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Serving: Central

Legendary combine driver — Jesse Small

Recipe for longevity: 13 hours each day in a combine during harvest and six days a week in a fishing boat during the off-season — standing up.

Jesse Small reaches the end of a corn row, shifts his cigar from hand to mouth with a grin, and swings his combine around for another pass across a sea of grain. He’ll turn 90 later this harvest season.

Small’s tale stretches back 62 years, when he walked away from a sawmill, bought a combine, and began cutting grain. And since that day in 1951, Small hasn’t missed a season of combining, covering ground from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.

Small, Senath, Mo., is a combining legend; his Small’s Harvesting custom cutting outfit was once one of the biggest harvesting outfits in the U.S. “I remember one year up in Montana, we ran 17 combines at one time in a field of 12,000 acres. We would run and run and never stop. I’ve guess I’ve been in nearly every paper in the country at one time or another and was in Time magazine in 1978. I was supposed to be on the cover of Time, but the pope died or something, and they stuck me on page two.”

In 1951, Small bought a John Deere V 5500 for $3,000, and never looked back. Small admits he misses a lot about the forgotten days of agriculture, but as he checks his GPS monitor, he quickly adds he loves the new technology of modern farming — all of it. “New technology is just fine. Sure, I miss the old times. But my combines now have air conditioning. I used to sit out in the open sun with no cab on my first combine. I didn’t even have the money to buy an umbrella to stick over me.”

How much acreage has he cut? Small says there’s no way to know; and doesn’t want to know: “That number would be too big. It would terrible just to have to see such a big number,” he laughs. 

Age means very little to Small; he has no plans to slow down. When asked about the secret to good health, he holds up his cigar: “See this? I don’t smoke it; never liked’em. But I like having it around and I change it out every three days. Hard work is my secret; it keeps me healthy.”

His son, Joe Small, 63, has taken the combine reins from Jesse and now heads the operation out of Marion, Ark. — Small Farms. He knows his father is exceptional. “If I live as long as 89 like my daddy, I’d be just fine with carrying on combining. He’s remarkable to have worked this long. If you just walked up on him you wouldn’t think by any chance that he is 89 — 90 in November. The only thing that gives him any trouble is his hearing, and other than that, he takes blood thinner and no other medicine. After all these years, he only gets tired after 12 to 13 hours of cutting.”

When he’s not cutting grain, Jesse heads to Florida and Lake Okeechobee for five months of fishing. “I catch bass — even a few alligators sometimes. Fishing is just like harvesting — something to entertain an old man.”

Joe says there is more to it than simple fishing — much more: “My daddy probably didn’t tell you that he stands up in the boat. That’s right; he stands up in the boat all day and fishes six days a week when he’s not cutting. He works hard when he’s working and plays hard when he’s playing. He’ll be fishing for as long as the Lord lets him live.”

And according to Jesse, he’ll also be combining for as long as the Lord lets him live. “I love what I do and after doing it so many years — I’ve got to love it.”

Jesse is staying in the cab: “I don’t know anybody harvesting that is my age. I don’t even know anybody harvesting that is near close to my age. But then again, age ain’t got nothing to do with it.”


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