South Dakota farmers remember moonlight harvests

Farm Forum

FEDORA, S.D. (AP) — Today, it’s not uncommon for crop harvesting to be an all-night affair. Lights on tractors, combines and trailers have made late-night work easier and safer as farming has gotten better and more efficient.

But not long ago, farmers didn’t have so much bright technology.

What they did have was the moon. Depending on the night, it would be enough to allow farmers to work when it got dark, sometimes for hours and making up ground during a stressful season, The Daily Republic reported.

LaVerne Kothe, 87, farmed near Fedora during a time of moonlight harvesting. He remembers harvesting — picking corn in those days — during the late 1960s and being out at night, with only the moon as a guide.

He said he tried to avoid being out late at night because he had cows to milk in the morning.

“It wasn’t a real healthy thing to do,” he said. “But you did what had to be done.”

Kothe said he remembers having to take some extra time to make sure he was safe around the machinery.

It’s something that his friend, Jim Krantz, remembers as well. Krantz, who is now cow/calf field specialist for South Dakota State University Extension in Mitchell and lives near Howard, said it was usually easier to do the work under the moonlight on a clear night than it would be under a pitch black sky with the assistance of lights from the back of a tractor.

“You could see everything,” Krantz said. “It was about as good or better than total darkness, as far as light goes.”

He said it made sensing low or wet spots easier to pick up because things were clearer and more vivid.

“It really is hard to believe,” he said.

What sticks out for Krantz, 67, is when he was a kid, he remembers that he would go to bed around 10 p.m. His dad, Vic, would stay out in the field for a few hours, at least, and continue harvesting. Jim remembers hearing the harvester in the field working with little more than the moonlight.

“We helped out with chores, and Dad was kind of a one-man show with the harvest if he had to stay up late,” he said. “If there was a bright, full moon, he would stay out there.”

Krantz said it wasn’t until the mid-1980s when farmers started to get more creative with better lights, because the earliest modern combines didn’t have much more than a few quartz headlights on the top of the cab.

“It got a lot better from that point on,” he said.

Compare that to today, Krantz said, and it’s a whole new world.

That’s mostly a thing of the past. Now, there might be a semi-truck, a grain cart and a couple of combines in a field, a little community in the distance.

“It’s lit up like a little town,” Krantz said.

Kothe also said the days of picking corn were unique because the harvesting timeline was usually later. He said he would commonly go into the fields in late October and hope to be done by Dec. 1. That meant battling cold and snow and moving slowly through the field. He said he remembers harvesting when the temperatures were in the single-digits and the wind blaring.

“It was a time before cabs and it was a rather miserable job,” Kothe said. “I remember being out there and having to brush snow off to get started.”

What makes a harvest moon different from other full moons during the year?

First, the harvest moon is the moon that falls closest to the autumnal equinox, which usually is around Sept. 22 or 23, according to information from NASA. Because the moon’s orbit is closer to the Earth during the autumnal equinox, that means when the moon rises in the sky, it also coincides with sunset.

The moon isn’t any larger than normal; it just looks that way because of its close proximity to the Earth. But bright moons have also been available to harvesters in October, commonly known as a hunter’s moon. The Farmers’ Almanac is probably the most famous source of these names, some of which came from Native American tribes who had names for the full moon in each month.

There’s also the supermoon phenomenon, which makes full moons seem bigger. That’s because the moon is 31,000 miles closer to the Earth than it is in apogee, its furthest point in orbit.

More supermoons will appear on Aug. 29, Sept. 28 and Oct. 27 in 2015. Even though most farmers don’t need the extra brightness to bring in their crops, for some, it’s also a good reminder of the way things used to be, even if it’s long in the past.

“It’s pretty interesting the way we did things back then,” Kothe said.