Editor's note: This story published in The Hutchinson News on June 27, 2009.

DIGHTON - The blue school bus lumbered down a dirt road stirring up a cloud of dust as Mary Heath made her way toward a crew of hungry harvesters.

Dusk was setting in on the miles of rolling wheat fields that stretch from every direction. Some acres no longer wave - already shorn to stubble.

"We're on our way," Heath beckons over a radio to her husband, Steve, who is driving a combine in a field just south of Dighton.

"We're ready for you," Steve hollers back.

It's harvest time in Lane County. And for the Heath family, June's marathon is a test of tradition.

Riding high on a combine amid harvest, Steve Heath doesn't stop for much. When the wheat is dry enough to cut, they get started - usually by midmorning. His 13-year-old daughter, Liz, pulls beside him in the grain cart so he can keep going, then she unloads her bushels in the grain truck that her cousin Kerry James, 28, hauls into town.

But every night, when the blue bus turns the corner and finds a resting place in the field of fresh-cut stubble, Steve Heath breaks for a fading Kansas rite - hot dinner brought to the field and a few moments of fellowship with his family before the harvest again comes calling.

"It's nice to get out of the field for a while," the 52-year-old said as he pulled up a chair next to Kerry James and began to pile his plate with meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, creamed corn and strawberries.

For dessert, his mother, Wilma, had fixed the crew's favorite, applesauce cake.

"You can't pass up good food," Steve Heath said.

For a few weeks, just like it has been for more than three decades, dinner is delivered by the blue bus. Call it harvest meals on wheels - a school bus transformed into a dining room of sorts.

That is, Mary Heath said, as long as their transportation doesn't break down. Last year, the bus died in the driveway after she delivered the last meal of harvest - smoke swelling from under the hood.

"Everything is fixable," Mary Heath said.

Mary Heath, 51, has been a part of harvest for about two decades. She and her mother-in-law, Wilma Heath, and nephew Kerry's wife, Kelli, 27, prepare a hot meal a day each evening.

Hot harvest meals in the field have been a tradition as long as Kansas crews have cut wheat. For Steve's mother, Wilma, now 79, the custom started 61 years ago when she married her husband, Francis, on the Fourth of July amid the area's wheat harvest.

The newlyweds took a two-day vacation before heading back to the west-central Kansas wheat fields to help his family finish reaping the crop. And Wilma found herself in the kitchen alongside her husband's mother, cooking hot meals and hauling them to the field for a crew of hungry men.

Wilma Heath calls it part of the life of a farmer's wife. When the wheat beckons, the cutting starts. So do the long, hectic days in the hot wheat field. By nightfall, the small crew is ready for nourishment.

"They'd get tired of just sandwiches," she says firmly. However, Mary Heath said fewer are still upholding the tradition for a variety of reasons.

Twenty years ago, when she married Steve, extended family came in to town to help bring in the harvest. Three combines circled the fields and small grain trucks hauled wheat to the bins.

But these days, the Heaths have one combine that does the same work, or more, of their previous three. A large tractor-trailer is used for hauling. What used to take nearly two weeks to a month to harvest now takes just eight days if the weather is good.

Nowadays, some families hire custom cutters to harvest the wheat - alleviating the need for harvest-time feasts. And moreover, Mary Heath said, in today's busy society with two spouses often working full time, many times a meal consists of a quick sandwich or a sack of hamburgers from the burger joint.

A lot of crews, she added, don't even stop for socializing - just grabbing a bite and continuing on with the job.

Wilma Heath said when she first married, the family took the meals out in a Chrysler. They'd set up card tables in the field and picnic.

Then, about 35 years ago, a custom harvester gave the family a broken down 1951 bus that he had converted into sleeping quarters for his crew.

Wilma's brother-in-law, John, known for his ability to fix anything, began working on the bus. The family put in a refrigerator, a big table, curtains on the windows and carpet on the floor. When wheat harvest began, Wilma loaded the bus with dinner and drove it to the field.

The tradition stuck.

"We're the only blue bus in Lane County," Mary Heath said with a laugh.

On this night, as a hot breeze blew into the bus as evening set in, the family ate together. Kerry held his 6-month-old daughter, Rielly, and joked about the day's activities.

"She keeps bragging about her AC," Kerry James said.

"At least I have AC," cousin Liz Heath smirked.

Wilma Heath casually mentions she plans to retire from the harvest meal tradition, but no one believes her.

"I don't think she'll let Steve starve," Kerry James grinned.

These times with his family are one aspect of harvest that Steve Heath treasures.

"I think we're unique in more ways than one," he said.

Clouds were building up in the distance. Concerned about a possible storm, Steve Heath declared it was time to get the combine rolling again.

It's only day three of harvest. In all, he has 1,100 acres to cut.

Mary, Wilma and Kelli pack up the food and take the dirt road home. By the time they reach the farm, the bus is overheating.

"Should we cancel tomorrow's meal or should I start a roast tonight?" Mary Heath asked.

Uncle John Heath peered under the hood and shook his head. An easy fix. They had just broken a belt, he said.

The harvest meal brigade would be back on the road in no time.