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Editor’s Column: The last lunch

For most farmers across the Prairies, harvest is over. At our farm, we managed to get the crop off without any major problems, but yields were not what we hoped.

We aren’t alone. On Oct. 4, Statistics Canada released its September crop estimates, reporting a 17.5 per cent drop in canola yields compared with last year — an average yield of only 28.2 bushels per acre.

Things weren’t so bad in Alberta, where average canola yields were about 35.6 bushels, but that was still a slight decline from last year. While StatsCan reported more canola harvested in Manitoba in 2012 than in 2011, this was due to more seeded acres. Yields were still down significantly compared to last year.

Nationally, average wheat yields (excluding durum) are about average — 42.1 bushels per acre as compared with 44 bushels per acre last year. Manitoba yields were slightly above last year; average yields in Saskatchewan and Alberta were slightly below.

That matches the experience on our farm as well. While we’d gone into the good-looking canola fields expecting great yields and been disappointed, we got more or less what we expected from the wheat.

For better or worse, the grain is in the bin and the combine is on its way back to the shed.

But, before we can officially declare an end to this harvest season, there’s one final stage we have to survive.

The worst part

You know harvest is officially, finally over for the season when someone comes in from the shed looking embarrassed, carrying that one last lunch cooler with his arm outstretched, to keep it as far away from his nose as he can.

“Sorry. Somebody must’ve left this out in the truck.”

If you don’t live on a farm, you might not have a clear idea of exactly how disgusting this one last cooler is going to be.

Maybe your kid is the kind who hides his school lunchkit in the back of the closet from the last day of June until the first day of school next September. That’s gross. But the farm cooler is worse.

Unsupervised lunchkits generally have some air openings. They might smell bad for a while, but left on their own long enough, food leftovers eventually desiccate into dry blobs. Today’s good quality air-tight coolers let that leftover lunch marinate in its own juices. For months and months.

Unsupervised lunchkits typically get hidden (or shall we say “stored?”) somewhere in the house. Farm coolers are left to fend for themselves out in the hot sun. Even the best cooler can’t stay cool or even room temperature in a truck cab for four days in a Prairie heat wave, when the sun is magnified by the windshield glass.

That one last cooler is unspeakably gross.

As my neighbour said in the post office last week (I’ll call her Penny, but that’s not her name), “You know it’s a bad one when you have to use the pressure washer.”

I take some small comfort in knowing for a fact that I’m not the only one.

The strategy

That last lunch cooler is always the worst one of the season. This is partly because it’s been out in the truck longer, but also a mental phenomena. Just when you think you’re done cleaning gunk out of coolers for another crop year, that one last cooler finds it’s way into the house.

But while the last one is gross, it’s certainly not the only delinquent cooler to come home during the year needing extra cleaning.

Farmers are busy. There’s a lot of moving around from cab to cab, jumping from the combine to a shift in the grain cart to a turn in the grain truck, then taking the one-ton truck on a quick trip to town to pick something up.

It’s perfectly understandable that someone could leave their lunch in a cab in a field somewhere. Especially at the end of the day, when everyone is so tired all they want to do is fall asleep in a quiet place until the whole circus starts again the next morning.

As the main lunch preparer on our farm, I’m generally in charge of the coolers. And I’ve come to realize I’m following the wrong strategy. I have the wrong number of lunch coolers.

I have just enough that if someone misplaces their cooler for a few days, they can take their lunch in one of a few backup coolers. There are almost no consequences for the cooler-forgetter, and no way I can avoid cleaning out the gross coolers when they finally make their way back to the kitchen. I don’t have a lot to spare.

Penny at the post office has a better plan. She has lots of coolers. She looked around to make sure nobody else could overhear before she told me this (this is why I can’t use her name). Last year, when a really gross cooler came home, Penny took one look inside and… just threw it away! (Don’t tell her mother-in-law.)

I was shocked by this, until I did a cost/benefit analysis. If you find a really good sale on low-quality coolers at a big-box store, you can throw out at least four a season and it’s still cheaper than paying for the psychiatric help you need after cleaning out the most vile lunch coolers during a long hot harvest.

Having a lot of cheap coolers is a definite winning strategy.

Another option I’m thinking of trying next year is fewer coolers. One per customer. If you don’t bring your lunch cooler home at the end of the day, there’s no lunch tomorrow. (Well, I’m not that cruel. I might offer one of those flip top cans of beans with a plastic spoon).

Under a limited-cooler regime, there would be clear consequences associated with leaving the cooler in the cab. I’m willing to bet that after three or four days of brown beans for lunch, everyone would be on board with bringing their cooler in at the end of the work day, even if it meant a late night trip back to the field to track it down.

It gets worse

I was planning to spend the winter deciding if I have too many coolers or too few. Writing lists of pros and cons. Consulting with experts (Mom? What do you think?) I was pretty sure I could come up with a solution for next year.

Until I found out about the new combine.

The combine that’s under construction for our farm comes with a built-in cooler. That’s right. A cooler in the cab. Apparently, it fits under the buddy seat, and will be a great place for the combine operator to store his lunch without cluttering up the floor.

Thanks a lot, Case.

Now if I can just figure out a way to get the pressure washer up into the cab.

Enjoy this issue.

Leeann

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