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Crestone Eagle, October 2004:
Trucking at the potato harvest
story & photos by Len Schreiner
took a temp job driving a potato truck in the SLV Potato harvest.
My experience was marked by the kind of people I've worked
with through those long 11-12 hour days.
Jon and Teri Brownell own and operate Cottonwood Ranch, 3
miles east of Mosca, CO. Along with a few regular employees,
and many seasonal workers, they will bring in this year's
harvest. The Brownells are assisted by their foreman Jeff
Larson and Brandon Hawkins, a 19 year old Moffat High School
graduate, who operates the big harvester skillfully. I'm just
one of about twenty seasonal workers, each with a role to
Francis Bacon said, "Many hands make light work."
Now I've see the principle in action. Jon says, "Farming
today is about management and planning and coordination."
I take his words to heart, as I strive to get my truck loaded,
make the trip to the warehouse, unload, and return to the
field right on time to drive under the harvester's boom to
receive my next load. Timing is a definite factor.
At today's fuel prices, with a 8400 John Deere tractor that
holds 100 gallons of diesel fuel and pulls the harvester—itself
a mechanical labyrinth of belts, conveyers, rollers and hydraulics—the
goal is to have four trucks efficiently hauling literally
tons (16 tons per truckload) of potatoes into a warehouse
in an orderly, safe manner without losing time, burning unneeded
fuel, or keeping the potato sorters waiting idly.
After weighing in, I back my truckload up to a kind of bucket
that receives the potatoes, as they are rapidly moved out
by an electric powered conveyer in the center of the truck's
bed. A roaring sound like a waterfall sends them pouring out
of the truck's tailgate onto conveyer belts pointed in three
directions. First the smaller potatoes, scabs, rocks and clods
drop through the ribbing onto another conveyer just for seed
potatoes. The larger market potatoes go through a line where
6 women carefully sort them, and a third belt carries away
all trash, dirt, etc. that is waste. At the end of a 60 foot
long flat conveyer, a sea of beautifully formed potatoes are
mechanically stacked inside the warehouse.
My co-workers, who guarantee safe handling of the Brownell's
produce, are members of the Navajo nation, most of them from
Shiprock, New Mexico. I observe their quiet dignityl and resilient
Thirty years ago the first Navajos staffed the warehouse
production line that washed, sorted and packaged potatoes
for market. About 1984, Wilson family members, who make up
almost all of the present crew of nine men and eight women
(ages 19 through 59) formed a working partnership with the
Brownells for this seasonal job. Their standards are unspoken,
but evident. When I back up my truck, I obey the hand signals
of Randy, who says this is his twelfth year on this farm.
Growing up on a wheat farm in western Kansas, using only the
rear-view mirrors, I learned to park a truck within an inch
of open barn doors. Now Randy tests my old skills. He wants
trucks backed up "just right", according to his
I smile to myself as I find "characters" everywhere,
on this job. Miguel, another driver who moves from job to
job, is friendly and colorful. The "F" word is a
constant in his dialogue: a noun, adjective, adverb, verb—go
figure. I'm relieved when he uses a different descriptor occasionally.
Pedro, a veteran driver, smiles and likes to give advice,
or argues a bit. Leroy, a Navajo who was switched early on
from the potato sorting to a truck, drives well and appears
to relish his supposed promotion.
During one break, I interview the Navajo women. They're hesitant
but cooperative with my curiosity. "Do your children
learn your language? Native spirituality and tradition?"
Yes and no, they say. They can get both in a Navajo class
in school, but many of them are not interested in speaking
Navajo. The women and their families are part of a Methodist
Church and read the Bible at night with their children. When
I suggest a group picture, they decline. Later I learn, some
Navajos believe being photographed can steal your soul away.
Inside the warehouse I visit with Albert, 33, a mild mannered
Navajo man with an easy smile. A skilled worker, Albert worked
his way up the line from sorter to truck driver to unloader,
and now is virtual warehouse chief. He eyes the 40 foot high
and 30 foot wide stack of spuds. Everything here is moved
with a hand held pilot that directs the auger and conveyer
boom right, left, up and down, extends and shortens it.
His piece is just one of about 15 pieces of large equipment
that I counted in this operation. Teri and Jon have much invested
in the farm, which Jon and his brothers took over when their
father called it quits. "I think I can do this for about
five more years," Jon says. Teri does all the bookkeeping,
handles the employees, and is a general "go-for"
for everything. They're raising two daughters from their business—Lindsey,
21, is in college at CSU, and Heather, 17, is an athlete at
Sangre de Cristo High School.
The only down time is a few months when the irrigation system
is quiet, but then these two parents are on the go following
their daughters’ many activities. Stress presses on
Jon and Teri, and so many other farmers, as they try to reduce
water use, keep up with mounds of paperwork, and pray their
lifestyle will not be squelched by the lengthy drought.
Farming is indeed a business. Nonetheless, for me it’s
still a romantic experience. From this brief return to my
old love, I'll remember the millions of Golden Sunburst and
trillions of Norkoth potatoes I've helped harvest. I hope
I've learned to appreciate this abundance a bit more. Between
pink sunrises and golden sunsets, I've had some moments to
contemplate, to watch the light illuminate the ordered landscape,
the farmers' handiwork.
One can either stand in awe of the abundance that's given,
or worry over cents and dollars and profits and markets, as
we must. But in the end, I still like to feel it's all about
people and pieces and the precious Earth.
"Beauty is before me, and beauty is behind me. Above
and below me hovers the beautiful". (A Navajo prayer)
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