic act of helping feed the world.
Gary points to a deer. “Where?” I ask. Gary spots wildlife—deer, antelope, hawks and Hungarian partridges—like nobody’s business. He points to the mule deer again. I finally see it after he practically drives up to it. Gary offers me some snacks: cucumbers from the garden, lightly salted. Antelope jerky from hunting season thanks to his daughter. And trail mix. I gladly accept as my stomach is still on Eastern Standard Time. To say Gary loves Montana is a colossal understatement. Even though Gary isn’t a full-time generational farmer who carries the daily risk and business burdens, his love of the land reflects a universal theme in this remote farming community.
Crisscross and Back Across
Farmer John pulls up next to us with the grain cart so we can empty our contents, 300 bushels of wheat at a time, all while still in motion—no time for more delays. He then empties his load into a semi-truck parked in the field, that will then haul it to store in a “dirty” bin. Throughout winter, grain will be hauled to Cahill’s for cleaning, and then re-stored in a “clean” bin until it goes to market in the spring.
Gary and I continue to methodically move back and forth across the field, as Charlie A. also crisscrosses in the CASE combine. Gary tells me about soil conservation methods like no-till farming and how technology helps farmers be more efficient through environmental mapping methods for example. They know with more accuracy where and how deep to plant seeds now (it varies depending on multiple factors) and no more accidental double planting. And we touch on topics that are not so black and white—preservation versus pesticides, GMO, and gluten. It’s all so deep and wide and complex; and all so very fascinating. (Too much for this post).
Dry as All Get Out
And we talk about the weather. Montana experienced droughts in 2012 and 2017. Then in 2019 they got too much rain. Farmers literally just sat and watched crops that they could not harvest. Now in 2021, this year’s drought is compared in size to the ‘80s drought, a period compared to The Dust Bowl. Time will tell if it lasts as long. I hear mention of the ‘80s drought several times during my visit. The threat of unconducive weather exists daily.
According to NIDIS, the National Integrated Drought Information System, Montana, at the time of this writing, was moderately dry. Daniels County where Scobey sits, fell in the 73 percent of extreme drought, meaning crops are likely not harvestable, winter pasture is opened for grazing, soil has large cracks, fields are bare and fire restrictions increase. Farming was tough this year. In fact, a water truck completes their convoy that heads to the fields each day. The simple act of turning equipment on can spark a fire and set a field ablaze. When farmers detect smoke, they drop what they’re doing, hop in their water trucks, and rush to lend a helping hand. Although Cahill didn’t use its water truck during my five-day visit, there were two nearby fires that were quickly contained.
“Why don’t you irrigate your fields?” I ask.
“There’s nowhere to draw water from,” Gary replied.
Of course. Scobey is not near a major river or lake or mountain stream. They are isolated.
Mental Note #8: Who signs up for this?
We finish at 2:44 p.m., just as Mother Nature starts to spit rain. As much as the farmers need to harvest peas in the next field, they are done.
“Well, that was a light day,” Gary says.
Mealtime on the Prairie
Gary and I head back to the house. For dinner, we eat home grown spaghetti squash, the last of Lori’s canned marinara sauce made from garden vegetables, and salad. The rest of the week I savor homemade sour dough bread, garden green beans, potatoes, and salsa; walleye fished from Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota, apple chutney on pork chops purchased from a neighbor who raised pigs to finance his college, and slow-cooked free-range chicken from the Hutterites (similar to Amish). And we drink homemade choke cherry wine (I helped pick some for next year’s batch) with lentil brownies and oatmeal cake baked by Mummu.
Wrangling the Definition of Farmer
Initially it was hard to wrangle a definition of farmer. My inquiring could have spawned a kerfuffle with all the differing perspectives and job descriptions. Farmers are entrepreneurs who work the land. They’re mechanics, truck drivers, firefighters, community advocates. Growers and harvesters and sorters. Risk takers, businessmen and women, tired and fired up. The one unanimous farming description though was this: hard worker.
But I believe Charlie Cahill summed up farmer best: “We are caretakers of the land.”
“I am making the best educated decisions that I am aware of at this moment to caretake the land to whoever is next,” he said. “I obviously have to make profits, there’s a short-term need, but the long-term is I intend on making it (the land) better for the next caretaker.”
And I wonder? Who signs up for this?
Down to earth people. Quite literally. That’s who.
Thank You Cahill!
Thank you to Cahill Seeds, its support staff, and all its farmers who are part of the one percent who feed the rest of us!! Thank you for allowing me this summer to wrangle beyond alligators and tourists.