Archive for Sunday, June 26, 2005

Kansas couple still going strong after 54 years of farming together

June 26, 2005

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— Jim and Clea Lee's first wheat harvest was an unforgettable one - for all the wrong reasons.

It was 1951. The young couple had been married just a few years. Clea quit her job as a phone operator so Jim could follow his dream of farming, just like his dad did.

The couple moved into what Clea called "a shack," but they were happy, Clea said, and Jim was farming.

The weather didn't cooperate that year. There was a lot of rain, and it flooded the fields.

"We were out in the fields still trying to cut in September," said Jim, 79, Tescott. "That's the year I shoulda quit."

More than five decades after that first harvest, Jim was back in the wheat fields. He fought a little bit of mud as he made his way to the combine.

He wasn't real sure how this year's crop was going to be.

And that's fine, he said. He learned a long time ago you can't spend all your time worrying about that. You just get in the field and cut the wheat.

"I take the days as they come and go," Jim said.

Jim Lee runs his combine near an abandoned school house on the Lincoln-Ottawa County line June 18 near Tescott.

Jim Lee runs his combine near an abandoned school house on the Lincoln-Ottawa County line June 18 near Tescott.

Clea said she's not surprised her husband is still farming and still working in the fields.

It's what he loves to do, she said.

Still in charge

Since a light stroke on New Year's Day, he requires the assistance of a cane to help him get around.

The wheat had long been planted when he suffered the stroke, so she knew that wasn't going to stop him.

"When you see his obituary in the paper, you'll know he quit farming," she said.

Janie Clemow, Overland Park, said she asks her dad every year if this is going to be the last harvest.

"He always says, 'No,'" Clemow said. "I don't anticipate he'll ever quit."

He doesn't do quite as much as he used to. In his younger years, he did all the light repairs on equipment himself. Now, he has some help with that and other manual labor chores, Clea said.

Jim Lee climbs onto his combine June 18.

Jim Lee climbs onto his combine June 18.

"As you get older, there is less you are able to do," Jim said, in his matter-of-fact way. "I'd rather be doing it than not be able to."

Larry Michael, Tescott, is Jim's "main man" now, Clea said.

Michael has been working with Jim for nearly 20 years and makes it possible for the Lees to keep farming, Clea said.

"He's a big help," she said.

Jim's definitely in charge of the operation, though.

'Make him happy'

That was evident on a recent Saturday as the crew removed the head from one of the combines, loaded it on a trailer and prepared to move to another field.

A couple of the men debated whether to strap the head to the trailer for the short trip down the road. In the end, the head was strapped down.

"It will make him happy," Michael said, referring to Jim, who was already in the field cutting.

In good times and bad

Clea said in all their years of farming they've seen good wheat and bad and every variety in between.

 Jim Lee talks with Grant Schroeder of Beverly from the cab of his combine.

Jim Lee talks with Grant Schroeder of Beverly from the cab of his combine.

They've been through a few floods, plenty of dry times and some years that were as perfect as you could hope for.

Both said they don't know exactly what to expect this year.

The Lee family said the weather the past week has been about as good as you could ask for.

It was warm enough that the fields were pretty dry and workable, but not hot enough that you couldn't stand to be outside.

"There have been times we had a hard time finding any shady, cooler spot to feed them," Clea said. "I can even remember a time we were out here cutting and about froze to death."

That's one of the adventures of being a farmer and a farmer's wife, she said.

She talks about her husband continuing to work so hard. But he's not the only one who hasn't called it quits.

She's 'the boss'

Clea still brings two meals a day out to her husband and the crew helping him.

Clea Lee, 77, walks in a cut wheat field as her husband's crew prepares to move equipment to another field. This year marks the couple's 54th harvest.

Clea Lee, 77, walks in a cut wheat field as her husband's crew prepares to move equipment to another field. This year marks the couple's 54th harvest.

"That's basically a full-time job," Clea said.

She usually starts early in the morning preparing meals of chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, vegetables, homemade pie and ice cream.

She, too, has a little assistance these days, though.

Her daughters come to town to help her take care of the men working in the field all day.

"She likes to be the boss," Jim laughs. "She can't sit still for five minutes."

When she did find a shady spot to sit down, one of her feet was swaying and wiggling the whole time.

"I've got to be doing something all the time," Clea said. "It's rare for us to be sitting here relaxing."

She said she's not real sure if she runs the farm the way everyone else does, and then adds that she thinks she might be the "worst farm wife around."

Jim smiles when he hears this second-hand later in the day.

"She's the best I know of," he said of his wife. "She helps keep us running."

She'll continue to do so, as long as her husband continues to take charge of the farm, she said. And that could be awhile.

"Sure, I've thought about retirement, but I probably won't, ever," Jim said. "I've got nothing else to do. I don't have any hobbies or anything. I farm. That's what I do."

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