Hauling Wagons

During years in which the pecan trees bear heavy loads, the nuts grow large in size and weight until gravity bends the limbs to the ground in late summer. At harvest, the tree shaker—a three-wheeled, lumbering mass of hydraulics—stretches out its boom , opens its rubber-padded claw, and grabs hold of the rough bark of a trunk or limb. The operator pushes a button and this sci-fi-inspired contraption gives the tree a vigorous shake lasting perhaps 10 seconds. Nuts rain down. As they do, the limbs, relieved of their long burden, rise in one fluid motion like a heron taking flight from a stream bank.

               Large, cylindrical brooms mounted to the front of a tractor sweep the nuts to one side, out of the tractor’s path, while the large, enclosed fan mounted on the back of the tractor blows the nuts out from under the trees in the opposite direction. After a few passes, the nuts are swept into wind-rows, from which the harvester rakes the nuts into its recesses, where they are separated from leaves, sticks, rocks, and debris by a series of belts, fans, and chains. The nuts are then dumped into a harvest wagon for transport to the cleaning plant, where they are more carefully sorted, separated, and bagged into large 1500 lb capacity poly-sacks bearing the words “FOR PECANS ONLY” in bold black print.

               It’s a good feeling to see the wagons full with pecans. In fact, it may be the high point of the entire pecan-growing process. You see the results of your labor. You don’t know how high, or more frequently, how low the price will be, but there they are, piled high and bathing in the afternoon sun of autumn. However, there is that final task to be considered—hauling them to the cleaning plant.

               I back up to the wagon, aligning the hitch on my truck with the wagon’s long, iron tongue. This usually involves a lot of inching forward and backward once you’re in the ballpark. Finally in the right spot, I get out and lift the tongue. The iron tongue is not really heavy but you often have to pull or push it right or left, up and over the hitch. As the wagons fill, this gets harder to do because the weight of the pecans puts just enough pressure on the tongue’s swivel point to bind it a little. With a full wagon, I usually have to put all my weight behind my tugging back and forth to move it just enough. A few quick jerks gets the holes on the hitch and tongue to align well enough for me to insert the pin and wiggle it back and forth, using the ¾-inch- thick steel pin’s leverage to align the holes and drop or force it through.  I give a quick check of the tires, say a quick prayer, and hope I make it to the cleaning plant without any problems.

               My pecans are cleaned at a facility located about 18 miles from the farm, down what I consider to be the most scenic public road in all of south Georgia. Scenic in the sense that along its path, one can see this country true, free of any trace of commercialism and seemingly a separate world, nearly frozen in time. As I turn out of the farm onto Cannon Road, also known as Highway 230, I head North for half a mile to the Dooly County line, where Cannon Road becomes River Road. It is named so because the road parallels the Flint River to the West all the way to Montezuma, located only 5.5 miles from where I will eventually turn onto Cedar Valley Rd.

               Along its entire length, the true character of this country comes into view along river road. It displays the classic south Georgia landscape of rolling fields full of cotton and peanuts, abandoned sharecropper cabins, great stands of pine representing three species, including the commercial slash and loblolly, as well as the re-introduced native longleaf. There are hardwood drains of oak and hickory, creeks bearing the names Turkey Creek and Hog Crawl Creek, muscadine vines crawling out into the road, and Chinaberry trees ringing the field edges.

But you won’t find a single Wal-Mart, Dollar General, Lowe’s, Home Depot, fast food joint, shopping center, or even a gas station along this route. There are no hotels, motels, car dealerships, auto parts stores, coffee shops, or pharmacies. In fact, there’s not a single place along this 18-mile stretch where you can spend a shiny dime.  It is as rural as it was 75 years ago. Time seems to have stood still here, which may explain why I am so fond of it.

You will, however, find the Drayton Volunteer Fire Station and seven country churches -4 Baptist, one Methodist, one CME, and one non-denominational-along this 18-mile stretch of blacktop. The oldest of these is the Drayton United Methodist Church, formed in 1840. At the time the church was built Drayton was a village of several stores, a saloon, a post office, and a courthouse. Now all that remains are two white clapboard churches and the Volunteer Fire Department. I call that progress.

Just North of Turkey Creek the most picturesque of all seven of these churches and certainly the one with the most lyrical name-Shady Grove CME-rests on the West side of the road with its old bell tower shaded by a spreading canopy of live oak. Like the nearby Drayton Baptist and Methodist churches it has white clapboard siding, a short narrow construction with 4 windows along each side running the length of its sanctuary, and the short bell tower to the right of the front door. The grass out front is bare, revealing the sandy earth on which the congregation parks for service.

While most trips to the cleaning plant with wagon-loads of pecans go smoothly, there are times when I need the prayers of all seven churches along this road. Hauling wagons full of the crop that you’ve got a year’s worth of time and money in can be a little un-nerving. Some people think nothing of it and take it for granted they’ll make it to their destination. My wagons are old. They have a history of which I am unaware. They are second-hand wagons bought at auctions over the years. I’ve had my share of flat tires and these are easy enough to change but I’ve also had bearings go out along this road. For this reason, I try to keep a close watch on the tires. When a bearing goes out, the tire begins to wobble. I don’t know exactly what would happen where a tire to come off while running 25-30 mph but I imagine it would not be a pretty sight and could end with my crop strewn along the road, if not something worse.

