Depending on whom you ask, your faithfulness to God can have a direct correlation with your crop yield. The Mertens family of Northeast Colorado certainly believes this to be true.

The Mertens work year-round to grow corn and millet, raise cattle, and clean and sell seed wheat. Jim and Danelle Mertens live less than two miles away from their eldest son Cole, who over the last few years has slowly been taking the reins of the family farm from Jim. He’s embraced technology to increase yields, which has proved to be absolutely necessary during a time when many other family farms are folding. They have also been diversifying as a way to secure income stability.

Cole Mertens helps run the family farm with his father Jim. Cole’s wife Erika carries their son Paxton during a late-night exchange. On this night, favorable dry conditions allow harvest to run late into the evening.
Cole Mertens helps run the family farm with his father Jim. Cole’s wife Erika carries their son Paxton during a late-night exchange. On this night, favorable dry conditions allow harvest to run late into the evening.

The price of wheat hasn’t gone up since the 1970s. Jim Mertens has been selling wheat these last couple years at $4.50/bushel, which is a bit less than he was selling it for in high school back in the 1970s.

Taking a morning off from harvest, three farmers in their Sunday’s best stand in the threshold of the barn for a sermon at Cowboy Church in New Raymer, Colorado.
Taking a morning off from harvest, three farmers in their Sunday’s best stand in the threshold of the barn for a sermon at Cowboy Church in New Raymer, Colorado.

At the beginning of last year, the family invested a vast amount of money in the crops: $2 million in machinery, $525,000 in fixed cost — seed, fertilizer, fuel, chemicals — and that doesn’t include man hours of labor. Meeting these costs as a family, not as a corporation, like so many farms are these days, has become exceedingly difficult.

March and April brought record rainfall and even the eldest couldn’t remember a time when the wheat was this heavy with grain.

July is a pivotal month that can make or break the well-being of the Mertens for the rest of the year. There is so much to lose. There are plenty of dangers that can wipe out an entire year’s work — tornados, hail, fire, fungus, pests — the list goes on.

Combines thrash and toil, kicking up dust and spitting out chaff as the sun dips below the horizon.
Combines thrash and toil, kicking up dust and spitting out chaff as the sun dips below the horizon.

Harvest usually take two weeks of around-the-clock work, but this year it took three full weeks because of all the rain. Through all of this, the Mertens continually stayed calm and cool, buoyed by their faith.

Although this past year was a huge bumper crop — the biggest anyone in living memory has seen — that won’t translate financially because supply has flooded the market, decreasing profits.

By winter, the new crop of wheat has been planted and begins to sprout. Farm operations focus on the new calves which are usually bought in late fall. It is time to catch up on bookkeeping and machinery repair, and of course, to pray.

