crop check not quite harvest time but getting close

The morning air was stunningly clear.

Not matter what direction I looked I could see almost to the curve of the earth, every cow, every farm house, every fence line crisp and sharp. The sky above was free of clouds with just a few scatted puffballs on the northern horizon.

From the rise of land northeast of Blackie I could see all the way to Brant, the lone grain elevator’s tall, green flank catching the morning sun. A little further up the road I found the three elevators at Mossleigh and the lone green wooden edifice at Herronton equally sidelit and clear.

I’d left the city just after sunrise to head out this way to check on the crops. Spring was kind this year, the snow melted off early and the rain sufficient to give the fields of barley, wheat, canola, corn and peas a good start. Now, with most of the growing season done, I wanted to see how they were holding up.

This wasn’t my first kick at this particular can. I’d headed out a few days before on the same mission, waiting until late in the afternoon to roll east into the croplands. The air was still hazed with forest fire smoke but I figured it would give the afternoon light a silky glow. I headed down toward Vulcan and over toward Milo to take advantage of the topography, hoping that the setting sun would flood the fields with an amber glow.

Turned out I was right and it was absolutely lovely. Except for one thing. The warmth of the day and the lack of wind combined with moisture rising from the fields in the evening calm to pull the smoke closer to the ground. The light was stunning alright but there wasn’t much of it. The sun was still a hand’s-width above the horizon when it turned into a big, red ball. And then it disappeared entirely.

I tried again the next day and headed out toward Cluny. Much less smoke but I left way too late in the day. Still, though, I had enough time to find a moose on the edge of a bright canola field - always surprised to see moose out on the prairie - and lovely fields of ripening wheat.

The barley crops are thick and heavy-headed and starting to lodge in places - fall over from their own weight - and I launched my little copter to see what they looked like from above.

Pretty cool, as it turns out. One of the patches looked like the profile of a whitetail doe.

But due to my tardiness in getting started, I had only about an hour of light to play with. It was gorgeous light, though, still a little smoke-tinged, and as I watched the sun drop to the horizon sitting by the old swimming canal north of Gleichen, it turned the sky into a watercolour painting.

Two days later, no smoke at all.

The air was as crisp and clear as a winter day - and nearly as cold, too, for some reason - and the light had an edge to it that sharpened everything it touched. Stopping by a barley field east of Blackie, I squatted down in the dirt for a low angle and through my lens I could see every backlit serration on the barley beards, every tiny droplet of dew.

Launching my copter over a canola field, every individual blossom was visible. Flying above a coulee that bisected a field south of Mossleigh, I could see clearly all the way to Hammer Hill, 30km away, and beyond that to the thin line of cloud on the northern horizon. Three days before I’d have been lucky to see to the end of the field.

And looked like the day was going to stay that way. Even though the weather app on my phone said it was only 6C, the sunshine made the day look perfectly summery. And since it was barely 7 a.m., I had lots of time to check the crops.

Now I ain’t hardly an expert on these sorts of things but I grew up around farming and grain growing - Father ran elevators in Crossfield, Gleichen and Milk River, among other places - so I can basically tell whether a stand of barley or wheat looks healthy or not. And I can look at a field and see where it’s starting to dry out or where the seed drill missed a row.

But I could never guess what the yield of a barley field would be or estimate the gluten content of a handful of wheat by chewing it like Father could. But what I can tell you is whether a field looks good through a camera lens.

And children, the fields are definitely looking good.

The wheat and barley photographed just fine and the canola, those fields that are still in full flower, contrasted nicely with all those yellow blossoms and blue skies. The further south and east I went, the riper the wheat fields became, the varying shades of brown spreading across the plains like a cinnamon and bronze carpet.

Barley and oats lay in windrows in a lot of places, most of it cut early to be tumbled into round bales for cattle feed, some of it to be chopped for silage. Alfalfa spread out purple and blue. From the air down by Barons I could see the various crops spread out like a quilt with the sun glinting off Keho Lake in the distance.

Afternoon pushed on into evening as I passed fields of peas and canola, cover crops of corn and shorn fields of alfalfa. Grasshoppers and partridge mixed among the last little blue blossoms of flax. The deer were starting to come out now and they walked along the field edges, velvet-covered antlers on the bucks, skittish fawns with the does. Sunflowers raised their yellow faces beside the roads. And then, east of Milo, I came across a crop I didn’t recognize at all.

It was spread out in a blanket of bright yellow and green, low plants that hugged the ground. From the air, it made a nice pattern. But I had no idea what it was so I walked over for a closer look. Lentils, maybe? I’m just not sure.

Clouds had started to move in now but the air was still clear. The westering sun cast their shadows across the fields and backlit the heads of barley and wheat. I passed an owl perched in an old wooden granary next to a pair of new steel ones. Another month or so from now, they’ll be full.

The sun pushed west and glinted off the Bow and broke into miniature rainbows in the spray from centre-pivots as it skimmed across the fields. Flocks of blackbirds flew low and spread out as they landed to hunt for bugs. Dust hung in the still air as a swather ate its way along a barley field.

The countryside was beautiful in the evening light.

And the crops all looked just fine.

MIKE DREW ON THE ROAD

JULY 24, 2017

Photographed with the Canon EOS M5, the Canon 7D Mark II, with the Canon 70-300, the Sigma 150-600C and the DJI Phantom 4 Pro.

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