The Tobacco Barns of Trigg County, Kentucky

It was the smoking barns that first drew me down the rabbit hole of learning about the tobacco plant, Nicotiana. I had no idea the billows of smoke that hovered around these barns came from a curing process that has been used to preserve tobacco leaves for hundreds of years.

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In retrospect, I’m so glad I didn’t call the fire department!  My friends who grew up on farms with smoking tobacco barns said strangers were always coming to their door to inform them their barns were on fire.

These alluring barns with their hovering fog-like smoke are everywhere in the agriculturally rich fields of Kentucky.

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It wasn’t until I opened the door of this historical barn that I became enamored with the mottled leaves hanging on racks that rested on a series of ever-rising rafters and the low-burning fire beneath.

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The architecture of the barns, the tantalizing smell of the drying leaves, and the agricultural history associated with the growth and harvest of tobacco have captivated my attention ever since.

The Tobacco Barns

There are two types of barns built for curing tobacco in Kentucky: those specifically constructed for air-curing and those built for wood-firing. Which barn one uses depends on how the tobacco will ultimately be finished. Flavored tobaccos like those used in pipe blends, snuff and tobacco chew, are smoke or fire-cured in barns that are tightly sealed and have smokestacks. Cigarette and cigar blends, which use a higher grade tobacco known locally as Burley, are simply air-cured in barns that allow for a cross breeze.

Air-Curing Barns

Tobacco that is to be air-cured goes into barns built for air-circulation with small open spaces between the wall slats that allow air to blow through.

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They do not have smokestacks.

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Here is another one. This air-curing style barn is my favorite.

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Notice the light coming in through the open spaces in the walls. And the rafters. Notice the rafters. So beautiful! When I am standing in this barn, I feel like I am standing in a church.

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Here is a photo of the same barn filled to the ceiling with tobacco. There are seven levels of rafters to hang the tobacco.

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When the wind is blowing, the sound of the leaves rustling is lovely. Add to that the smell of the tobacco and the whole thing is intoxicating. Take a look at this video.

 

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Wood-firing Barns

There are a few telltale signs that a roadside barn is built for wood-firing. Besides the smokestacks, there is always a stack of wood,

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and a hill of sawdust near the barn, which are used to build and keep a low-burning fire smoldering on the floor of the barn for weeks.

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Here is the interior of a historic wood-burning barn at The Land Between the Lakes HomeplaceThe smoldering fire is built in ditches on the ground.

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Compare that to the interior of a commercial wood-burning barn. Same concept, but in this barn, there is about six inches of firewood covered by a full 18 inches of sawdust.

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To create the low-burning fire, the farmer makes a series of evenly spaced holes in each row of sawdust for the entire length of the barn. He then stuffs straw in each hole and pours a little diesel fuel into the holes. Once he ignites the straw, it burns and connects with the wood stack underneath. The fire gently smolders for about a week. At this particular barn, the entire process is repeated later for another week to finish off the dehydration and smoke-curing process. I’ve read that the goal of curing tobacco is to get the moisture count of the leaves down to twenty percent so they can be transported for finishing without crumbling.

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Growing Tobacco

I haven’t witnessed how the seeds are started, but a farmer told me they are started in seed trays and planted in the ground in May.

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In July, the farmers “top” the plants, removing the flowering seed heads to encourage more robust leaf production. Any new leaves that try to grow are individually suckered off by farmers, or they are sprayed to halt new growth.

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That brings us to late August. The plants turn yellow indicating they have ripened and are ready for harvest.

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You can read up on the different varieties of light and dark tobacco leaves, and the sugar content of the leaves here.

The Harvest

The farmers begin the harvest process in late August or early September depending on the weather and ripeness of the tobacco leaves.

Here are the tools of the trade for harvest: a tobacco knife, a tobacco spear and a rack of tobacco sticks.

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First, the stalks are chopped down at ground level with a tobacco knife. Meanwhile, someone goes up and down the rows of tobacco plants and places a tobacco harvesting stick on the ground about every six feet.

