Conrad Weaver has spent the last four years traveling 150,000 miles throughout Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, North and South Dakota, even as far as Idaho and Saskatchewan. "It's been a really amazing journey," Weaver says. "I've met some of the most amazing people in this country."
This journey has involved following five custom harvesting crews on their annual treks across wheat-producing regions of the U.S. and Canada for the filming of the documentary, "The Great American Wheat Harvest."
"I knew it was going to be a challenge," Weaver says. "For me, the ideal budget would be five crews. We didn't have that, so it was just me. I stayed in contact with these harvesters and where they were at. I came out and filmed two weeks at a time."
The film was released in March, and since then, Weaver has been traveling and showcasing the film, giving viewers a look at the everyday lives of these harvesters, most recently at the 3i Show in Dodge City.
Bridging the gap
Coming from a farm in Ohio, Weaver filmed the documentary with the goal of helping to bridge the gap between producers and the American consumer. "My grandfather and uncle had a small dairy farm," he says. "I grew up milking cows, putting up hay bales, and picking corn. It's something that's pretty much in my blood."
So far, reactions have been "overwhelmingly positive," Weaver says, noting an example in his friend in Washington, D.C., who he describes as a "pure urbanite." "He said, 'I will never buy a loaf of bread again without thinking about where this comes from,'" Weaver says. "If that's what I can do for people, I've accomplished my goal."
There is also a gap to close within the ag community – producers in the eastern Corn Belt don't encounter custom harvesters on a regular basis, and may not be as familiar with this sector of agriculture spends months on end traveling throughout wheat-growing regions each year. Weaver notes one of the harvest crews, a family from Manley, Nebraska, as an example. "Their neighbors don't understand what they do and why they do it," he says. "And they live in a rural community."
But it also gave Weaver a chance to learn some new things about the challenges the custom harvest community is facing. Finding help in the U.S. isn't an easy task. Many, like Jim Deibert of JKD Harvesting in Colby, Kansas, hire most of their operators from countries like New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, Scotland, and Ireland.
"That particular crew was amazing," Weaver says of Deibert's 12-man crew. "They fly into Hays and drive to Colby. It's the first time they've been to America, and they spend their first month in Colby."
Working as custom harvesters in the U.S. provides an opportunity they wouldn't have in their home countries, giving them valuable work experience and a competitive edge over their peers back home. "They can't see semi-trucks like these or combines with big headers like they do here," Weaver says, adding after filming was complete, all 12 of the employees were asked about the experience they gained. "Every one of them said, 'I'm a little better person for coming here.'"
Weaver says the biggest takeaway from his experience was the resilience of custom harvesters when facing challenges with the weather – especially in recent drought. "If there's no wheat to cut, they've still got a combine mortgage to pay," he says. "Their response was we'll get it figured out. They're all looking toward what next year is going to bring."
More information on "The Great American Wheat Harvest" is available at www.greatamericanwheatharvest.com.