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From ‘Combine Karaoke’ To Cursing: The Sounds Of Harvest In The Midwest

Self-employed mechanic Bob Shanty munches on free popcorn at Berkey's Case IH in Macomb, Illinois, where he is buying parts.

Erik Terstriep, perched in the captain’s chair of his combine, glides through eight rows of corn at a time. When he lifts up the harvesting head to turn the machine around, it lets out a quick, staccato, “beep, beep, beep.” Terstriep is fluent in the language of this machine, able to decipher every chirp.

“You sit in here long enough, you know what’s going on instantly by the tone or by how many times it beeps,” he said.

Terstriep, in his early 30s, has been farming nearly that long with his dad and grandfather. Together, the family farms around 2,000 acres of corn and soybeans in Industry, Ill., and raises some cattle and hogs. During the fall harvest, he spends close to a month-and-a-half cooped up all day in the combine cab.

“It does get boring,” he acknowledged. “You have to find things to entertain yourself.”

Most of the time, the 35,500 pound machine quietly hums along. It’s equipped with GPS and autosteer which makes the ride so smooth, some farmers have allegedly fallen asleep. A lot of farmers make business calls behind the wheel or listen to sports radio. One man in central Illinois has gotten attention for writing poetry while harvesting.

Terstriep, who is decades younger than the average American farmer, stays alert with Snapchat, Angry Birds, Facebook, and something he calls “combine karaoke.”

“Eight o’clock at night, you’re looking for something to do to keep yourself awake,” he said. “Certain songs come on, you just can’t control it.”

He’ll sing anything, he said, from country to rap, but his favorite song to belt out is 52 Vincent Black Lightning, a classic bluegrass tune about a boy, a girl, and a motorcycle.

When something goes wrong in the field, Terstriep breaks his rhythm.

“It sounds like Chewbacca when you run something through you’re not supposed to,” he said. “It starts growling and grinding.”

When that happens, folks like Jay VanHolten, parts manager at Birkey’s, a Case IH dealership in Macomb, Ill., are the first to hear about it. This time of year, he said the phone rings off the hook with farmers looking to patch things up.

“If it turns or spins or rotates or shakes, it’s gonna break,” he said. “The perfect season, the ‘white whale of the harvest,’ I don’t think that exists.”

VanHolten often diagnoses problems by having farmers describe the broken sound.

“One guy, the other day, he said his feed house chain, he said it sounds like a roller coaster,” he recalled. “It’s in there bouncing around like a roller coaster.”

Sometimes, mechanics from the dealership get sent out to meet farmers in the field. Other times, VanHolten will wrap up the parts in a paper bag and leave them with a note outside the shop’s front door.

Bigger problems end up in the garage out back in the hands of Brian Ascher, the shop’s mechanic. Ascher, sprawled underneath a combine, has been updating the machine’s rotor all day. After working with farmers for 23 harvests in a row, he said the sound etched in his mind is cussing.

“Jesus Christ, what in the hell’s taking you so long? Why in the hell did this break? Who made it that way? That’s the kind of garbage you hear all the time,” he said with a laugh. “Grown men having fits.”

Back in the field, Terstriep said he remembers the angry tone of voice his dad would get sometimes while harvesting.

“There’d be times, as a child, I’d get hurt feelings,” he said. “But then you have to realize this is just a stressful time of year.”

This season’s been relatively mellow with only a few broken parts and grumbles along the way. It’s allowed Terstriep to tune in to his favorite sound: Golden kernels of corn flowing in a thick stream into his grain cart.

“It’s the sound of the culmination of the year,” Terstriep said. “It’s payday.”

“Sometimes you just sit here in the quiet and you almost zone out,” he said. “You just listen to the combine and you listen to the beeps and you don’t think about anything.”

Abby Wendle joined Harvest Public Media in September of 2014, and reports from Tri States Public Radio in Macomb, Ill. She came to Harvest from Tulsa, Okla., where she produced radio for This Land Press. That included partnerships with public radio programs The Story, State of the Re:Union, and The CBC’s Day 6. Her work has earned awards from The Third Coast International Audio Festival, KCRW's Radio Race, The Missouri Review and The National Association of Black Journalists. She has worked as an assistant producer for The Takeaway and interned at Radiolab. Abby has a bachelor's degree in Liberal Studies from Flagler College in St. Augustine, Fla., and a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
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