An epic story of the American wheat harvest, the politics of food, and the culture of the Great Plains
For over one hundred years, the Mockett family has owned a seven-thousand-acre wheat farm in the panhandle of Nebraska, where Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s father was raised. Mockett, who grew up in bohemian Carmel, California, with her father and her Japanese mother, knew little about farming when she inherited this land
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In American Harvest, Mockett accompanies a group of evangelical Christian wheat harvesters through the heartland at the invitation of Eric Wolgemuth, the conservative farmer who has cut her family’s fields for decades. As Mockett follows Wolgemuth’s crew on the trail of ripening wheat from Texas to Idaho, they contemplate what Wolgemuth refers to as “the divide,” inadvertently peeling back layers of the American story to expose its contradictions and unhealed wounds. She joins the crew in the fields, attends church, and struggles to adapt to the rhythms of rural life, all the while continually reminded of her own status as a person who signals “not white,” but who people she encounters can’t quite categorize.
American Harvest is an extraordinary evocation of the land and a thoughtful exploration of ingrained beliefs, from evangelical skepticism of evolution to cosmopolitan assumptions about food production and farming. With exquisite lyricism and humanity, this astonishing book attempts to reconcile competing versions of our national story.
AMERICAN HARVEST JOURNEY
About fifty percent of grain produced in the United States is harvested each year by “custom harvesters.” These are teams of men and a few women who cross the country, following the wheat as it ripens. The earliest fields are usually located in Texas, and ripen in early May. Very generally, wheat will ripen northward, at twenty miles a day. In American Harvest, the author, Marie Mockett, crosses Great Plains with a custom crew, beginning Texas, and then working north through Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska and then through Wyoming to Idaho.
As Mockett travels, she realizes that she is crossing trails first laid down in a young America. In Texas and Oklahoma, the crew comes across the old Cattle Runs, which cowboys followed as they drove cows from Texas up to the Union Pacific Railway, where the animals could be sent East for consumption. The classic Larry McMurtry novel, “Lonesome Dove,” is set against the backdrop of the Cattle Runs. In Nebraska, Mockett comes across the Oregon and Mormon Trails, which she and the crew mirror as they push west to Idaho, and encounter descendants of Mormon settlers. Traveling these routes brings Mockett face to face with the often uncomfortable origins of the American story, and prompts her to wonder how the twin stories of America can ever be reconciled.
AMERICAN HARVEST PEOPLE
In American Harvest, Eric Wolgemuth is a fifty seven year old farmer and custom harvester from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A devout Christian, Eric shares his knowledge of the Great Plains and her people, with Marie, along with his understanding of Jesus and the Christian faith. A thoughtful, practical, deeply compassionate man, Eric strives to understand Marie’s more secular, cosmopolitan and urban world in return.
Juston is the twenty-three year old son of Eric. The only member of the crew who is attending a four year college, Juston often feels out of place on the crew of young farmers who are comfortable with machinery and heavy equipment. Juston is a sensitive thinker and a reader of books, and has had a significant crisis of faith, after an early attempt at becoming a pastor. He shares his thoughts on what ails the modern American evangelical church with Marie, thus helping to demystify a culture which otherwise feels alien to her.
Photo credit by Sumaya Agha
THE MOCKETT FAMILY
The Mocketts have owned their family farm for over 100 years. Great grandfather, Percy Mockett, was born in London in 1874 and came to the United States with his family in the late 19th century, crossing the Atlantic in a boat that took 3-4 months. Though poor, the family focused on education. When Percy contracted tuberculosis he went west to Denver, for the dry air. While there, he became a doctor, and moved to Kimball, Nebraska, to be both the town doctor and the Union Pacific doctor. He drove his horse and buggy from homestead to homestead treating sick farmers and was famous for staying awake for three weeks straight during the 1918 flu epidemic. He had two children, including Paul, Marie Mockett’s grandfather.
The Markleys came to the United States from Germany in the 18th century, first settling in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania before heading to the Indiana and Michigan border, where great grandfather Melvin, was born in 1862. He and his family then came to Nebraska in 1885 and in 1893 received 160 acres of Nebraskan land from the US government via the Homestead Act. Melvin became the town dentist. (9) He had three children including Marie’s grandmother, Luella.
When Paul and Luella married—the son of the town doctor and daughter of the town dentist—the two wealthiest families in town were united. They continued to make farming a part of their activities, though not the sole professional focus. At its peak, the farm was 7000 acres. The Mocketts alternate the fields planted each year, which means that in any harvest season, they need to cut around 3,000 acres. Since the 50s, in addition to employing farmers who live in Kimball to plant and maintain the fields, the Mocketts have hired “custom harvesters,” crews of men who follow the wheat belt as it begins to ripen, first in Texas in May, and on up to Montana and Idaho in September.