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William Wymer (11) checks out the 2019 wheat crop at Kloster Farm in Lincoln County. The land is leased and farmed by John Wagner and his son, Jordan Wagner.
Photo by Diana Kloster

FMC

Syngenta

FARMER'S TOOLBOX

Ninety years and counting

October 2019
By Trista Crossley


Although there have been a lot of changes in the way wheat is harvested, many traditions surrounding the annual event haven’t.

For the past 90 years, the Mead family has provided three meals a day for their harvest crew. In the beginning, the kitchen came to the field via a horse-drawn cookwagon. Eventually, meal prep moved to the farm’s 1920s bunkhouse near Starbuck, Wash. These days, Skip and Julia Mead are in charge of the farm, which was settled by Skip’s grandparents more than 90 years ago, and have continued the harvest meal tradition.

“In the beginning, it (providing harvest meals) was essential. Everybody did it. You just didn’t go to town. Most folks lived on the ranch, and your seasonal workers didn’t have anywhere to go,” Skip explained, sitting at the table at the cookhouse in July while his current cook, Penny Hazelbaker, bustled around the small kitchen, putting the final touches on lunch. “It’s not only tradition, but we like it for team building, the camaraderie. We have fun in here. We give our workers a break from sandwich lunches. That’s important—a change of pace for them, but also it gives our wives a break.”

The harvest crew’s 6 a.m. breakfast and 8 p.m. dinner are served at the bunkhouse. If weather conditions are cooperative, a noon lunch is packed and taken out to the crew; if the weather is uncooperative, the crew comes back to the bunkhouse to eat.

While most people think the harvest crew have the toughest job, it’s hard to argue that the cook isn’t working just as hard. Penny arrives at the bunkhouse by 5 a.m. and generally leaves around 9:30 p.m. She is responsible for coming up with the menus and preparing shopping lists. On the day I visited, the lunch menu consisted of pulled pork sandwiches, potato salad, pasta salad, chips and lemon cake for dessert. Penny was already working on dinner—roasted turkey with trimmings.

Shortly after Skip and I sat down, Julia arrived, carrying a box full of old family photos. Julia does all the shopping and is usually responsible for finding somebody to cook for the crew, which can be difficult.

“The learning curve is steep,” Julia said. “With hometown gals, it makes it easier for us. They know where the pots and pans are.”

“And we know how to put the coffee pot together,” Penny, who is from Waitsburg, added, gesturing to the decidedly old-fashioned coffee…thing (calling it a “pot” didn’t do it justice).

Julia agreed, pointing out that the directions, courtesy of “Grandpa Chuck,” for making the coffee are written on the wall behind the 1952 stove.

“We have discovered that when we’ve hired younger folks (to do the cooking), they usually just last one year because they don’t have the same kind of knowledge and base of cooking,” Skip added. “There have been times when you’d come in here, and it was 105 degrees and grease is flying and everybody is mad including the dog. You have to be organized, and it just tends to be that country gals are more organized and used to feeding large groups at family functions. I suppose I’ve experienced more than 20 different cooks and had some epic failures.”

Some of those “epic” failures included a cook who thought all drains came with garbage disposals (Skip: “Man, my dad was mad. I don’t know how they unplugged it. She poured bacon grease down it to make certain.”) and a certified professional chef who “didn’t know how to fry eggs.”

When looking for a cook, Skip and Julia look for somebody who is dependable, friendly and has the ability to “make due with what I bring them,” Julia said. And the flexibility to hold or speed up dinner for an hour is a must.

“There’s a certain art to making leftovers presentable,” Skip added. “Can you make gravy, and do you drink your own coffee?”

Part of the learning curve for Penny was learning where everything was stored and finding out what the members of the crew would or wouldn’t eat. This was Penny’s second year cooking for the Meads. The job generally last for about 25 days.

There are a few rules the harvest crew is expected to follow, such as no hats at the table and cleaning up one’s own plates.

“There also used to be a little more cussing,” Skip said.

Usually the saying, “if these walls could talk,” is more like wishful thinking. Not so in the bunkhouse. On the wall behind the table is a mural, painted by Skip’s oldest sister, Mickey.

“Mickey was cooking one year, and Skip’s dad came in for lunch and asked where lunch was, and she was painting,” Julia said, laughing and pointing at the wall. “That’s treasured. Mickey is gone now, so it’s treasured. We aren’t going to paint it.”

This is Skip’s 50th paid year participating in harvest. He recalled that when he started, in 1968 or 69, the dining table was full. Now the harvest crew numbers six. The Meads tend to have the same crew members come back year after year until, as Skip said, “…they go on with their lives. We have had several that have started as sophomores in high school and went all the way through college. They are like family.”

“Sometimes they pop back in just to eat. We just tell Penny to throw out another plate. She always packs extras,” Julia said. And family is always welcome to share harvest meals, with advance notice, if possible.

Because the day I was there was extremely windy, the harvest crew came to the bunkhouse to eat lunch. One minute it was relatively quiet and calm, and the next minute food was flying back and forth across the table, interspersed by good-natured ribbing between the guys and compliments to Penny on the pork sandwiches.

Charlie, Skip and Julia’s oldest son who helps run the farm, said the tradition of providing harvest meals to the crew is something that won’t change when it falls to him to continue.

“I couldn’t imagine having to prepare my own meals or the stress of my wife having to keep something warm for me,” he said. “The idea of the bunkhouse…it’s not just the idea to have this kind of camaraderie, but grandpa talked about (not having) stress on wives back home (to provide meals). No wives were allowed to hire at the bunkhouse.”

Another part of the Meads’ tradition is the harvest crew finishes machinery service at 6 p.m. on Saturday and doesn’t return to the field until Monday morning.

As lunch wound down (and a few of the younger members of the crew tucked into third helpings), talk turned to what was happening in the field, speculation on what Penny was making for supper (turkey, but she was keeping it a secret from the crew) and their next break.

“We have this killer deal called tea time at 4 o’clock—unsweetened tea, cookies or brownies. It’s a real pick-me-up,” Charlie explained.

“It just gives us a chance to slow down for a second,” Skip added.

Lunch over, the men cleared their plates and tromped back out to the field, a few of them stopping to give Penny a hug and thank her for the food. Just like that, the bunkhouse went quiet except for the sound of dishes being washed and the smell of turkey roasting.