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Next, a farmer comes through, picks up a stalk and pierces it with a black tobacco spear placed over a tobacco stick. The farmer threads up to six stalks onto each stick and then moves onto another stick. This process is called “sticking.”

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This farmer kindly allowed me to take a video of him sticking. It follows.

 

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The many speared piles look like a row of small haystacks when seen in a field.

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Curing

Next, the stalk-laden sticks are gathered and laid across the top bars of a metal tobacco transporter.

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The transporters are pulled by a tractor to the curing barn where the racks of stalks (on the sticks) are hauled up into the rafters of a barn for drying.

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I thought for sure the farmers had some sort of lifting machine to do the job of raising the sticks up to the ceiling, however, they do not. It is all done by hand.

Another farmer named Ernesto graciously showed me how he and his team of men passed the sticks, loaded with stalks, up to the top row of rafters, bucket-brigade style. I love this video. It shows the hard work that goes into climbing up the rafters, passing the sticks up, and ultimately hanging the tobacco stalks to dry.

 

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I am so grateful to the migrant farmers who allowed me to film them at what is a very hard job done in very hot weather.

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Related Posts on Commercial Farming in the Area
Raising Sorghum Cane
How Canola Oil is Made (from plants grown locally)
How Local Canola Crops are Grown
Farming Equipment 101: Harvesting Winter Wheat
Cranberry Love

Dear Reader,

I have enjoyed learning about the harvest and curing of tobacco. I would love to hear your stories, so please feel free to include a comment if you ever worked or lived on a tobacco farm and can shed more light on the practice of raising and harvesting tobacco.

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Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram and Pinterest at JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

How to Make Catfish Traps: AKA Noodle or Jug Fishing

The first time I went to Lake Barkley, I sat on the edge of the lake, in the quiet of the morning, and watched an energetic family motorboat from one “buoy” to another, pulling in fish and laughing as they did. I had never seen this way of catching fish before, but I was hopeful this Rockwellian moment could one day be a part of my future. Indeed, being who I am, I was already imagining my husband driving a boat full of grandchildren …

Later that day, we met the family who had been out in the boat, the Malones. Within minutes of meeting them, they were explaining how they “jug” fished for catfish and showed us their morning catch. I was hooked. My new enthusiasm for catfishing ensured a trip to Wal-Mart to buy supplies. My husband’s curiosity and DIY nature ensured he would have the noodle lines rigged and set that evening. Luck ensured a catch the next morning.
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The most common types of catfish in Lake Barkley are the scaleless Channel Catfish and the Blue Catfish. When the Channel catfish are young, their skin is greenish-gray with black spots. As they age, the spots go away, and their skin turns gray. The fish on the right with a white belly is a Blue. The one on the left is a Channel catfish (thanks, Bruce!).
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Here are some other facts about catfish that might help you should you decide to go jug, or as we call it, noodle fishing:

  • Catfish are nocturnal bottom feeders.
  • Their peak activity and eating time is from dusk to midnight.
  • They have cat-like whiskers called barbels (that do not sting).
  • Their barbels are receptors for taste, smell, touch and for wake-tracking prey.
  • Their razor-sharp dorsal and side fins can prick you.
  • They have flat heads which make it easier for them to skim the lake floor for food.
  • They’ll attempt to eat anything, dead or alive, which is why this, the most foul-smelling dipping bait on earth, is a good choice to lure them in.

Catfish do not have teeth. Instead, they use suction to pull food into their mouths as they swim.
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I’ve seen people catch catfish two ways; both involve setting baited lines at dusk. One method is to use a long trotline weighted down with many evenly spaced disc-shaped weights and about 100 large hooks.
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The other is known as jug or noodle fishing.

Here is how to noodlefish: Sometime during the late afternoon, place your premade collection of baited noodles in shallow water. The next morning, go out and pull each noodle in. Out of the twelve noodles we set, we usually catch two or three fish. Sometimes, you have to search for the noodles if the wind, or a strong fish, has dragged them away. The hunt for a noodle that has drifted somewhere across the lake is part of the adventure.

