Wheat harvesting: Keeping farming in the family

PATERSON -- The giant combine gobbles up knee-high wheat stalks with rapidly moving teeth, pouring kernels into its belly and tossing chaff and straw behind in a dusty cloud.

The tank fills quickly as Woody Simmons drives across one of Berg Farms' dryland wheat fields at about 6 mph.

Harvest of the 11,000 acres of hard red winter wheat near Prosser started late Tuesday, delayed as farmers waited for the wheat to dry from recent rains.

By the time the combine went across the mile-wide field and back, it was more than three-quarters full. But Simmons said it will fill much more quickly once they start harvesting the irrigated wheat.

Then, he will slow to 3 mph.

Those 4,000 acres near Paterson are dense, without the 18-inch dirt furrows separating rows of wheat on the dryland acres, farmer Nicole Berg said.

Berg is expecting an average to good year for wheat. She and her brother, Steven Berg, are betting on the end of harvest. If the harvest is done by Wednesday, she owes him a steak dinner. Afterward, the steak is all hers.

Kernels stream from the combine's belly out of a spout hovering over a grain cart or "bank out." Nicole Berg said the grain cart will store up to about 600 bushels of wheat, about twice what the combine carries. Once full, a semi comes to empty the cart.

The farm was started by Nicole's great-grandfather Lenzie. Now, it's run by Nicole Berg, her father Frank Berg and brothers Matt and Steven Berg.

Each has specific jobs. Dryland farming is managed by Frank Berg. Irrigation is Steven Berg's responsibility, and marketing is handled by Matt Berg. Nicole deals with government issues and serves as the chief financial officer.

Since the three siblings came back to the farm in 1997, the family has gone even more into precision agriculture, with a computer-controlled irrigation system and combines that are driven by a GPS system Nicole says is more efficient, saving fuel and time.

Nicole said the family tries to reduce its reliance on outside employees and expenses. For example, the farm rents the fancy GPS-driven combines for their 30-day harvest and contracts with Gonzalez Trucking of Pasco to deliver their wheat to Tri-City Grain. Not counting the family, the farm is run by four full-time employees and three seasonal workers.

The Berg family grows hard red winter wheat, alfalfa, seed peas and bluegrass seed. Carrots and other crops are grown on land they own, but the family also leases land to other companies.

Using GPS with combines was something the family began about three years ago, Nicole said.

"You can't drive that straight," she said.

Simmons said driving a combine is similar to playing a video game. He controls speed of the combine and the height of the 30-foot header using controls to the right of his seat. A monitor for the GPS system shows the combine's progress across the field. Watching out for rocks -- still a job for humans -- is necessary to avoid broken combine teeth.

And Frank said he is experimenting with direct seeding for wheat, which means the wheat seed is planted by a drill using air. Chemicals are sprayed to control weeds rather than plowing the ground.

Right now, he hires out that seeding, and the Bergs still do some conventional seeding because equipment is expensive. For example, the drills for direct seeding costing about $140,000, he said.

In 1974, when he bought his last drill, it cost closer to $3,000, Frank Berg said.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com