Upon seeing the wobble, I have pulled off onto the roadside grass to discover that not only was the bearing totally destroyed but three of the five lug bolts attaching the tire to the axle were broken off and it was all barely holding together. I am the worst mechanic in the history of the world -a bad trait for a farmer-and after jacking the trailer up to secure it, I was dumbfounded contemplating my next move. Fortunately, my friend who runs the cleaning plant arrived with a tractor and front-end loader to lift the back end of the trailer while the wagon was pulled the rest of the way to the plant. This was divine providence and redneck ingenuity at its finest and I was as thankful for it as I could be.

As long as the wheels don’t come off, I pass beehives, center-pivots, penned-up goats, and a herd of Shetland ponies. There are glimpses of deer camps back up in the pines. There are countless green paths that disappear into the woods behind gates, cables, and chains stretched between old wooden posts. I pass the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Flint River Wildlife Management Area, 2300 acres of pines, hardwoods, and wildlife openings between the road and the river to the West. Just across the road to the East is the Georgia Forestry Commission’s tree nursery, where there are enough pine, oak, crabapple, persimmon, dogwood, redbud, bald cypress, catalpa, poplar, and black walnut seedlings grown to reforest 30,000 acres.

Pecans mature at various times through the fall and winter, depending on the variety or cultivar. This allows me to see the seasons change along this route as I haul the wagons from late September to December or January. As we begin the ‘Pawnee’ harvest, the peanut fields are being turned over, roots and pods exposed to the dry air, delivering that delicious earthy smell that hangs over the land. Soon they are picked and gone in a cloud of dust, leaving alternating bands of sandy soil and chewed up, dry peanut vines, which are often baled and left standing in the field.

The cotton bolls are open as the pecan harvest begins but the fields are still green with leaves. Within a matter of weeks the plants are defoliated and the fields are transformed into a vast white blanket. By the time I harvest ‘Desirable’ pecans, these cotton fields are beginning to be picked and their stalks mowed.

The woods change too. The sea of green foliage is still breathing in the hot air of late summer as I haul the first loads of ‘Pawnee’. Timber rattlers lie dead on the warm blacktop. By the time I am hauling ‘Elliot’ pecans, the lush green land has hints of gold and the muscadine vines, now losing their leaves at the wood edges take on the appearance of wires and spidery tendrils reaching out from the brush. When the wagons are full of ‘Cape Fear’, the golden light of early autumn has arrived in full and with it, the hardwood leaves are losing their chlorophyll, allowing red, orange and yellow pigments to emerge. Whitetail bucks are seen chasing does across the fields in broad daylight. They can burst out of the woods and bound across the road without warning, which is evident from their increasing number lying stiff and motionless in the ditches. The yellow fruit of bare chinaberry trees dangle from their stems like cherries, drying in the autumn air, around field edges. Black and turkey vultures rest from their feasting of roadkill in the naked branches.

We harvest the old ‘Schley’ orchard last because it is a mix of old and new varieties, many of which are later to mature. As we pull out of the old orchard hauling wagons laden with nuts, the leaves are dropping in earnest. The golden light of autumn days begins to dull. I can peer down into the hardwood bottoms, which appear grey and gloomy under cloud-muted skies, but richly brown and inviting on days of sunshine.

We shake and harvest pecans twice during the harvest season because the price is higher early on. We may get 60-80% of the crop on the first shake but you can’t get all the nuts out of the tree until later, after the shucks dry down and the leaves fall. The second harvest can drag on as the weather begins to interfere with harvest once December approaches. By this time, the bulk of the crop is in, the wagons are lighter, and fewer in number.

Sandhill cranes cackle from the barren peanut fields late in the evening and as dusk approaches, murmurations of starlings ride the sky’s currents in unison for protection from predators and for the warmth found in numbers. These living clouds form when one starling copies the behavior of its seven nearest neighbors, and then those nearby copy each of their own seven neighbors, until the entire group moves as one. They are transfixing and I find it hard to look away from their flocking wave.

Raptors seem to prefer this quilted-together countryside where the fields and woods join. Red-tailed hawks soar on the thermals over the fields, watching for mice to scamper from the fodder of broomsedge and dry, brown goldenrod stalks along the edges. Red-shouldered hawks perch spraddle-legged on the power lines and kestrels flutter off over the fields as my rumbling wagons approach. Occasionally bald eagles and osprey venture over from the nearby river to make an appearance, cackling in the sky as they are mobbed by crows in flight.

The aesthetics of this drive and the feelings that well up in me as I move through this landscape to complete the final task in the crop’s year remind me of why I farm. I do not have to do this. I choose to work the land. It would be much easier to just stick to my role on the research/extension side of the pecan industry as a horticulture professor, but there is something about the direct involvement of producing something of value from the earth that burrows down into a man if he has the feeling for it. It is that relationship with the landscape. A participation in the care of and partnership with the land. I’m a terrible mechanic but I am good at listening to land and trees and interpreting their needs. So, I hook up the wagons, kick the tires, say a quick prayer, and complete the cycle. I hope to make it.

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