Jostling down a dirt road in Kansas recently, in a grain truck loaded with beige little berries of grain that will end up in bread somewhere else in the nation, or even the world, I feel something in my gut I have known in my head for a long time: Providing food is perhaps the most meaningful thing you can do.

Harvesting wheat may be routine, an annual exercise. But it’s also exhilarating. I am filled with awe.

Farmers and their family members know the wheat harvest is profound, even if they don’t talk about it, even if it’s also boring at times.

It’s like a “best-kept secret.”

You can see it on their faces, as they shake hands and look an out-of-towner in the eye.

Of course, even as an outsider — someone originally from the East Coast, not from a farming family, now residing in a suburban area near the nation’s capital — I know the harvest matters.

Clearly, living things can’t survive without food.

Yet being a part of the massive harvest in the “bread basket” of our country lends a visceral understanding of the value of food.

Even long after neighbors needed each other for threshing, it still reveals the importance of familial and community cooperation, while bringing home how the weather and the economy make farming such a chancey business.

In central Kansas, where crops and grasses normally stretch to the horizon in every direction, and buildings dot the canvas here and there, the landscape is all at once humming with activity.

Two-story combines with headers 20- or 30-feet long methodically crawl over waves of wheat, cutting stems and sifting and separating precious grains, then spitting out straw, weeds and chaff.

Waiting are decades-old little grain trucks and shiny new semi-trailers.

Most are farmer-owned, but some are operated by so-called custom-cutters, who rent out their services in the wheat belt, moving from Texas through Saskatchewan as the harvest moves north.

At the same time, hay needs swathing and baling, and crop stubble needs disking and planting, so all hands are on deck.

As temperatures rise above 100 degrees, farm workers in their 70s, middle-aged folks, kids, teens, 20-somethings and moms all have a role.

Suddenly, hip college girls in tight T-shirts are competently wielding heavy machinery.

Women usually in off-farm jobs find themselves “driving truck.”

So it is that I sit shotgun in a grain truck with my father-in-law, an anthropology professor named John Janzen.

Each load hauled literally means thousands of dollars of income, John reminds me.

If moisture levels in the wheat are below 14 percent, no “discount” is taken for the wetness that degrades wheat quality.

Grain trucks scattered around are like armored cars with bags of cash en route to the bank, I think.

Even more valuable than gold, really, since you can’t eat gold.

I imagine taking a corner too fast, tipping, literally dumping farm profits in the drainage ditch. I get goosebumps. The dust flies and wind whips my hair.

We watch storm clouds form and then dissipate each evening, as heat lightning flashes on the horizon. We wait as the morning dew evaporates so it’s dry enough for Norm Oeding, the farm manager, to run the combine.

In my bones, I feel how a whole year of painstaking work could be devastated in an hour, how the farm could take a paralyzing hit overnight by an ill-timed thunderstorm or hail.

Walking into the office at the local grain “elevator,” the privately owned company where most local farmers sell their grain, I am reminded how the commodity markets can deliver the same kind of blow.

The town where the grain trader maintains his business may have nothing more than a hut of a post office, but the street of simple homes wrapped in aluminum siding belies the sophistication of the farmers and their grain buyer.

Computer screens with real-time market data flicker in the office of Elbing Grain like the ones I’ve seen on the desks of currency traders in New York City.

Affected by global factors like war, drought, famine, storage capacity and the overall economic climate — not necessarily primarily by grain quality — wheat prices feel as fickle as the weather.

Waiting in the office while one teenager checks the truck’s weight and her cousin sends a moisture probe into our wheat, I feel nervous, even though I know the wheat looks dry.

Yes, moisture is low enough, someone says.

We get back in the truck and drive over to the elevator and a system of silos where we can unload.

Other trucks are on line, but things are moving quickly.

Now empty, a semi with a burgundy cab speeds out of the lot. We move into place and, before I realize what’s going on, I hear a shushing sound.


I realize our hydraulic lift has tilted the truck bed behind me and grain is spilling into the “pit” below a grate in the ground — where it soon will be lifted to a bin for storage by an “elevator.”

The truck is then weighed again so we can figure out the exact weight of the wheat.

The delivery is done.

Relieved yet full of anticipation, we go back for another load.

Kristi Bahrenburg Janzen is the daughter-in-law of John and Reinhild Janzen of Newton. She is the managing editor of Edible Chesapeake magazine in Maryland