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Wheat harvesting becomes way of life

LIBERAL, Kan. (AP)--Harvesting wheat from south to north across the High Plains has drawn many to a way of life that's hard to explain.

As Lester Glenn works on his broken down combine, he knows all too well the ups and downs of harvesting wheat. And well he should, wheat harvesting has been his way of life for more than six decades now. At 82, Lester might possibly hang up the keys to his combine this year, but his friends, neighbors and family doubt they have seen the last of him out in the wheat fields this summer.

Lester Glenn began harvesting wheat in 1944 with members of his family, it got in his blood and he hasn't stopped much since.

"Made the first run north in 1944,'' Lester said. "I started down in Loyal, Okla. Went with my cousin, and we went as far as South Dakota sold out and came back.

"In 1945, Uncle Sam said he needed me, so I didn't go again until '47 I went again up to South Dakota with a crew,'' he explained. "Then we worked for my uncle out in Eastern Colorado, we broke sod. I worked for him until I got married in 1950.''

With a wife and four children, Lester couldn't live on harvesting alone so he ran a ditching business during the winter to provide for them. However, harvesting was still on the agenda each summer.

"We were out in Colorado at the time, that is where I got married,'' he said. "And we had four little ones along the way, three boys and a girl.

"So I started and bought the first combine,'' he continued with a smile. "I worked around here and then the next year we went to Texas and followed the harvest.''

Working at his own pace for himself has always been Lester's way of putting food on the table.

"I always worked for myself,'' he said with a very humble amount of pride. "I have always been self employed.''

When Lester started harvesting wheat more than 60 years ago, the going rate for a bushel of wheat was only a few dollars less than it is today. However, the cost of combines, fuel and wages have gone up considerably.

"I think back when we started, I can't remember for sure, but wheat was somewhere around $1.25 to $1.50,'' he said. "I haven't checked in the last two or three days, but now it is probably at around $5.

When we started out we were getting about $3.50 an acre for harvesting, now most of the guys are getting $18 up to $20. "I don't think there is near the money in it that there used to be,'' he continued, as he shook his head. "All along, my machinery kept getting higher. When I started, I could give $6,500 for a combine.

Now it cost you almost $300,000. I don't know how custom combiners can make it work unless they get their income somewhere else or unless they have some acreage somewhere.''

Glenn understood the need for the second income, considering wheat harvest is such a gamble anyway. The ditching business he ran during the winter, along with a few other projects he had up his sleeve, made harvesting profitable for him and his family.

"The ditching business was good to us in the winter time,'' he said. "I would get somebody to take care of it in the summer time. Moved to Liberal about 50 years ago, and so I worked and also did some plumbing and heating work. Then I set up sprinklers in the spring time. The first hydromatic sprinklers that came in the country, I helped set up the first one.''

Although Lester enjoyed what he did throughout the year, nothing compared to harvesting wheat in the summer.

"It's something that gets in your blood,'' he said, as he wiped a tear from his eye.

Lester had slowed down for a bit in the '90s until tragedy hit his family.

"I basically quit in '96. I had turned it over to my youngest son, but he got killed,'' he explained. "So I had the equipment and worlds of parts, and it gives me something to do. He had been running it a couple of years before he died in '96.''

Currently, Lester is harvesting, with the help of his family and friends, approximately 2,000 acres.

Lester's son isn't the only one who takes a couple of weeks vacation during the month of June to help him out, his mail carrier has been at his side for years every summer without fail.

"Bob Lovelace, he started with us, he takes off two weeks, too, he delivers our mail,'' Lester said. "He started with us when he was about 15 or 16, I guess.'' Lester thinks this year just might be his last harvesting.

"More than likely, it is gettin' too hard to do it and there are just too many sore places anymore,'' he said.

However, Betty feels that the yearly trip to the wheat fields has been what has kept him happy for all of these years.

"This is his way of life, and you meet the people and all the customers become friends,'' she said. "From Texas to South Dakota and then Colorado, there are friends everywhere. He did it every year.

This is good for him, these people are good for him.''

Time will only tell if Lester will call it quits after this summer's harvest. But he really didn't have time to ponder much on that as he headed back out to the round top to finish getting the combine ready to make another trip back out to the wheat fields south of the Kansas state line in Turpin, Okla.

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