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Gary Braun has been up since 6 a.m. making the rounds of his fields south of Ipswich, S.D., getting ready for the soybean harvest. Now, sitting 10 feet above the ground in the cab of his green John Deere combine, he watches in air-conditioned comfort as the metal maw cuts a swath through the dry stalks. Chaff shoots out the back as yellow soybeans start piling up in the hopper, visible through the combine’s rear window. Wind ripples though the rows of amber, and dollar signs are dancing in Gary’s head when a cylinder monitor starts making an annoying sound: beep, beep, beep.

Gary tries to ignore it. He glances across his field to another combine, which is idled by monitor problems. But the monitor is insistent. Beep, beep, beep. Cutting the engine, he jumps down to look under the green hood just as son Russ, a CPA turned farmer, arrives with lunch. While they tinker with belts and electronics, I enjoy the distant view of a white farmhouse, complete with an American flag (very picture-book pretty), and eat inside the cab: two slabs of pork on white bread, a mound of mashed potatoes, everything bathed in gravy.

Gary climbs into the cab repeatedly to restart the engine, but he keeps getting the same beep, beep, beep. “It’s frustrating to sit while the sun shines,” he says, apologizing for the delay (while calculating privately whether any beans will get to the grain elevator today). Finally the other combine is fixed, so he hops aboard and takes off down a new row of soybeans. He’s behind schedule, intent on catching up, conscious of his razor-thin profit. I never see him eat his lunch.

My family trips to South Dakota always focused on Mount Rushmore or the Crazy Horse Memorial (world’s largest mountain carving, six decades in the making!), but this time I wanted to see a living American icon: the American farmer. Agricultural exports are forecasted to be more than $107 billion this year (up from $96 billion in 2009), which is a rare bright spot in the economy. So I head east across South Dakota to Bowdle, where my great-grandfather was mayor in the late 1800s, and stop to visit with some of the local farmers. Their ancestors fled Germany and came to the Dakotas to farm and seek their fortune around the same time.

Farming should be a lot easier these days, what with superseeds and superinsecticides. North of Bowdle, Art Eisenbeisz is handing off to son Derek, one of the new generation who work hard but like their “toys.” Derek’s latest is a new John Deere 9870 STS combine, the biggest on the market, worth somewhere around $300,000. “You could put a TV in here and watch your soaps!” he jokes as the combine drives itself down a row of soybeans while he sits with his hands in his lap. The combine, which practically shaves the ground, won’t harvest in a rocky area, however. Which is why Derek’s daughter Cassy — the next generation — shows up for dinner late, exhausted from a day of pulling rocks from the field. (And did I mention the unpredictable weather? The stumbling of the superseeds? The declining effectiveness of pesticides? The gyrating markets? And the robber barons snatching up land at any price? All dinner-table conversation.) So much for farming getting easier.

The next day, I drive south, where Evan Haar is bringing in soybeans on 160 acres of land that my family has owned since the 1930s. “Been up here eight days, suppers and dinners,” says a clearly tired Evan as I jump into the buddy seat of his International Harvester tractor just after he’s finished his lunch on the run. After a requisite period of moaning about the weather, he explains why you should care about him and his rows of corn and wheat, much less those boring soybeans. The soybean harvest has set records this year.

“You eat Cheerios or Wheaties?” Evan asks me. “You eat our grain. You eat ham, steak, pork or chicken? Well, it was probably raised on our feed.” That turkey you’re going to eat this Christmas? Fattened on soybean meal. It’s the world’s primary source of protein, consumed not only by you but also possibly by your pet and by that piece of farm-raised fish you may be thinking of having for dinner.

Corporate farming may be winning out. But at stop after stop, I found the next generation joining their fathers in the field: Derek and Cassy taking over from Derek’s dad, Art; Russ and Gary working side by side; Rick Rohrbach helping out his father, Melvin; and, on my last stop, fourth-generation farmer Andy Weisser following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather. All of them are descendants of German immigrants.

“My goal is to farm 7,000 acres,” says Andy, while taking a break from fixing his busted combine. Just then, a text message pings on his phone with the closing price of soybeans. “Up 16 cents!” squeals Andy. Then he nods back to the noncooperative combine and laughs. “That’s great — if I had beans to sell today.” So, when you sit down to Christmas dinner this year, give thanks to these guys and their wives and kids who work through downpours and pests and problems with pesky machinery to put that soy-fed turkey on your table. Amen.

Tell Cathy what you think! You can reach her at buckleup.aapubs@gmail.com.