How to rig a catfish noodle (makes 4):

Supplies:
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1 four-foot long yellow or orange swim noodle and a knife to cut it into twelve-inch segments.
duct tape, scissors, and a sharpie marker
40 feet of thin, braided, polyester string and a lighter to burn and seal the ends
1 tape measure to measure the lengths of string
4 large fishing hooks
4 half-ounce casting sinkers (weights)
1 dry sponge
1 skewer to make holes in the noodle
1 jar of stinky, sticky, catfish bait (we use Sonny’s Super Sticky Channel Cat Bait)

Instructions:
Cut a swimming noodle into four equal parts. Use bright yellow or orange noodles so you will be able to spot them bobbing in the water from afar. Use colorful duct tape to make a stripe on one end to better distinguish your noodle stash from those belonging to others.
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Cut four ten-foot long lengths of string, one for each noodle line. Use a lighter to melt and seal each end of the string so it won’t unravel.
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On one end of each string, attach a large fish hook. Use a bowline knot to secure the attachment.
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About 12 inches in from the hook, attach a weight by making a loop with the string, running the loop through the weight’s clasp hole,  and then pulling the weight through the loop of string. Next, tie a knot to secure the weight in place.
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The finished hook and sinker should look like this:
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Now, for the other end of the string: Using the pointy end of a skewer, make a hole through the noodle as shown. On the flat end of the skewer, make a little slit with the edge of a scissor. Slide the string through the slit, thus creating a guide so you can run the string through the small hole. Knot the string around the noodle, as shown.
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Alternatively, you could just attach the string to the tube in this way:
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Cut a sponge into little squares. Make extra squares to store in your tackle box. Secure one sponge on each hook.
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Wind the string, with the hook and sinker attached, around the noodle, tuck the hook into the styrofoam for safety, and store until ready to fish.
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How to noodle fish:

Just before you are ready to set your noodles in the water, dip the hook with its dry sponge into the gooey catfish bait. Throw the baited noodle line into the water. Repeat until all the noodles are baited and tossed into the water. Whenever possible, invite others (such as guests) to do this stinky baiting job. Thanks, Rex!

Throw each baited noodle into shallow water that is about eight feet deep. Since catfish are bottom feeders, you want the weighted hook to sink to their level. We usually set the noodles in coves.

The next day, get up early and check your noodles for fish. We use a mooring hook to grab the noodles out of the water.  The noodles sometimes drift, but not too far, and when the waters are calm, not at all.
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Ta Da!
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How the pros do it

Compare our single hook method to how the pros do it … Early one summer morning while we were out pulling in our scrappy little noodle lines, we saw a husband and wife team hauling in one fish after another from a trotline. Mouths agape, we took the boat over to watch and visit.

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This couple of experienced fishermen had an interesting system for keeping their fish as fresh as possible until they got home — they had a long, thin, wooden tub in the middle of their boat with a gasoline-powered motor that kept the water in the tub churning.
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We noticed the couple was throwing the small fish, which looked huge to us, back into the water. They must have seen how impressed we were with what they called small because about ten minutes later they waved us back over and gave us a bucketful full of their rejects! So thoughtful! We gushed with thanks.
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While we were visiting with them, my husband mended the fisherman’s cut (hooked) finger and two weeks later we found a stash of homemade jams and a thank you note in our docked boat, but that’s another story.

Cleaning the fish

A few years ago, again, early on a Sunday morning, we met a brother and sister team as they were taking their fishing boat out of the water after hauling in their morning catch. I asked if I could see their stash. They had a huge cooler-full of fish. I asked if they were going to sell the fish. They said they were stocking up for their winter food. I asked if I could watch them clean the fish. They lived nearby and invited us over. Such a friendly and gracious team, these siblings were. They let me take a video of their method of cleaning fish. Like so many other fishermen we have since met on the lake, they used an electric carving knife to do the job quickly.

