By Lura Robison.

Custom harvesting is a way of life for the Hoffmans; as custom harvesters they travel over 10,000 miles each summer reaping friends and building strong family bonds as they travel through the heartland.

Hoffman Harvesting began in 1972, after Perry Hoffman's high school graduation.

"My father harvested, so I really did not know another way of life. After I graduated, I purchased a few pieces of machinery from dad and that is how it all started," he says. "All the cultures we experience and the people who have become our friends throughout the years makes each journey enjoyable."

Two years later, Perry married Candice, his high school sweetheart, and Hoffman Harvesting officially became a family business.

"We were married in August and I went on the road for the first time. It took some time to get adjusted," Candice says. "I can remember walking into a grocery store down South somewhere and asking where their coffee was-no one could understand me. Now, I can walk into a grocery store in Texas and know where everything is, because I have been there so many times."

Perry and Candice's two daughters, Tara, 23, and Jada, 21, grew-up harvesting . Though they missed out on some things like playing softball in the summer, the experiences and culture they gained on the road, in their minds, beat a home-run any day.

"I have been on the road since I was a baby. Now that I'm married, I miss seeing all of our customers. We become like one big extended family," Tara Beitelspacher says. "On the harvest, we have seen so many things and became exposed to a lot of different cultures. I can relate to so many different people and know what it means to work on a team."

It is this team work and all the time spent together through harvesting that makes their family a tight-knit group.

"Our family always has been close. We have more of a friend relationship than a parent to child relationship, because this is a family business. It is not just my parents' business, it is all of ours." Jada Hoffman says. "That, and our trailer is so small we have to get along. I like to make the joke that I'm going to my bedroom-freezer room-computer room-washer and drier room."

Hoffmans begin preparing for their 10,000-mile harvest in the spring by tuning-up combines, packing their trailer and getting the crew ready to run equipment. Since 1993, the Hoffmans have extended their crew to include members from around the globe. Through the International Agricultural Exchange Association, agriculturists interested in learning about harvesting in America can join Hoffman Harvesting and work for a summer. Magnar Normann, 26, from Norway, is excited about traveling and learning about agriculture in America.

"I participated in a program like this and just lived on one farm and worked," Normann says. "Harvesting is a good way to see more of the country than just one farm. I have a wife and son at home. We also are interested to see if we want to immigrate here."

The IAEA workers bring to the crew a new perspective and opportunity for everyone to learn about another culture.

"Having someone from another country work with you for an entire summer is fun and turns into a cultural experience," Jada says. "It is amazing the diversity we have on our crew. This year, we have two guys from South Africa and another from Australia. They become like family, and it makes working more interesting when its not always the same people."

As the group travels from farm to farm, everything they need goes with them. This year, they will be running 9650 John Deere combines, a few trucks and their trailer, which has supplies for meals, showers and sleeping.

Making meals that will fill the bellies of the 12 workers sometimes can be a challenge, but Candice overcomes this by making up menus a week ahead of time. This gives her time to stop at a discount market to stock up.

"We always bring a freezer full of our beef along. Then, because we park the trailer in town, I'm usually able to stock up on the daily essentials as we run out," Candice says. "I try to give the guys three filling meals a day, with the evening meal being the largest, so they have plenty in their bellies if they have to work late into the night."

Their days start before sunrise and run late into the night, taking a break only when it rains. That doesn't mean they don't have any fun.

"We try to see the sights at each stop," says Perry. "In Colorado, we go white-water rafting. In Texas, we check out Six Flags. It breaks up the summer and makes it full of mini-vacations."

Along with seeing the sights, they catch up with old friends who have become like family throughout the years.

"We have more of a family relationship with the families we harvest for," Perry says. "We get together for fish fries and cookouts. Our kids have grown-up together. Today, I'm harvesting for some boys whose fathers I used to harvest for-makes me feel kind of old."

Moving from one state to another involves a lot of clean-up, especially now with the karnal bunt breakout in Texas. Hoffmans harvested near the area where the breakout was, but were not in the quarantined counties. Even though it slowed them down by a day, cleaning the combines was a crucial task which the Hoffmans did not take lightly.

"We spent a whole day cleaning our combines from the inside out," says Perry. "We blew and steam cleaned everything, then we were inspected and passed by the USDA. It is so important that we do our part as custom harvesters to stop the spread of this fungus."

Valuing this unique way of life helped Jada, a senior at South Dakota State University, decide what career area she would study. She hopes one day to travel internationally marketing combines.

"Getting to travel to different places and indulging in the ways of other people every summer of my life has shown me that I really do like working with people," Jada says. "After watching my dad run this business, I also know that I want to go into some form of business, hopefully involving some travel. I guess it is in my blood."

Editorial note: This will be the first in a periodic series where High Plains Journal will follow the Hoffman family through the heartland as they harvest.

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