Even with the harvest season in full swing, Don Templeton’s day starts with the cows.
His alarm clock blares at 3:30 a.m. He throws on work clothes and hops into his purple 1993 Ford Ranger for a short drive to the family farm northwest of Evansville.
About a mile away, Don’s twin brother, Rich Jr., starts his day the same way. He wakes at 3:30, dresses and drives to work in his 2001 Dodge Ram 2500. On his way, he passes standing crops waiting to be picked.
Their morning routines are short. No bacon and eggs. No newspaper and coffee. They prefer to squeeze out extra time in bed than rise for breakfast.
As Don puts it, sleep is more important than coffee.
The brothers meet on the farm. Amid the cold air and overnight darkness, they begin the first of three daily milking sessions. Sunrise is still hours away.
Milking cows is a year-round responsibility. But in the heart of fall, the Templetons must spend every available minute in the fields harvesting corn and soybeans.
For some, harvest season means nothing but an occasional tractor-induced traffic jam.
For farmers, it’s the busiest time of year, especially if, like the Templetons, they also have to milk cows.
“A lot of times I think, you know, I’m up at 4 o’clock in the morning. I’m out there doing my stuff,” Don said. “I’ve been out there for a while. I’m not sure a lot of people understand what goes into what I do every day.”
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After the early milking is finished and breakfast is over, the Templetons must prepare their equipment for the day’s harvest. The type of head attached to the combine differs for corn and soybean work. Soybeans are harvested using a wide drum with rotating blades. The corn attachment looks like a row of pointy, outstretched fingers.
Their machinery isn’t outdated, but their tractors aren’t fresh off the assembly line either. They prep the combine and do a quick maintenance check, then wait for the morning dew to dry.
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Don and his twin brother, both 48, are two of the farm’s four full-time employees. Their 74-year-old father, Rich Sr., and Rich Jr.’s 23-year-old son, Christopher, complete the workforce.
The Templetons have farmed outside Evansville for about a century. They aren’t sure when the family started farming. The farm has grown, but it’s still a midsize operation, milking 150 cows and growing about 1,000 acres of crops.
It doesn’t appear this season’s harvest will stack up to last year, when Wisconsin experienced record corn and soybean yields. Spring planting time was rainy, keeping farmers out of the fields or flooding low spots.
The Templetons lost a swath of one of their soybean fields because of oversaturated ground, though the wet spring didn’t derail this year’s crop. It might not match last season, but it will come close. Don was expecting a decrease anyway.
In areas without rain damage, the crop is strong. A corn field on County M has sandy soil, allowing water to drain easily. Here, the corn is “phenomenal,” Don said.
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The family gathers again in the late morning for a lunch spread made by Shirley, Rich Sr.’s wife. But the harvest season leaves little time for rest, and Don and Rich Sr. stay in the fields. Shirley brown bags their lunches and asks a visitor to deliver them. In Sharpie, she scrawls their names on the outside of the bags.
Rich Sr. sets his lunch on the cabin floor and nibbles on a Rice Krispies treat. He’s combining corn, which he prefers to soybeans. He doesn’t have a reason, but perhaps it’s the sound. Harvesting soybeans produces a loud, erratic noise. Corn is loud too, but it generates a repetitive rhythm. With a full stomach from lunch and the sun heating the cabin, the droning sound can lull a man to sleep.
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Everybody in the family helps bring in the harvest, but Don and Rich Sr. usually spend afternoons in the fields with Rich Jr. and Christopher in the dairy parlor. In a two-man harvest operation, Don typically sits in a grain cart at the edge of a field while his dad mans the combine.
When it fills, Rich Sr. keeps the combine rolling as Don pulls alongside. A combine auger empties corn or beans into the moving grain cart that Don then pulls to the edge of the field and empties into a semitrailer truck. He later drives the semi to a nearby grain elevator.
Most of their corn goes there, but some is ground into powder and used to feed cows. Don packs the pulverized kernels into a storage bunker, but on a windy day, the loose powder is hard to control. The dust coats his clothes and lodges in the creases of his face.
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At noon in the dairy parlor, Christopher and Rich Jr. get ready to milk cows a second time. The final milking will follow at 7 p.m., which Christopher typically handles himself. Depending on how many people are working, it usually takes two to three hours to finish each session.
In a nearby field, Rich Sr. rumbles across the ground in the combine.
Technology has changed in his seven decades in agriculture. Self-driving tractors, such as the one his sons use to plant, are still a novelty to him.
