The Crestone Eagle, October 2004:

Trucking at the potato harvest

story & photos by Len Schreiner

I 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 play.

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 work ethic.

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 way.

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)