Family’s third generation harvesting salt east of Fallon
August 2, 2005
Few families in Churchill County can claim that a day at work is truly another day in the salt mines.
But for the Huckaby family, owners of Huck Salt, the cliche is all too familiar.
For three generations, the Huckaby family has scraped salt from the flats 25 miles east of Fallon in a bond that’s bridged time and gives a new twist on the definition of a “salt of the earth” people.
Huck Salt was formed in 1938 by Elmer Huckaby. A man of ingenuity and mechanical prowess, he designed and built the company’s first machinery and developed salt-harvesting techniques.
Today, Elmer’s son John and grandsons Troy and Tron labor on the same ground their grandfather did, scraping the abundant but much-needed mineral from 965 acres of barren playa. Troy and Tron took an interest in the family business at an early age, riding along the harvester when they were small children and even taking naps on the machine’s catwalk in between scraping cycles.
John’s grandkids are showing an interest and riding along, just like their fathers, he said.
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“It’s a dream come true to keep it in the family,” he said.
The salt harvested from Salt Wells, which is more than 99 percent pure, is used as road salt and for water softeners, and is processed into salt blocks for livestock. Products made from Huck salt are sold throughout western Nevada and California.
The labor is a far cry from an office job. During the summer harvest, the Huckabys typically put in 12-hour days under the intense summer heat. The sunlight reflects fiercely off the acres of salt, and the drivers will make more than 100 monotonous trips from the piling area to the harvester per day, John said.
But there’s nothing they’d rather do.
“You’re taking something natural and pure that people need,” he said. “You’re not hurting the environment. The good Lord provides it for us.”
The salt “crop” differs year to year, and this year is no exception. The above average moisture from the winter and spring flooded the salt flats with a foot and a half of water.
An abundance of water often produces a thicker layer of salt, but the recent rains deteriorated the top layer of salt, mixing with mud to form a sloppy brine which produces a lower-grade product.
“You can see our problem,” John said while adjusting the blade on the harvester due to the watery salt flat’s ever-changing consistency. “Every year is different. We really thought it was going to be a good year.”
The Huckabys still use the harvester Elmer built in 1941 from the remnants of a World War I-era truck and other machinery at a cost of $1,165, John said. Though it scrapes salt at a slower rate, about one ton per minute, it does a better job of skimming higher-quality salt off the ground. Many of the harvester’s internal parts are original and have not been touched since Elmer Huckaby finished assembly, a testament to the reliability of the homespun contraption.
A bucket conveyor line reaches down to the six-foot blade and carries the salt up an incline toward a hopper. The salt is then delivered horizontally via a chute to a truck that drives parallel with the harvester, much like a typical farm harvester shooting grain into a truck. The 10-wheel dump trucks transport about 14 to 15 tons per load, which is filled in about 15 minutes.
In a good year, Huck Salt will harvest 25,000 tons of salt. That’s 50 million pounds or more than 1,800 truckloads.
John stays ever-watchful behind the wheel, throwing levers every few seconds to raise or lower the blade and adjust the harvester’s speed to match the depth and condition of the salt. Much of the components are made of stainless steel to ward off rust, which ravages other metal parts of the trucks and harvesters.
The Huckabys’ other harvester, factory-built for snow removal, can scrape two to four tons per minute of lower-quality salt, John said.
With improving technology, the salt business is far from a static pursuit. The Huckaby’s business is the model of a self-sufficient operation. Besides the busy summer harvest season, the machinery has to be washed and maintained throughout the year. They also build and maintain the business’ buildings.
The family has also developed a technique to “wash” and sift lower-quality, muddy salt. The end product is about 98 percent pure, John said. The family is also developing their own de-icing compound, 3T, a salt-based ice melting solution for use in and around buildings.
John gets reflective when talking about how Huck Salt has advanced over the decades. The business has advanced so much in the last 10 years, he can’t imagine how it will be done after his generation passes on.
“It’s going to be so awesome to imagine what they’ll be doing when we’re gone,” he said. “Maybe they’ll be using lasers.”