Wessels Living History Farm - York Nebraska Farming in the 1940s
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Self-Propelled Combines
& the Harvest Brigade

  Nebraska Farmer ad for Harvest Brigade  
During the war, short supplies of farm machines and the raw materials to make them, combined with increased demand for food, produced some amazing advances and unique marketing schemes. In the process, an entire new industry was born.

There were several factors that all farm equipment manufacturers had to deal with during the war.

  • Steel was rationed.
  • There were limits on the number of machines manufacturers could produce.
  • Gasoline for farmers was rationed.
  • Farm workers were drafted or finding defense industry jobs, so there was a severe manpower shortage.
  • Yet, the world needed American farmers to produce much more wheat and other food products.

Just before the war, the Massey-Harris company was testing its first prototype self-propelled grain combine, the Model 20 followed shortly by the Model 21. The machine had several advantages. First, it combined several functions – hence the name "combine." It cut the wheat and separated it from the chaff. And it performed those functions in one, self-propelled unit. Combines to that point had been pulled behind horses or tractors. When Massey put the engine and drive wheels in the machine itself, the unit was more efficient with just enough power. Tractors had to have more power to perform other functions like plowing. So, when tractors pulled a pull combine, they used more fuel than an all-in-one unit.

Also, Massey-Harris claimed that their combine captured more of the wheat from the field, so there was less waste. And, they said, their machines operated faster than tractors and wouldn't destroy wheat in the turns like tractors did.

With all of these factors, Joe Tucker, sales manager for Massey-Harris USA, saw an opportunity. He developed a plan for a "Harvest Brigade" and presented it to the War Production Board. He said that if the board would give his company enough steel to produce 500 Model 21 combines over their normal quota, the company would sell those to farmers ONLY if they agreed to harvest 2,000 acres of wheat with the new machines.

The plan had an obvious patriotic ring. In addition, Tucker claimed that their technology would save half a million bushels of wheat that older machines would leave in the field. He said self-propelled combines would release 600 to 1,000 tractors to other work and save half a million gallons of fuel. And the plan would save manpower because of the combine's efficiency. Tucker even suggested that older machines could be salvaged providing much needed scrap metal.

What went unsaid is that the Harvest Brigade would probably increase Massey-Harris' name recognition and market share.

The government board bought the idea, and in 1944, 500 farmers were chosen to buy the Model 21 combines for around $2,500 each. They had to sign a contract to harvest at least 2,000 acres with the machine, but there was nothing in the contract specifying how much they could charge for the harvest. The going rate was $3.00 an acre or 25-cents a bushel.

The machines were built. Some went to California and Washington, but most were used on the Great Plains. Most operators loaded the combines on trucks and went down to Texas. From there they followed the ripening grain north. County extension agents and Massey-Harris dealers worked to bring together the custom cutters and farmers needing their grain harvested. The company's airplanes were used to survey the ripeness of the crops and availability of combines in an area. Company repair crews were dispatched. Oil companies sent extra trucks to the cutting area. For months between May and November, the cutters followed the harvest all the way up to the Canadian border.

The Brigade was a huge success. Local farmers were making enough money because of the increased demand that they could afford to pay the combiners. Each Brigade cutter averaged 2,038 acres that year. And the project generated huge publicity. Local newspapers and magazines, like the Nebraska Farmer, carried articles and ads about the Brigade. Fortune magazine ran an eight-page story on the effort. And Massey-Harris paid for a 20-minute Technicolor film about the Brigade.

In 1945, the company and the War Production Board expanded the program to include 750 new combines to be sold through local dealers.

As the war ended, Massey-Harris dominated the self-propelled combine market, and other companies were scrambling to catch up. John Deere, for instance, didn't bring out their first self-propelled combine, the Model 55, until 1947.

Custom Combining. The Brigade helped spawn a whole new industry. Before 1940, there had been a few farmers who justified the cost of a combine by taking it on the road and followed the harvest. LeRoy Gregg of Hall County, Nebraska, was one of the early "harvesters for hire." But these early pioneers harvested an insignificant percentage of the overall crop in 1940.

By 1942, there were enough custom cutters traveling the roads that the U.S. Bureau of Agricultural Economics launched a study in Nebraska. They counted the number of combines coming into the ports of entry along the southern border of the state. That year they counted 515 combines coming into Nebraska.

In 1947, they counted again and found 5,117 combines entering the state. That's a ten-fold increase in five years. An industry had developed.

While the industry continued to expand in the decades that followed, custom combining units have not completely taken over the harvest of grain in the Great Plains. Custom crews usually account for just under half of the grain harvested, but they are a significant part of the agricultural landscape.

In the equipment market, self-propelled combines did take over. In 1944, the War Production Board allowed 43,604 pull-type combines to be built and initially only 1,100 self-propelled models. The Harvest Brigade swelled that number to 1,600. After the war, other manufacturers brought out their own models and by the end of the 40s, Holly Miller Interviewmost farmers wanted the self-propelled models. There are few, if any, pull-type combines being built today.

Holly Miller still remembers his first combine. It was a big improvement over the old threshing machines, but he still had to stand behind the wheel to drive it, out in the sun and the dirt. Today, he notes, combines have enclosed cabs and computerized controls. "You'd think you were flying an airplane," he says. "It can tell you everything."

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. A partial bibliography of sources is here.


 

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