Inside Job: combine harvesting

Frank Hersey is trying every job in Beijing. This month: harvesting rice

After waiting till the dew had dried from the crops, a little after 7am, the workers head to the rice paddies. Some on combine harvesters, some driving tractors pulling trailers, others – like me – on foot, seeing
as I can’t drive a tractor and definitely not a combine harvester. Yet.

It’s harvest time at an organic rice farm in Jilin province in the northeast. Unlike when I visited previously for summertime weeding when my colleagues had all been ladies, today they’re all men, machines and cigarettes.

After watching from the edge for a while, I’m told that Zhao Yongfeng is the most patient and will be taking me for a spin on his brand new, caterpillar-tracked Jiubaotian brand combine harvester.

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The driving seat is out in the open and the other drivers actually stand to get a better view of the rotor blades. So that I don’t end up going into the rotors, I sit down and Mr Zhao stands behind me. He leans over and puts my hands on his knobs.

Off we go. He shows me how to go forward and yes, you can totally bunny hop a combine harvester. Mr Zhao has to hold on. With me driving, we approach the crop at approximately the same speed it is growing. When we get to it, Mr Zhao pulls my hand down on the lever that lowers the rotors and whack whack whack, we’re harvesting, with bits of straw blasting into our faces.

At the end of the section, we lift the rotors as you don’t just drive around with them down, silly. I was expecting to end there, but no. Mr Zhao is steering outwards, then reverses back so we’re 90 degrees to where we were, and heading back up the other side.

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Now I have full control of direction, speed and the rotor positions. It makes driving a car feel so two-dimensional.

A man is going round on foot picking out every missed stalk with a scythe. There are plenty. He’s wearing a bright red China Oil uniform, laid off from the local oil industry as the oil price dropped.

At one point we nearly miss a plant, but Mr Zhao grabs the controls and lurches us back over – disaster averted.

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Spiralling inwards around the paddy we get closer to the centre. It’s thick, black mud with some standing water in the middle. It’s already cold early in the morning and soon everything will be frozen till March.

I execute a particularly sharp turn and we get stuck. Mr Zhao gets all hands on from behind and sends us off in the wrong direction, but I realise it’s just because the caterpillar tracks are logged. Later I learn how to reverse back over my tracks to squeeze the water out of an area to then head forwards again with more grip.

Other than the din of machine, it’s somehow rather peaceful out in the middle of the field. Until I lurch us so hard I nearly throw Zhao out of the cab and into the blades, that is. Fortunately, I finish the section more calmly.

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The trailer I’m meant to empty the rice into is now long gone down the paddy, so I pull us over to the edge and clamber down, shouting at everyone till they tell me I’ve been deafened by the machine.

According to Mr Zhao, who quickly lights a cigarette, I’d done well, but was wasting too much fuel by reversing too far – and too fast.

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