Every year since my children have been old enough to be somewhat aware of what is going on around them, my wife Ruth and I have made it a point to spend at least one afternoon each fall with them in the harvest fields of eastern Kearney County.

My brother Kevin and my great friend Rob Hultquist happen to harvest together, so we always know we will find friendly faces when we go looking for a ride in the combine, grain cart tractor or semi with someone from their combined crew.

For our daughter Jordyn and son Aaron, it’s mesmerizing to watch from behind the steering wheel as the combine’s corn head pulls the dry stalks in and devours them, then turn to the left and see shelled golden grain pouring out of the extended auger arm into the waiting grain cart.

Within minutes, that same corn will be dumped once again, cascading from the cart into a semitrailer for the trip to a bin site on the farm or to the grain elevator.

I mention this today, at the end of this Thanksgiving week, not because our family’s autumn tradition is unusual in any way, but precisely because it is so common for the non-farmers among us — especially if we still have relatives or friends raising crops for a living.

I know of people from Lincoln, Omaha and as far away as the East Coast who return to Tribland year in and year out to join the harvest for a day or a weekend. And if we adults can do a little more than just watch — even if it’s just to clean up around the auger pit or maybe level a truck or two — so much the better.

It’s like an appointment we feel bound to keep.

As I’ve mentioned before, I made a personal choice many years ago not to try and farm — not because I didn’t enjoy the work, but mainly because I’m not mechanically inclined and don’t think I would be any good at making the necessary production or management decisions.

Instead, I write a lot about farming and agriculture issues for this newspaper.

Farmers and ranchers are among the people I admire the most. We belong to a church congregation composed almost entirely of farmers and farm families in a small rural community. And if I get pretty intense about looking after the green beans, peppers and tomatoes in my backyard each summer, I come by that honestly.

Culturally and attitudinally, I’m a good example of the old saying that “you can take the boy off the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.”

Still, I cannot call myself a farmer because, in fact, I am not one. And when I ride on someone else’s combine in someone else’s corn or soybean field, I have to ask myself exactly what I’m doing there and if I’m being presumptuous. Remember the words of scripture in which the servant accuses his master of “harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter?” For some reason, they pop into my mind every fall.

So, what am I doing out in the field for a few hours on a Saturday or Sunday, trying to instruct my children about work I no longer do? And, for that matter, what motivates all the other farming expatriates and hangers-on to do the same?

I don’t think we are here just to remind ourselves how a combine works, or to find out what’s new in the world of grain-handling equipment. Rather, I think we return to the fields of our youth, or to land that sustains our friends and family, as a sort of pilgrimage.

We want to associate ourselves with our heritage, and to be witnesses to the abundance harvest represents.

We want to remember that we all depend on the Giving Earth in a fundamental way, and to reconnect with people whose whole life and livelihood is about caring for creation and gathering in what it provides.

We want to experience or re-experience agriculture for ourselves. We want to “get real.”

Harvest doesn’t always turn out the way we idealize it. Sometimes hail or drought or high winds interfere with farmers’ work and diminish or decimate their returns. Still, most farmers I know reach this time each year with great appreciation in their hearts — not only for whatever crop they were able to harvest, but for the opportunity to live a life connected to the cycles of nature and be part of small communities where roots run deep and compassion runs wide.

As we thank God for our many blessings this holiday season, may we all remember our farm and ranch families and hew to their example of stewardship and gratitude.

Like them, we all sow in this life, and we all reap — just in different fields. May our labor, like theirs, help make the world a better place.

Andy Raun is regional news and farm news editor at the Hastings Tribune. Contact him at 402-461-1255 or araun@hastingstribune.com.