“You see how straight the rows are? … Being as old as I am, I feel that they have taken a lot of the—you probably think I’m crazy—but what I considered sport or fun out of farming,” he said. “I always prided myself on being able to mow straight, plant straight, stuff like that, that today they leave up to the satellites.
“When I get in the tractor, I like to have a throttle, shift lever, clutch. Now, you’ve got nothing but buttons.”
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Christopher is part of the farm’s fifth generation. Economic and demographic changes have transformed agriculture in that time, forcing farms to either expand or specialize in a niche area.
A recent surplus of milk and grain has made it hard for midsize farm families to thrive. It’s driven commodity prices down and hindered farmers from making any significant upgrades.
The Templetons don’t think they would ever lose the farm, even if the market cratered. But the thought of someday being forced to cut the dairy operation often crosses Christopher’s mind, he said.
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A high-pitched beeping inside the combine cabin interrupts the soybean harvest. Rich Sr. pauses the machine and looks at the control panel. He presses some buttons and the noise stops. He returns to his work, rolling over the bean fields and leaving obliterated stalks in his wake.
A few minutes later, the noise returns. Rich Sr. goes through the same troubleshooting routine to fix the problem. But the beeping keeps coming back. What exactly is the issue?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I just push buttons hoping to solve the problem.”
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About five years ago, the family considered building a milk processing plant and using it to make ice cream. It would have further diversified their operation to help withstand economic slumps.
They wouldn’t have needed to add more cows to make it work. And they could have hired more members of Christopher’s generation full-time. Don and Rich Jr. said most of their kids would be interested in coming back if they could.
But they couldn’t pull the trigger.
They’re comfortable making financial projections on milk and grain commodities. Trying to secure a market share with an ice cream product unknown to consumers was too much of a risk.
They still have the plans, though.
“Maybe we’ll revisit that thing another time just because it might make our operation more profitable,” Don said. “We need to find a way to become more profitable through a different avenue, whether it’s processing milk or growing some kind of niche crop. Tons of people are doing it. We might just need to figure out what our thing is.”
The processing plant might never materialize, but it shows what a farm family might consider as normal crop and dairy revenues get tighter.
For now, they’re happy with their current size. It would be great to support more jobs for family members, but hiring multiple outside workers to support an expansion project isn’t something they’re interested in doing, Rich Jr. said.
“We don’t make a lot of money, but it’s not just about that. It’s not for me,” Rich Jr. said. “I do what I do because I love it. It’s not because I get paid a lot.”
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By mid-afternoon, Don has made multiple trips with the semi to the grain elevator to dump corn. During the harvest peak, the line can stack 10 trucks deep. Farmers often get out and chat while waiting for the line to inch forward. The camaraderie extends to the road; farmers wave as they drive past each other.
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Being passionate about agriculture is a must. Farming is hard work, with long hours and low pay. It doesn’t leave much time for outside interests. Everyone gets a separate week of vacation each year, usually opting for somewhere warm in the dead of winter. But by the end of that week, they’re eager to resume the farm routine, Don said.
Contrary to some people his age, Christopher finds enjoyment in work. His free time is rarely extravagant, preferring to spend time with his fiancée or friends.
“My hobbies are here,” he said. “This is what I like to do the most.”
Christopher likes his work routine. The brothers stick to the same breakfast each day. But one of the most appealing parts about farming is getting to do something different, Don said.
No day follows the same pattern. Milking happens at regular times, but odd jobs fill the hours between. The Templetons always have something to do, never quite reaching the end of their to-do list.
“Even when you have a bad day or a hard day or whatever, it’s still what I want to do every day,” Rich Jr. said. “I’m not looking to do something different. It’s what we live for and what we do.
“My dad always says, he’s never had a bad day or never a day where he didn’t enjoy what he did. There are days where I don’t enjoy some of the things I’m doing, but I’ve never had a day where I didn’t want to come the next day.”
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The sun is falling fast. But the day is far from over. Rich Sr. is still in the combine, and Don is making deliveries. Christopher must complete the evening milking session. Rich Jr. will join his dad and brother in the fields.
When the sun sets, they’ll flip on their machinery lights and keep going. The Templetons will continue to deliver crop loads until the grain elevator closes at 7 p.m. And they’ll run the combine a little longer and fill the semi one last time so it’s ready to deliver a full load the next morning.
Then the family will return home, wake before dawn and get back to work.