Neil Harrison is retired, but he’s not much for sitting around.
“I’d go crazy if I had to sit and watch,” the 83-year-old said this week, while piloting a combine through the Harrison family barley fields east of Powell.
Harrison has been farming for 66 years and still loves getting out to help — even if harvesting barley is itchy work. Things have changed a lot since he got his start working for his father, Earl, whose parents homesteaded the land in 1910.
“My father bought his first combine in 1953 for $5,000,” Harrison said.
They would take their combine to Montana as soon as their crops were in, working hundreds of acres each year to help pay what was considered a huge sum in the ’50s.
Harrison met his wife of 63 years, Vernice, while working construction in the oil fields. He was only 20. Ironically, that made Harrison too young to buy a beer — the end product for the barley they harvest.
Neil and Vernice had three kids, two of whom are still in farming. He’s proud of his family and the hard work that made the farm successful through the decades.
Now Neil’s son, Rick Harrison, runs the business, helped by his wife Karlene and daughters Shaleas and Karinthia.
This season, area farmers have been having a rough start to barley harvests due to frequent rains. When it rains, the fields have to dry out before farmers can harvest. If it rains too much, the soil has to dry out enough to get trucks in the field. The Harrisons have delayed harvest several times in early August. And all the while, they are worried about thunderstorms.
“Hail can ruin the crop,” Harrison said.
But the Harrison family patriarch’s concerns go well beyond current prices and weather: He’s worried about the future of farming. The price of a bushel of malt barley is currently about the same as it was decades ago. At the same time, the price of equipment has nearly tripled, Harrison said.
“Barley prices are under six bucks and a combine costs $300,000. But 20 years ago, barley went for about the same and a combine cost $100,000,” he said.
According to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates of world agricultural supply and demand, malting barley was projected to sell for an average of $5.15 a bushel and is predicted to trend up slightly through the 2019-20 harvest season.
In his long career, Harrison has seen tougher times. There were times in his younger days when all his family had on the dinner table were beans and cornbread.
“We weren’t poor poor, but my dad farmed about 80 acres and that was it,” he said.
They supplemented their dinner table with wild game. Harrison loves the taste of elk and moose. But he hasn’t hunted for a few years.
“My horse got old,” Harrison said.
He still likes to fish with Vernice, catching trout year-round at Upper and Lower Sunshine reservoirs outside Meeteetse. His family still provides wild game for the dinner table. After the barley is harvested and he gets over wearing powder every day to combat the itchy nature of the job, he’ll help harvest the family’s other crops — edible beans and corn.
“At 83, my grandpa is still going strong. I can hardly keep up with him when harvest starts,” said Shaleas Harrison, after spending the day in the field with him. “He is the first one in the field after firing up the combine,”
Harrison loves watching the corn fill up the combine, he said while showing off a great stand of corn, heavy with ears adjacent to the homestead. He said he’ll continue to help as long as he can.
“[Son] Rick does all the real work,” he said. “I just have to get in and drive.”
Harrison’s advice is simple: “Watch your spending. Don’t buy it because you want it and don’t buy it until you need it.”