After weeks of feverish activity interrupted only by the unwanted, drenching rains of late autumn, the 1984 harvest across America's troubled breadbasket is drawing to a belated close.
Here in east central Illinois, the last stands of high-yield, protein-rich hybrid corn, enduring symbol of heartland prosperity, are fast disappearing. Giant green and red combines roar and rumble through the fields, simultaneously cutting the dried stalks, shucking ears and filling hoppers, wagons, dump trucks and silos with tens of thousands of tons of golden kernels.
None too soon. Most years, the crops would be safely in the barn by October's end. But rain has kept the corn and soybeans too wet for harvesting.
For proper reaping and storage, moisture in corn must be less than 19 percent, and less than 13 percent in soybeans. Corn can be dried out by storing it in big metal silos and blowing hot air through the kernels.
Every farm has a set of these, but propane blowers increase costs.
Because of season-ending delays, many farmers are working Sundays now. Farmers must get the corn finished so they can harvest soybeans when the weather improves.
"This year's late harvest is a problem, a negative factor," said Fred Barrett, a U.S. Department of Agriculture statistician based in Springfield.
"The later the harvest, the less they're going to get," Barrett said. "The longer it sits in the field, the greater the chance that the corn stalks are going to fall over. There is greater wind damage.
"If you don't harvest soy, the pods get wet, then dry, and if that happens a few times, they eventually shatter and the beans fall on the ground."
Wind damage has taken a noticeable toll. Fallen ears of corn that combines couldn't pick up lie everywhere in the harvested fields.
One day recently, as John Ames harvested with his $60,000, self-propelled, air-conditioned combine, he had to stop repeatedly to clear harvester jaws of cornstalks that the wind had blown into jumbled tangles. Each pause meant lost time and diesel fuel.
While harvesting, Ames, 57, a lifelong farmer, fretted over reduced yields and steadily increasing costs.
Like most farmers in the area, Ames has 435 acres of a 640-acre "section" (one square mile) in corn and a much smaller planting of soybeans.
He estimated that he had spent at least $80 an acre on seed, fertilizer and herbicide last spring. Fuel, insurance and maintenance continue to climb in cost.
The average Illinois yield this year, according to statistician Barrett, is 113 bushels of corn per acre.
Locally, corn brings $2.48 a bushel, down from the boom years of the mid-1970s.
In all, the state's farmers will reap 1.2 billion bushels of corn, about 16 percent of the 1984 U.S. corn harvest. About a quarter of the harvest will be sold abroad. The bulk will be ground up for domestic livestock feed.
For some of Illinois' 98,000 farmers, it is a winning proposition. But others will go under after one more year of depressed commodities prices and high interest rates.
Carl Kieser, a 32-year-old farmer and farm implement dealer who raises pigs, says, "The demand for red meat is way down, and so soybean prices are down. People are buying fish and chicken instead."
Kieser says he knows of five farm families who have quit in Sullivant township this year, leaving about 70 farmers still active in the township.
Kieser says his once-profitable Massey-Ferguson dealership, like most farm machinery places, continues to suffer from rural America's woes. Business has been so poor that he is thinking of selling the dealership -- if he can find a buyer.
Despite these problems, there is something abidingly peaceful and restorative about life in this Midwestern countryside, where the landscape, divided more than a century ago into square-mile plots, resembles a gently rolling patchwork quilt.
It is a place of snug houses, large families, rambunctious pets and barns full of sturdy tractors and well-used pickup trucks. Winter's approach may have put a keen northern edge on the incessant prairie wind, but, unfailingly, huge farm meals still stick to the ribs.
Across this rural scene, when the harvesters shut down and tractors tug laden wagons toward shelter in distant barns, bustling industry fades to a timeless autumnal elegy.
The faintly mad, cheerful chorusing of crickets fills the void. They are but one final jump ahead of a hard, killing frost.
Beneath a sullen pewter sky, the breeze rattles the last leaves from small groves of two-century-old burr oak trees, survivors from the time before any farmer's plow bit into the prairie.
Where the harvesters have been, the land lies dark and empty, awaiting winter. And the certain promise of spring.