Fixing the Combine: Part 1

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Last weekend was entirely dedicated to repairing the combine. We (my housemate, Natalie, fellow equipment co-op member, Tristan, and I) started early Saturday morning with a pancake breakfast made from local grains. Yeah yeah, surprise, surprise. Then, we inspected the combine from the top, down and made a to-do list for the weekend and for what we could postpone for post-harvest.

To-Do List

Replace fluids, belts, filters. While these are reasonable upgrades for a used machine, the combine obviously hadn’t been maintained because it had original filters and belts. For a 1984 machine, those originals should’ve been long gone. The alternator also made a discomforting clicking noise. Also, everything needed to be cleaned.

The critical questions:

  1. Are the header adjustments leaking hydraulic fluid?
  2. Where are the marks for aligning gears when replacing the timing belt?
  3. Why doesn’t the machine thresh?

I know, that last one is a double-take. Why buy a combine that doesn’t thresh? Then it’s not combining anything, it’s just cutting! The person I bought it from said that he wasn’t getting full threshes. Was it the concave? No, we could tell it closes. Was it the cylinder speed? The adjustment mechanism wasn’t moving, so that was something to investigate. We felt confident that we could fix it. This weekend would test our self-assurance.

  1. Are the header adjustments leaking hydraulic fluid? Thanks to Natalie, the housing, gears, hydraulic compartment, conveyer belt, and the whole machine received a deep cleaning. This way we could see if hydraulic fluid was leaking, which, if it was, would be bad for many reasons including getting on the grains going up the conveyer belt. It turns out the bolts needed tightening and all was fine.

2. Where are the marks for aligning gears when replacing the timing belt? The timing belt is essential for ensuring the engine receives fuel at the right time. If you own a car, you know that if the timing belt goes then your whole engine is ruined. The timing belt was ripping, so we decided to proactively replace it. Once the belt is off, all the gears affected by the timing belt need to be realigned. Typically marks on a stationary part of the engine and the rotating part indicate what the starting position is. We could not find the alignment for one part. In fact, we didn’t find it until Sunday! It was in an non-intuitive place, behind a gear!

From the outside. It’s behind the top, left pulley
Upon closer inspection behind that top, right pulley (top left in previous photo)

3. Why doesn’t the machine thresh? This is the essential question. I’m going to cut through the drama I endured and tell you that someone had readjusted the shiv that enables cylinder speed adjustment. (Cylinder speed determines how fast, and therefore how much energy, grain heads are propelled against a fixed part to shatter the head and release the grains. This is how you get clean grain, rather than a bunch of spikey grain heads.) The shiv is the junction between one plane of motion and another so you can crank something around vertically that moves something else that’s horizontal. The shiv was cross-threaded such that the axel inside has been stripped and the metal worn away. This means two problems: can’t turn the adjustment and the axel is wobbly.

The difficulty with adjusting the cross-threaded shiv was unlocking them. Imagine closing a jar and you find that it’s crooked. It’s usually hard to undo. Imagine that but with more threads and fragile parts. Specifically, soft bronze.

Cross threaded and crooked shiv
Gap between inside and outside

We decided to put the steel part in a vice and try to twist off the bronze. The bronze was obviously eaten away and battered, so we wanted to be sensitive and not crush its soft threads. I thought of putting a thick towel between it and oil can grips. It turned out that one of the oil can grips had teeth that perfectly matched the threading!!!


We managed to get the gears apart and holy moly did I feel fabulous! So much so that I had a fashion photo shoot with the bronze gear.


What a relief and accomplishment! After all that, Natalie and I drove to Dillon Beach and sat in the sand. There are few things more satisfying to me than problem solving, but decompressing at a beautiful Pacific coast beach is up there. Using her observant, field scientist skills, Natalie noticed dolphins by the shore! We watched them peek their dorsal fins between waves as the sun set.

Food for Fungi

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A neighbor recently offered old textbooks for people to pick up. I responded saying that I’d like the oldest ones with non-toxic ink and paper so I can use them as a medium for mushrooms. This sparked a new set of neighborly connections with people who also grow mushrooms. One is a post-doctoral student at UC Davis who specializes in mycelium (mushrooms). We shared an interest in recycling farm products, like straw, and using mushrooms as means to grow food and create soil nutrients. This fellow then said, “I’d like to grow on some local grains.” Lucky dude! I gave him some of my Red Fife, and it’s now the nutritious medium for mushrooms.

Grain fed mycelia
Grain fed mycelia

Nancy Matsumoto Coverage

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I feel honored to be featured on Nancy Matsumoto’s blog. If you’re not already a big fan, check out Ms. Matsumoto’s site for excellent readings on food system news and Asian and Asian American food and farmers. You can go the link below for her coverage of my talk at the LA Bread Fest, where she does a great job of summarizing the state of small scale grain farming and healthy, well-made breads:

LA Bread Fest: Second Proofing

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I was unmistakably attending the LA Bread Festival when I popped out of the car and into the bustling Grand Central Market with grain sheaths peacocking from my backpack. Immediately at the entrance stood Leyna Lightman in a beckoning white dress, who led me through the masses, past the butter aerobics, and to my presentation station.

work your butt and butter

I had never been to the famous Grand Central Market. I could tell the original bodegas apart from the sleek, sans-serif new restaurant arrivals. I felt my place as farmer meeting merchant in this old place of many edible exchanges. Today was for exchanging more than food, but stories, passions, missions of a better food system.