The second day of harvest is cut short by a supercell thunderstorm blowing in from the west. Colton Chase, who is married to Jim Mertens’ youngest daughter, Lauren, prays that the rain will stray to the south. Lauren looks on while their niece Carlee twirls in her own rain dance. Colton and Lauren live in Kansas, but return to the New Raymer area each year for harvest season.
The second day of harvest is cut short by a supercell thunderstorm blowing in from the west. Colton Chase, who is married to Jim Mertens’ youngest daughter, Lauren, prays that the rain will stray to the south. Lauren looks on while their niece Carlee twirls in her own rain dance. Colton and Lauren live in Kansas, but return to the New Raymer area each year for harvest season.
A freshly cut field of dry­land wheat lies next to a pasture, unseasonably green on account of the persistent record-breaking rains.
A freshly cut field of dry­land wheat lies next to a pasture, unseasonably green on account of the persistent record-breaking rains.
Harvest suppers are not taken lightly. Tradition and pride dictates a meal elaborately prepared by the women, consisting of a main meat dish, two sides, a dessert and ice tea or lemonade. Shifts are taken by the men in the field, ensuring that the combines never stop harvesting. (left to right: Jason Chase, Kaleb Harms, Jim Mertens)
Harvest suppers are not taken lightly. Tradition and pride dictates a meal elaborately prepared by the women, consisting of a main meat dish, two sides, a dessert and ice tea or lemonade. Shifts are taken by the men in the field, ensuring that the combines never stop harvesting. (left to right: Jason Chase, Kaleb Harms, Jim Mertens)
Wheat swirls in the wind as a storm blows in, making long rhythmic static sounds as millions of stalks rub against one another.
Wheat swirls in the wind as a storm blows in, making long rhythmic static sounds as millions of stalks rub against one another.
A semi trailer is topped off towards the end of a late July afternoon as the hired hand, Kaleb Harms, watches on.
A semi trailer is topped off towards the end of a late July afternoon as the hired hand, Kaleb Harms, watches on.
As with many farming families in rural Colorado, the Bible offers guidance and assurance through tough times. The matriarch, Danelle, Jim’s wife, often gives advice to others that she interprets from these worn pages.
As with many farming families in rural Colorado, the Bible offers guidance and assurance through tough times. The matriarch, Danelle, Jim’s wife, often gives advice to others that she interprets from these worn pages.
The “shop” as it’s called is the heart of farm operations. Big enough to accommodate the largest of the machinery, this is where all the repairs take place. Not only that, it serves as a family gathering hall for high school grad parties, wedding receptions or Sunday lunch as well as a place to warm up or cool down in this landscape’s harsh four-season weather.
The “shop” as it’s called is the heart of farm operations. Big enough to accommodate the largest of the machinery, this is where all the repairs take place. Not only that, it serves as a family gathering hall for high school grad parties, wedding receptions or Sunday lunch as well as a place to warm up or cool down in this landscape’s harsh four-season weather.
Andrew, Cole’s younger brother, climbs to dizzying heights inside the new bin that he hopes will soon be full of wheat. Andrew joined the Wickstrom family farm when he married his wife, Leigha, and the couple are now the Mertens’ closest neighbors to the west, just a dozen miles down the road.
Andrew, Cole’s younger brother, climbs to dizzying heights inside the new bin that he hopes will soon be full of wheat. Andrew joined the Wickstrom family farm when he married his wife, Leigha, and the couple are now the Mertens’ closest neighbors to the west, just a dozen miles down the road.
Wheat pours into a new bin, kicking off the harvest.
Wheat pours into a new bin, kicking off the harvest.
Erika and Leigha Mertens play with their children at the end of the last day of harvest.
Erika and Leigha Mertens play with their children at the end of the last day of harvest.
Erika Mertens, holding her son Paxton. Women often are the bedrock of farming families, offering support and comfort through the long hours and intense stress while still performing their daily tasks.
Erika Mertens, holding her son Paxton. Women often are the bedrock of farming families, offering support and comfort through the long hours and intense stress while still performing their daily tasks.
The velvety black settles in as the crickets' song finds full crescendo in between the cut and uncut rows of meticulously planted wheat. Strobed by lightning, the Mertens keep cutting, thankful that the thunderhead is trailing to the north this time.
The velvety black settles in as the crickets’ song finds full crescendo in between the cut and uncut rows of meticulously planted wheat. Strobed by lightning, the Mertens keep cutting, thankful that the thunderhead is trailing to the north this time.
Deanna, Jim’s mother-in-law, who has lived on a homestead for over 75 years, is ever vigilant of the weather. She looks for signs of rain to the south and east as the sky darkens before retiring to bed.
Deanna, Jim’s mother-in-law, who has lived on a homestead for over 75 years, is ever vigilant of the weather. She looks for signs of rain to the south and east as the sky darkens before retiring to bed.

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Elliot Ross is a Brooklyn-based portrait photographer with a BFA from the Savannah College of Art and Design. He has been a full-time assistant to Annie Leibovitz and Mark Seliger, and has spent the last year exploring the idea of isolation through observing the lives of those who toil in the far-flung regions of the Earth to make ends meet. Instagram: @elliotstudio.