For Tracy Zeorian, being a custom harvester is more than a job, it’s a family tradition. The third generation in a family of custom harvesters, Tracy, her husband Jim, and their two youngest of four daughters leave their home in Manley, Nebraska, and spend their summers on the road following the maturing wheat from south to north, living in a trailer house along the way. Wheat harvest is an important time for the family and has been for many years. It’s a lifestyle Tracy says she wouldn’t trade for anything.
Zeorian’s first experience as a custom harvester was with her grandfather. He started the business when he was 19 around his hometown in Kansas and expanded his custom harvester business beyond the local area in the 1950s. When Tracy was 12 years old, her grandmother asked her to go along for the harvest. She did; that was the first time she met her future husband. Jim was one of her grandfather’s hired men. After they married, Tracy and Jim bought a combine and joined her grandfather and father in the wheat fields. She didn’t intend to be a full-time custom harvester, but in 1990, when Tracy’s father and grandfather got out of the business, the Zeorians decided they were going to try it on their own. They went out and hit the road, and today the family custom harvester business is thriving.
The biggest change Tracy noted since they first started is the equipment. The machines are larger and have more technology and computers. They have also seen a lot of changes and increases in rules and regulations.
Since the days when Tracy’s father and grandfather were harvesting, the mentality of custom harvesters has changed. They are less competitive and even look out for each other, according to Tracy. If one harvester cannot make it to a job, he or she may call fellow custom harvesters to see if any of them can make it.
One of the biggest benefits of being a custom harvester has been the friends that the Zeorian family has made along the way.
“I really feel our family is truly blessed with being able to do this job. We travel the country, meet people, and there are more good people than not in this Midwestern part of the country. I think that would be my highlight, my friendships and the people that you come across throughout your days; it just makes this all worth it.”
Another highlight is the lifestyle on the road and how it has let them grow as a family. According to Tracy, the family has had to be together a lot when on the road every summer, and that has produced a very strong family bond. On rainy days, they find activities and create their own fun until the fields dry and they can head back out. The family’s focus is mainly on each other with no distractions.
A typical harvest day is 12 to 14 hours in the field. The Zeorians don’t hire any extra help beyond the family. Tracy and Jim run the combine and drive the truck. Sometimes the farmer that hired the Zeorians will be combining with his own machines alongside them. Their daughters keep house, cleaning the trailer and preparing meals. “The girls are the ones that take care of us and get all the laundry done and groceries bought,” Zeorian said. “They have a meal ready for us. They are the backbone of keeping everything going in the background.”
Preparation for the harvest season typically begins the first part of March when Jim starts getting machinery ready for the field. Once the trailer house is in the driveway, Tracy is in charge of getting it ready to head down the road; this is usually the beginning of May. They typically leave mid-May if they are heading for Texas or the first part of June if the first stop is in Oklahoma.
No two years are ever the same, according to the Zeorians. But, typically they have the same clients year after year.
The challenges of the job mean custom harvesters have to be flexible. “You just don’t know what to plan for next because the best-made plans are usually thrown right out the window as soon as a big rain comes through.”
The Zeorian combine cuts wheat while storm clouds threaten to bring rain. Photos courtesy of Tracy Zeorian
Typically the family will head home the first part of September. After the wheat harvest has concluded, the Zeorians will head back to Nebraska and finish with the soybean harvest.
Going home at the end of the season and leaving the lifestyle of being on the road is one of the hardest parts for Tracy. Getting back into the routine of being home in Nebraska is always a change.
“It’s almost a depressing feeling that you have to overcome every year. If you talk to most harvesters I think that they would probably tend to understand what I’m saying. I don’t understand why. I don’t know if it’s because the rush of hurrying up and getting to the next stop is over, the adrenaline, if it’s the simplicity of living in the trailer house. Most days I don’t even know what time it is or what day it is. You’re thrown back into a schedule; your life is ruled by the clock. And I think that’s probably the biggest thing for me. Sunup to sundown, during harvest all that matters is that the sun is shining.”
Tracy started her blog, “Nebraska Wheatie,” after a follower on the Zeorian Harvesting Facebook page convinced her to start a blog. Her blog is a place where she can write down updates and her thoughts on harvest and also share with others what the life of a custom harvester is like. “What I would ideally like to do is find the consumer who doesn’t understand anything about where the wheat and where their bread comes from, how it’s brought to them from the farmer, and then what goes beyond that. I think people’s curiosity of the lifestyles is what’s probably brought them to the blog,” Tracy said. “I would like to have it be an educational-type thing.”
Zeorian said she gets lots of different feedback from people on her posts based on what that particular post is written about. She has readers from many different countries and especially sees interest from those in Australia, where custom wheat harvest happens as well.
While the harvest season may bring rainy delays and pressure to get crop out of the field, Tracy still loves custom harvesting as much as she did when she was a 12-year-old girl in the combine with her grandfather. And her favorite part is the family time. It’s a top priority for her. Family and friends that the Zeorians get to see while out on the road make the experience that much better every year. “The number one benefit of being on the road is the people that you meet,” Tracy said.
Follow the Zeorian family and their seasonal journey online at www.nebraskawheatie.com.