Custom combining, the harvesting of grain crops by itinerant combine crews, not only plays an important role in production on the Plains but also is the basis for a distinctive style of life rooted in the family business.
Prior to the advent of the combined harvester, or combine, small grains on the Plains were harvested with binders or headers and then threshed with stationary separators powered by steam or gas traction engines. Labor was a mix of migrant, local, and family sources. Farmers owned the harvest machinery; custom operators owned the threshing machinery. Combines were first used in the winter wheat areas of the Central Plains in the 1920s and, with windrowers as complements, were adopted in the spring wheat areas of the Northern Plains and Prairie Provinces some twenty years later. Farmers generally owned their own combines, and the flow of migrant labor diminished.
The shortage of labor and machinery during World War II, coupled with the wartime resurgence of wheat production, precipitated custom combining, as harvesters took to the roads on itineraries stretching from Texas to Saskatchewan. Perhaps 500 machines were in itinerant operation in 1942, and in 1947 researchers documented more than 8,000 in Kansas. The most dramatic episode of the war era was the Massey-Harris Self-propelled Harvest Brigade of 1944, when Massey-Harris of Toronto received a special allocation of steel to put 500 additional custom combines into the field.
The 1947 film Wild Harvest, starring Alan Ladd, Robert Preston, and Dorothy Lamour, depicted custom harvesters as a wild bunch, and indeed, the early years were marked by men traveling without families. The business persisted, however, and underwent a transformation into a stable, family-oriented enterprise. Custom combining survived for two reasons, the first being that it was a sound, economical adaptation of practice in regional agriculture. It freed farmers of the necessity of capital investment in combines and allowed maximum use of these valuable machines. The second reason was that, like farming, custom combining became a family tradition, with outfits and routes passed down through the generations.
Custom combiners operate along defined routes harvesting mainly for the same farmers year after year. They charge for their work by the acre, with additional charges for high yields and bushel charges for hauling. Families and crews are housed in trailer homes. An important change in operations took place beginning in the 1960s with the advent of irrigated feed grains, corn, and milo on the Southern Plains. This encouraged most custom operators to curtail the northern ends of their itineraries and take on lucrative fall harvesting on the Southern and Central Plains.
A major study of custom combining in 1971 found 3,431 outfits transporting 7,551 combines, but numbers have decreased slowly since then. In particular, the international aspect of the business has diminished. Combine crews were allowed to cross the boundary between the United States and Canada under an executive agreement of 1942 and annual renewals thereof, but fewer than seventy do so today. An organization of American operators called U.S. Custom Harvesters, formed in 1983, has opposed Canadian crews operating in the United States. The Association of Canadian Custom Harvesters, formed the same year, has defended the Canadians' right to work there.
The greatest number of custom combiners comes from the Southern and Central Plains— over the years some 30 percent from Kansas, 30 percent from Oklahoma, and 10 percent from Texas. Prominent among them are Mennonite operators from central Kansas, who entered custom harvesting as a strategy for extending their agricultural way of life.
Thomas D. Isern North Dakota State University
Isern, Thomas D. Custom Harvesting on the Great Plains: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981.
Lagrone, William F., and Earle E. Gavett. Interstate Custom Combining in the Great Plains in 1971. Washington DC: Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1975.