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How we cook catfish

My husband and our friends, the Carters, cleaned and cooked the fish we caught last week.  This recipe makes enough for four people as an appetizer. The fish was light, flaky and delicious.

4  6-ounce catfish fillets (approximately)
1 cup garlic croutons, crushed
1 tablespoon Tony Chachere’s Creole Original Seasoning, or seasoned salt
1 teaspoon lemon garlic pepper
canola oil
lemon slices for garnish

In a ziplock bag, crush the croutons into large crumbs. Add the fish and remaining seasonings. Gently toss until fillets are well coated.

Meanwhile, heat canola oil in a cast iron skillet (about 1 inch deep). When a drop of water sizzles in the oil, it is ready for the fish. Gently lay the fillets in the hot oil. When lightly browned and flakey, flip over and cook the other side. Serve hot.
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Squeeze with lemon juice before serving.
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Enjoy! Here is our Southern Living magazine-style photo moment.
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The Lake Barkley State Park and Marina is available for room and boat rentals.
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P.S. To go fishing in Kentucky, as in most states, you’ll need a license. You can apply for one here.

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Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram at JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2019 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

 

How Canola Oil is Made (from plants grown locally)

Last April, I wrote a story about the gorgeous yellow fields of canola that were growing along I-24 in Cadiz, Kentucky. You can read all about it and see the photos here.
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This is Part 2 of that story. The part where after seeing a dramatic increase in the number of yellow fields from the year before, I called the plant manager at the local AgStrong Canola and Sunflower Seed Processing Plant that I had read about in the paper and asked, What gives? Why are we suddenly seeing so much yellow? When he started to explain, I realized I had a lot to learn and asked if I could drive over to meet him and get a tour of the plant. An hour later Mark Dallas was giving my husband and me a tour. Not exactly the way I thought my day would turn out, but I do love a good backroads detour.

As background information, can-o-l-a oil, or “Canada-oil-low-acid,” is made from crushed canola seeds. These seeds are about the size of poppy seeds. Even having seen how canola oil is extracted from these seeds, I still shake my head in disbelief that anything that small, even in huge numbers, could produce something as useful as cooking oil.

A very short botany lesson about plant reproduction:
Flowers have one job, and one job only: to induce reproduction. To that end, flowers that are fertilized will make seeds. Those seeds will make new plants. That the plants grow and produce tasty fruits and vegetables that we like to eat, is bonus. Botanically speaking, those fruits of the plants are actually ripened ovaries full of seeds waiting to be planted. The flesh of fruit is sweet so animals will eat it and disperse the seeds in their travels. Tree nuts work in the same way; Mother Nature is counting on squirrels to bury nuts and thereby assure they will sprout and there will be more trees in the future.

Back to canola flowers and seeds. Like winter wheat, canola is planted in the fall, sprouts, goes dormant in the winter,​ and perks up again in early spring. It flowers in mid-April, and the seed pods are harvested in mid-June. Farmers like to grow winter wheat and canola because then they can double-crop their fields, meaning there is time left in the warm summer months to raise another crop, such as soybeans, in that same field. By comparison, in most northern climates, there’s only time to grow one crop like wheat or canola.

The photo on the left was taken from a stem of canola flowers on April 17th. The photo on the right was taken on June 12th, just a few days before the pods were harvested by the combines I wrote about in this article.
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You may have seen similar seed pods develop in your own gardens if you ever let broccoli or bok choi plants flower and “go to seed.” If you look closely at the flowers below, you can see the early development of seed pods. They look like little spikes. Canola is in the same Brassica family as bok choi and broccoli.