A mess of wheat paste with a sweet, fermented tang signified that a sourdough starter class was in the works when I descended into the Market’s subterranean level. I laid out my wheat heads of various varieties and my modest farm photo display. By the time I was ready to begin, there was already a large crowd.

I told the story of heritage grains: why resurrect them? what’s their place in modern day farming? I spoke of the need to farm with the land, with the ecosystem because we’re running out of water, clean air, and soil nutrients. Some heritage grains are drought tolerant, and bringing them back in California will help us be fed without compromising our water sources. I talked about how wheat sequesters carbon, how integrating animals, grains, veggies, and all kinds of kingdoms into a farm rotation cultivate soil nutrients.

I reminded people that farmers always see nutrients going to customers, going to the city. Farmers can regenerate those nutrients, those necessities for our human and environmental health, on site, but it takes time. Yet, we’ve been forced to produce at a pace and scale to make ends meet, which at the same time we can’t replenish our resources at that rate. So we’ve used chemicals, synthetics, imported inputs to make up the difference. These substitutes give a boost but with a heavy toll. This is like when you’re sick. You take medicine that can make you groggy, upset your stomach, or have other negative side effects. Instead, you could have been taking care of yourself, eating well, exercising, and doing the day to day, long-term benefit actions. The same principles apply for farming. We could be taking care to maintain a healthy system that perhaps is slower, but is more balanced than injecting boosts of select inputs. Those boosts like nitrogen can runoff and cause algal blooms, fish die-off, and habitat damage. So, let’s take a different view on productivity, on time. Let’s take our time to do things well rather than do things now.


There were lots of questions. What’s the diff between modern and heritage? What’s it like to harvest and clean grain? Does baking with heritage grains require more needs? What’s the best way to store grains? Why the price difference? Do you have problems with people wanting you to have all kinds of certifications? Why do you farm? I’m glad to see so many interested people and to have the chance to talk with them! People stuck around, hung out, asked more questions, and overall it felt inspiring to see that people are interested in alternative farming methods and products.

Afterwards, I rewarded myself with some eats. We say that farmers don’t eat their food, bakers don’t eat their bread. But this farmer got to eat the bakers’ bread! Yes, I tried 6 different loaves with a butter flight from DTLA Cheese. I highly recommend the buffalo butter.

Butter flight
Butter flight of fancy!

Xí Muội

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As a kid, I would watch Saved by the Bell after school with my cousins. We ate all kinds of snacks, often times xí muội. It’s a salted plum candy with some kind of red dye that would stain your fingers. So after eating the candy, I’d suck on my fingers until the red became a healthy looking pink.

Xí muội  is also used in drinks, much like salt preserved lemons. Place the plums in a cup, mash some sugar into it (the coarse granules help break down the dried xí muội), and add bubbly water and ice. We call this soda xí muội.

I made my first batch of this childhood and Vietnam-wide favorite with ume plums from the ume co-op. It’s simple! Pack the umes with rock salt into a non-metallic jar. Let it sit for 2 weeks, then drain the liquids. That orange pink liquid can be used as a seasoning or dressing, like you would vinegar. The umes are then sundried for two weeks, depending on how hot it is. You can put it in direct sun. The 100s helped extrude the salt even faster. Then, you have some drinks, candy, and seasoning!

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Freshly pulled from the salting jar

Got a Combine!

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Now I’m in deep.

Hege 125B

It’s darn tough to find harvesting equipment in California. We shifted to big ag so long ago that we’ve lost these little guys. This plot harvester is meant for trial and nursery scale grain cultivation, but it’s going to serve me well as I grow out rare, heritage varieties of grain. We need these non-patented strains to increase farm biodiversity and to preserve food for the commons.

20160601_115950This cutie is going to need a lot of love and work. We got it from a farmer in the Sierras who hadn’t used it much and left it untended for a long time. I can see why because getting it in and out is tough! We had to drive the combine onto an embankment so that it could be nearly level with the trailer. The front and back wheels are at different widths and the ground was soft. My friend offered to drive the combine because of the dangerous situation. Rather than interpret this as an offense to my gender abilities, I decided that this was for the best because he already has three children and, thus, his part for the world. (Kidding) I’m grateful to have farmer-mates who also care about grains, collaboration, and doing things well, and who made this trek out with me.

There’s much to do before mid-July, harvest time. Time to roll up our sleeves and make sure raccoons don’t nest inside. I’ll keep you updated on our progress.