Scott Short of Sycamore drives past corn and soybean fields every day, but until Saturday, he had never been inside a tractor or a combine.
On Oct. 21, Short and about 80 others took combine rides coordinated by the DeKalb County Farm Bureau. Three local farmers, Vince Faivre of DeKalb, Steve Bemis of DeKalb and Rob Wessels of Waterman, allowed passengers to ride along in their combine cab to get a firsthand look at corn harvesting.
“Around here, you see a lot of farming going on, and I was interested in talking to a farmer and learning how they harvest,” Short said. “I’ve never been on farm equipment before, so I signed up for a combine ride. It sounded like something fun to do and a great way to support local farmers.”
For a donation of $20 for adults and $10 for children 12 and younger, each passenger could ride in the combine for about 20 minutes, learning how to drive and use its equipment. The tax-deductible donations for the rides will be used for DeKalb County Farm Bureau Foundation for Agriculture’s literacy programs.
Miriam Wassmann, director of information at the Farm Bureau, said the event was a way to “combine” education and fun.
“Several years ago, farmers would pick the ears of corn by hand and throw it into grain wagons, and the shelling process would happen at another time,” Wassmann said. “Then they invented machines that do both picking and shelling, which is where you get the name ‘combine.’ ”
Each combine has a header with crop dividers, similar to the teeth of a comb, that gather the entire corn stalk. A rotating wheel called a pickup reel pushes the crops downward to a cutter, which cuts the corn stalk at the base. The cut crops travel by spinning auger conveyor belts through a threshing drum that breaks and shakes the corn kernels from their stalks. The kernels fall through a sieve, like a giant strainer, into a collecting tank. Unwanted plant residue and stalks spew out the back of the combine, similar to how a lawn mower cuts grass. Once the collecting tank is full of corn kernels, the kernels are augered from the combine into a grain cart to be transferred into a semitrailer for transportation.
After harvesting, the farmers transport the corn to their farm or a local grain elevator. Before the corn is stored, it must be dried to the proper moisture level in order to maintain its quality in storage.
The three farmers who participated in the combine rides said the majority of their corn eventually will be taken to CHS Ethanol Plant in Rochelle to be made into ethanol, which is blended with gasoline to increase octane and improve emissions quality.
According to the National Corn Growers Association, 46 percent of corn is used for livestock feed, 30 percent ethanol, 13 percent exports and 11 percent food and industrial use.
After storing or selling their crop, farmers return to their fields to prepare them for winter. Most farmers spread dry fertilizer or livestock manure on the ground to build up the nutrients in the soil. Then they till the ground to work the fertilizer and corn residue into the soil, which leaves the field ready for winter.
Wessels said all of his 29 riders were surprised at how much work goes into farming and how modern the combine’s technology was.
“People often don’t have a clue about what farmers do or how we harvest our crops,” Wessels said. “They believe that food comes from a grocery store, and that stores get food from a warehouse somewhere. Offering combine rides is one way to tell our agriculture story and answer questions.”
Lisa Verone of Batavia and her husband John each went on a combine ride because they wanted to learn about farming. They signed up for rides at Faivre’s farm after seeing a sign at the Sandwich Fair.
“My dad grew up on a farm in Germany, and I knew farming has changed a lot since then,” she said. “Riding in the combine’s cab was just like riding in a car. I didn’t know combines had all of those screens with GPS, maps and information about corn moisture and yields.”
All three of the farmers said they were happy to show the public their farms and the harvesting process and look forward to educational agriculture events in the future.
“We hope to continue to provide additional opportunities to educate and inform others about where their food comes from and connect them to local agriculture,” Wassmann said.