The next photos are of fully mature canola seed pods that I dissected at home to release the seeds within. You can see how small these seeds are. It’s amazing to think cooking oil is extracted from them.
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AgStrong contracts with local, family-owned, farms to plant nonGMO canola seeds in their fields. NonGMO means the seed’s genetic material has not been manipulated in a laboratory through genetic engineering to make it more disease or insect resistant. A few other tidbits I learned about growing canola: canola has a 5-6 inch tap route which acts as a natural tiller in the soil, and canola brings in $8.10/bushel compared to wheat’s $5.25/bushel.

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Here is a photo of the canola oil processing plant in Trenton, KY.
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It takes a lot of seeds to make canola oil and these fifty-foot silos are full of them.
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This is what the inside of one of those silos looks like.
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The first stop on the tour was the long silver cylindrical oven used to warm the seeds to no more than 120º. Warming the seeds made them easier to press. The low oven temperature kept the process in the category of cold-pressed. The blue conveyor belt brought the warmed seeds to a machine that cracked the hard outer shells.
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Next stop was the seed crusher. This was where the magic happened. This machine crushed the seeds and expelled the golden canola oil into the blue well. The oil will still need to go to an offsite refinery before it can be bottled.
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Here’s a video of the mechanical magic happening:

Here was the residual seed meal as it dropped onto a conveyor belt.
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This meal was delivered to the green machine for a second pressing to remove the last traces of oil. At this plant, there are no chemical solvents, like hexane, used to extract these last drops of oil. That’s where the expression “all natural expeller press” comes from.
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Here’s the residual meal as it came off the conveyor belt after the last of the oil had been pressed from it. The meal is used to feed livestock.
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This is the transport room. It’s where the seeds, collected from farmers, are gathered and delivered to the silos for storage. And later, after pressing, where the extracted oil is weighed and distributed, via trucks, to be delivered to Georgia for the final refining process and …
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bottling. You can find Agstrong’s Solio Canola Oil at Whole Foods stores.
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But the story doesn’t end there. As a volunteer chef and Board member of The Nashville Food Project my antennae is always up for opportunities for food donation and food recovery. Canola and olive oil are two expensive staples we use in abundance at TNFP. I asked if Agstrong would consider partnering with us and donating their locally grown and manufactured Solio oil to TNFP, which they have graciously done. Here was the Plant Manger, Mark Dallas, donating a 35-pound container of oil to TNFP, on the spot.
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And that’s how this one little detour ended up providing cooking oil for TNFP whose mission is “Bringing people together to grow, cook, and share nourishing food with the goals of cultivating community and alleviating hunger in our city.”
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The story, however, didn’t end there, either. I happened to “pull” a few young canola plants from the side of the road last April to plant in my vegetable garden, so I could watch and learn how these plants matured to the seed stage. Once the plants produced seed pods and dried out, I was pleasantly surprised to walk out to my garden one day and see my chickens poking their heads through the chicken wire and eating the canola seeds.
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It looks like Agstrong’s byproduct of meal for livestock was a winner.
I’ll leave you with a video of my chickens enjoying canola seed pods:

Related Posts on Commercial Farming:

LET’S STAY CONNECTED!

Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram at JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.

Farming Equipment 101: Harvesting Winter Wheat

It’s hard to explain my fascination with farming and farm equipment, but I am smitten. I’ve noticed my husband now automatically slows down when we drive by a farm with interesting agricultural activity going on: tractors crisscrossing fields, barn smokestacks billowing smoke during tobacco drying season, a team of horses pulling a cart driven by Mennonite farmers, or even something as mesmerizing as the swaying of “amber waves of grain.”  DSC_0905 He knows me well, and by slowing down he is giving me ample opportunity to ask him to pull over. Better than turning back later, a few miles down the road, Right? We are well beyond just “pulling over.” He is now, with coaxing, all about driving down these long, beckoning gravel roads. The views and the farmers we meet are the rewards.

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I am awestruck by all that I see.

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I fully appreciate that the crops from these commercial farms are feeding people across the nation and doing it in such a beautiful and orderly fashion that it transcends art and science. It is a miracle of nature, at least to a neophyte like me.

