Harvest can be a hectic, stressful time of year. Will the weather co-operate? Will that canola field yield as well as expected? Will the combine break down at the worst possible time?
In the middle of all that action is a much-loved tradition for many farm families — meals in the field. As my friend Marleen Conacher says, harvest meals are as big a part of the season as the rest of the harvest.
The Conacher family farms near Fairholme, in northwest Saskatchewan. The harvest help these days typically includes Marleen’s husband Garry, their son, Jonathon, and harvest crew George Olson. This year they added Jonathon’s partner, Melissa, to the mix — she runs a combine while Marleen watches their baby girl.
Of course, harvest crew numbers can fluctuate. Last winter, Garry’s extended family lent a hand to finish harvest. That brought the harvest crew to seven.
“So that makes it a bit more adventuresome,” Marleen says, laughing.
A typical day during harvest for Marleen starts with deciding what they’ll have for meal. “I don’t necessarily start preparing the (supper) meals until after dinner, depending what I’m going to have.”
If she’s making something like a stew, she’ll start prepping in the morning, she says. But otherwise, she starts prepping at about 3 p.m. She starts cooking at about 4 p.m., she says, “because I usually like to have my supper done by about 5 p.m. so I can have it in the field by about 5:30 p.m.”
These days, Marleen works part-time as an educational assistant at the Glaslyn School, so she’s generally home by 3:30 p.m., leaving her time to cook supper. She says it seems like she has it easy these days, as she used to combine, too.
“So I would combine, get off the combine, come in and make meals, and take them back out.” One year, when Marleen, Garry, and Jonathon harvested together, she bought meals in town.
Marleen has worked off-farm most of her life. For years she managed a bar with her sister-in-law. I wondered how she juggled harvest meals with off-farm work.
“You plan that a day ahead. And thank goodness for crock pots and stuff like that now,” she says, adding that she used to have her meals in the oven before she went to work. These days, she does a lot of crock pot meals.
Marleen says she doesn’t do a lot of planning beforehand. Once she decides what type of meat she’s going to prepare, everything else falls into place. She rotates between pork, beef, and chicken through the week, and varies the recipes.
Nor does she hunt for new harvest recipes. “I don’t want to be trying out new recipes on the guys in the field,” she says, so she sticks to the tried and true meals she’s done for years. Meals must be easy to eat in the field.
Favourites include roast beef with potatoes and gravy, roast chicken, farmer’s sausage, and roast ham (bone in). Pork chops is another standby. “I cook it in the oven in a sauce so it’s nice and tender.”
Hamburger is also a good option for harvest meals. Marleen cooks everything from meat loaf to “Meal in a Pan,” which she says is one of her standards.
“You shape the meat into a loaf and then you put your carrots and onions and celery in it. And then cook it for four hours. And take the whole pot out to the field and they dish it up themselves.”
Marleen used to take the pots and pans to the field for each meal, but found them too heavy. Plus, the food would sometimes cool before the harvest crew had a chance to eat, she says. Now she uses plastic to-go plates, which have built-in compartments and lids. She dishes up each plate, then loads all the dishes into an insulated cooler to keep them warm.
“It’s as simple as can be,” she says. Sometimes she’s not sure how much to dish up for each person on the harvest crew, so she “piles the food on.”
“I just don’t want them to go hungry,” she says.
Asked how she avoids creating a mess when hauling meals to the field, Marleen says “The mess is always in the house.”
Marleen uses her car to run meals to the field, and that’s the one aspect she’d like to improve. “I would like to have a bigger vehicle to haul out the food in — like a van. If it was cold out they could sit inside and eat and not be so squished.”
The most stressful thing about harvest meals is probably wondering what you’ll make and whether everyone will like it, Marleen says. This is especially true if you don’t know the tastes (or potential allergies) of the entire harvest crew.
But Marleen is not one to sweat the small stuff, and that applies to harvest meals as much as anything else.
“Once you start harvest, that’s your mindset. You’re doing the meals and it doesn’t matter what gets in the way.”
Of course, harvest doesn’t always go smoothly, and weather interruptions are frustrating. “You just get into the groove and then you’re down for two or three days.”
But it’s their livelihood, she says.
“So you just do what you have to do and hope everything works out.”