Lind Combine Derby
Excerpted from the upcoming film, Amber Waves & Checkered Flags, directed by
Sue Arbuthnot and Richard Wilhelm.
In early June, the vast, swaths of ripening wheat stretching between Ritzville and Spokane soothe the senses with agrarian beauty—but not for long.
On the second Saturday of each June, the tiny town of Lind, Wash. (pop. 500) explodes with jarring sound, vibrant color, and steel-crushing action—as obsolete wheat harvesting combines converge from around the region to compete in an offbeat sporting event now recognized around the world. Over two decades in the running, the Lind Combine Demolition Derby, sponsored by the town’s Lions Club, generates critical funding for many local amenities. With America’s family farms in jeopardy due to global economics, corporate farming, and political uncertainty, this quirky contest offers an ingenious—and often hilarious—hand of support to one local community.
Founded by the late Bill Loomis of Loomis Truck & Tractor as a way to squeeze new purpose out of these downtrodden field hulks, the Combine Derby has since caught the imagination of participants and spectators alike:
Bill Loomis—As soon as you get in there and make your first hit—why, the adrenaline is running and it’s just plum fun and exciting—and you never know when somebody’s going to sneak up from behind and hit you. You’re worried about hitting another guy and he’ll sneak up and hit you. And boom! Jerry Knodel
—I think a key is to not get trapped and not get bogged down by two or three combines that pinch you in, and then hammer away at you—to stay aloof and do your own hitting and then get away.Reuben Knodel—I talked to some of the older farmers today. They said, “Man, for years I’ve been trying to keep these things running and fixing ‘em up, and now they’re just taking ‘em and breaking ‘em to pieces, and running the wheels off of ‘em!”
Lindsay—It’s really exciting watching them bash into each other, because you see pieces fly, and see how ruined they get. It’s really cool.
Chris Olson—You get 10 or 12 people out in the back, pounding and cutting, and people picking up the machine, changing tires and picking up the header and getting that reattached, and other people working on the back end, putting brace metal in just to keep it running.
Jerry Knodel—I’ve never seen my kids get excited about an event locally as the Combine Derby. I mean, it’s been something that’s been in their dreams for as long as the derby’s been going. And now, to see them going after this…ah, man, it’s just huge.
The team of “JAWS,” a 1980’s vintage John Deere 8820 sidehill combine, headed by Josh Knodel and Matt Miller, has emerged as the repeat champion over the last few years. Young farmers and best friends since childhood, Josh and Matt gladly carry on the town’s tradition:
Josh—We’ve actually been driving combines since we were probably 10 years old. And so, now it’s time to have fun with them. All these years we’ve been taught to take it easy and be careful with them, but now we get to go out here and crash ‘em up.
Matt—We’ve always wanted to be in the derby. Ever since we were little, we always had these old combines picked out that we were going to have. Then, I started wrecking out combines and selling the parts. I buy used combines at auction sales, or from dealers. I take all the parts off and sell them to other farmers that need them. That’s how we got our derby combine.
Josh and Matt, as so many in this region, know how hard it is to keep the family farm and small towns afloat:
Josh Knodel—We live in a community of about 500 people, and our sports program, our schools, are suffering. Instead of having 18 people try out for the basketball team we’re lucky if we have seven or eight, which isn’t enough to field your own team.
—Farms, and combines are just getting a lot bigger, and it takes fewer people to run a farm. So if you’ve got a small farm, it only takes one or two guys to man it.
Ruben Knodel (Josh’s grandfather)—I can still remember when we had horses on the place. We didn’t even have a tractor at that time. And life was so simple. We had some cows and chickens and pigs, and we were kind of self-sufficient. In 1948, my dad bought a new combine, John Deere 36B for $4,800. Today, the cost of a combine is more like about $250-$280,000.
Matt Miller—It’d be very difficult to start your own farm if you were just a young guy wanting to buy some land. It’d be tough.The only way you could do it is if your dad had a farm, or someone has a farm for sale.
Ruben Knodel—Yeah farming is stressful. I’d say there’s a lot of things going on that many city people have no idea of. They say yeah you farm two days a week or three and then you take off and you go golfing, or fishing. Well, I must admit that I did love the fishing when I was younger! We did do a lot of fishing.
(Josh’s dad)—My father retired in 1990, and I’ve been farming pretty much on my own here with the help of my son Josh and my two younger sons, Nathan and Brandon. And we’re here about eight miles east of Lind in about 40 bushel per acre, dry land farming. This is strictly a summer-fallow rotation, and the reason we do that is to conserve our moisture for the next crop, trying to get a crop to grow.
We’ve raised good wheat, and it can be a very good place to raise a crop, but sometimes a very tough place to raise a crop.
Keith Williams—I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve heard ag economists predict that with the depletion of oil reserves that there’s going to be a resurgence of the small farm, more diversified farming. And more neighborhood markets. Others say, “Well, we’re just going to move to a different technology.” We might move to ethanol, or we might move to some other fuel at that point. I wish we knew.
Jerry Knodel—I think you have to be an optimist when you are a farmer. Negativity is too much a part of everybody’s life. In order to do this stressful business you’d better be optimistic, and you better enjoy what you do or else you have no business being here.
Keith Williams—A lot of them are turning to tourism, agricultural tourism. You see signs along the highways now, “Corn, wheat…” identifying the crops. You’ll have festivals or fairs. The combine derby is a perfect example. “Come to our party, and learn a little bit about us at the same time.” You’re inviting people to come, they spend the dollars, they may stay in the local hotel, they may come back and live five years later. And that’s what it’s all about.
As the afternoon heats up, Josh and Matt ready JAWS for another try at the title. Sure, they’d love to win again, but as with all the contenders, the main goal is to have a great time.
Nancy Miller(Matt’s Mom)—They’re very excited. Two days ago, I was out in the yard, and I hear JAWS rev up, and it’s going out in the field to be tested. And I’m watching the boys. Josh is sitting in the front, and Matt is in the driver’s seat. And they start popping these awesome wheelies and doing these brodies, and my heart’s just up in my throat, going “Oh, my gosh!” And thinking, Now it’s my son out there, doing all this stuff!”
Josh—One thing that we are going to try is we hit somebody, that we hit them square with our header and try not to hit them at an angle, ‘cause that puts stress upon our header. And of course we’re going to be going for the back ends on the smaller combines, and try and get them in the dirt. On the bigger combines we’re just going to shoot for the tires, because that’s our weak spot and they know it, and we know that’s their weak spot too. So, we’ve got to try and get the upper hand as much as we can.
After the last heat is over and the winner announced, the combines are hauled out of the arena for another year. As farm families prepare for harvest, hopes are high for a little more rain and a good harvest yield.
Alex McGregor—I think the value of events like the Derby is that it brings people to agriculture, gives them a flavor of it. I don’t really care whose combine is successful, but I think the process of helping people understand what agriculture is about is very important.
For information about Amber Waves film premier, please visit:www.hareinthegate.com/amberwaves.html and Facebook/
The Lind Combine Demolition Derby is June 11, 2011, please visit: www.lindwa.com
Hare in the Gate Productions, LLC, a Portland-based film company, explores stories about community, the arts, and culture
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