Recently, while driving down Route 68 in Cadiz, Kentucky, on our way to Hopkinsville (aka Hoptown), I spied this mash-up of amber and John Deere green.

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I had been following the growth of this field of winter wheat since the seeds were first planted back in mid-October, then through their winter dormancy period, and finally to their full maturation, the seed production stage in late spring.

The photo on the right shows the wheat seeds/grains harvested from one “ear” of wheat. The flecks in the dish are the husks that had surrounded the seeds and are known as chaff.

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Farming Equipment 101

The Combine

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The green machine is a “combine harvester,” a machine that harvests grain crops. The combine works by combining three labor intensive farm jobs: reaping, threshing, and winnowing crops. The blue machine is a grain cart that hauls the grain to a grain trailer which will then transport it to a mill either by truck or rail.

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The combine never has to stop working as there is commonly a grain cart traveling alongside it collecting the kernels as the vehicles roll across the fields. The grain is transferred via a 26-foot auger attached to the combine.  The efficiency of this system is brilliant. There is even a diesel fuel truck nearby ready to refuel the tractors, so they never have to leave the field. So, to refresh: green combine, to blue grain truck, to white grain trailer.

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These next few photos were taken from the window of the tractor cab pulling the grain cart. Paul, the tractor driver, kindly invited me to ride with him so I could see up close how the combine worked.

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Paul was ably assisted by his young grandson, Jordan, whom he was babysitting for the afternoon. Jordan was in his glory sitting beside his grandfather. Who needs Tonka trucks when you have the real thing?!

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Here is the combine reaping, or cutting down, the wheat (as seen through the window of the tractor).

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The reaper feeds the wheat into a feeder head which transports it to an internal thresher. The thresher beats the seed “ears” to separate the grains from their stems, and the chaff from the seeds. In other words, the thresher “separates the wheat from the chaff” an idiom which means to separate what is useful or valuable from what is worthless. Thank goodness for Wikipedia!

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Winnowing is the process of blowing air into the grain to blow off the chaff and other debris such as dirt before the grain enters the storage tank. As the combine moves along the field, you’ll notice a small dust storm flowing behind it. That is the chaff and stems being discarded back onto the field by the combine.

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The Planter
Another large and important farm machine is the planter. On this day, as soon as the combine finished harvesting the wheat, the planter, pulled by a tractor, came through to plant soybean seeds between the stalks and roots that remained from the harvested wheat. This is a no-till process; the farmer doesn’t remove the wheat stalks, or till them in. Leaving them in place to compost helps with weed control, soil erosion, saves on fuel costs, and helps with the bio-diversity of the land. The method of planting two crops in one field within one year is known as “double-cropping.”

This is a 16-row planter with individual seed hoppers (the yellow boxes).

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Each row planter unit uses compressed air, delivered via the black hoses, to drill the seed into the dirt. You can see the seed drill hanging between the two slanted black discs.

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There was an “aha” moment for me here: I immediately recognized the two slanted discs on the 16-row seed planter as similar to the two discs on the 2-row planter used by the farmers at Delvin Farms in College Grove, TN. I knew what they were for! You can read about how that planter works here.

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Another view of the planter: see the folded up wheels on the far right?  That’s a guide arm. When the farmer drives down a field with the guide arm unfolded, the small wheel makes a groove in the soil and lets the driver know where he needs to line up the center of his tractor when he turns to plant the next 16 rows.

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The Sprayer
There’s one more industrial-sized machine I have seen out on these commercial farms — the sprayer. The sprayer is used for fertilizing and applying pesticides.

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From the backside of the sprayer, you can see the storage tank for the chemicals.

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The bountiful grain harvest!

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Special thanks to the employees of Arnold Family Farms for their hospitality and patience with my endless questions.

Related Posts on Commercial Farming:

LET’S STAY CONNECTED!

Follow my photos of vegetables growing, backyard chickens hanging out, and dinner preparations on Instagram at JudysChickens.

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© 2014-2017 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos and text may only be used with written consent.