Finally, Kansas wheat is a cash crop again

In 70-plus years of working the earth, Max Moore can hardly remember a wheat crop this rich.

“We were so busy this last month” during the harvest, he said, “we couldn’t look sideways.”

Growers in northeast Kansas have been filling grain elevators with wheat yields surpassing 50, 70, even 80 bushels per acre. The historical norm is about 35.

Finally, after two years of drought wreaking havoc on summertime crops, area farmers who planted winter wheat find cash in their pockets.

But only enough, in many cases, to cover the losses of years past.

“Last year was terrible, pretty bad for everything,” said Moore, 95, who still plants beans, milo and wheat with son Danny on 300 acres in Douglas County. “This year the good Lord has made it all up.”

The news gets grim, however, in the western third of Kansas. Wheat there is the primary crop for most growers. They’re still looking to the sky for the faintest hint of rain.

Nearly all of the winter wheat crop has been harvested statewide, and the relief east of Manhattan is tempered by continued despair west of Great Bend.

“It’s been kind of a tale of two harvests,” said Bill Spiegel, spokesman for the industry group Kansas Wheat. “In eastern Kansas, we had a phenomenal crop. Parts of central Kansas had an outstanding harvest again …

“Out west, we haven’t had a decent rain in three years. It’s pretty dire.”

Wheat is trading at more than $6.50 per bushel, about double the prices of a decade ago. So the lucky growers — earning, say, $500 off each acre — might pocket enough to upgrade a worn-out pickup truck or make repairs they’ve been putting off.

“It got them some cash,” said Alan Maxwell of Frontier Farm Credit in Baldwin City, about 50 miles southwest of Kansas City. “But are they going to go out and start spending a lot of money? Farmers don’t operate that way.”

Given the six-figure costs of combines, “you have to build up some savings for replacements down the road,” Maxwell said. “You can’t just spend everything you make every year. Some younger farmers are going to look to debt reduction. They want to get themselves in a liquid position.

“If the last two years taught anything, it’s that you need liquidity.”

Around Topeka, stories fly of wheat fields so lush that combines and grain trucks have struggled to get the bounty out in time for subsequent crops to be planted.

“There are some guys literally cutting hundred-bushel wheat,” said Keith Colter, manager of Heritage Tractor in Topeka. “It should be a stimulator. … High yields ought to mean more transactions for the John Deere dealer.”

Ottawa Cooperative Association, which owns 13 elevator sites across northeast Kansas, took in about double the typical wheat yields after the harvest began in late June.

“We’ve had three disastrous corn crops in a row,” which compelled many area farmers to devote more acreage to drought-tolerant wheat, said the cooperative’s Matthew Vajnar, a grain merchandiser. “And because last year’s corn crop was (harvested) so early, the lucky growers had plenty of time to get that winter wheat in the ground.”

And the unlucky growers? In recent weeks, many in western Kansas didn’t bother staying abreast of those high wheat prices. Their woeful fields weren’t worth cutting.

In Gary Millershaski’s 30 years of farming in southwest Kansas, “this harvest here will compare with one of the worst,” he said.

Millershaski, who is president of the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers, said he “abandoned” about 340 of the 2,800 acres he planted. Just the fuel for his harvesting equipment would have cost more than what Millershaski could make off wilted wheat.

Some nearby fields produced yields below five bushels per acre.

Because the grain elevator in Lakin, Kan., stored only one-third of its wheat capacity from this harvest, local businesses can brace for another year of sluggish sales, Millershaski added.

“It has a domino effect, for sure, in these rural communities. But it is what it is. That’s farming.”

Throughout the Plains, the extreme fortunes of this year’s wheat fields speak both to the fickle nature of drought and to the staying power of the crop, if given at least a few weeks of wet weather.

“You could almost draw a line through central Kansas, up though east-central Nebraska and into the Dakotas” where precipitation since February has been decent to the east and all but nonexistent to the west, said climatologist Brian Fuchs of the National Drought Mitigation Center.

For Kansas wheat producers, the zone of destruction seemed to stretch west of U.S. 281, which runs the length of the state and bisects Great Bend.

East of that line, winter wheat planted in parched soil was revived by late-winter snows and a wet spring.

“That crop may have started out stunted. But then it just took off,” Fuchs said. “And to finish that off, you got a stretch of dry, warmer weather.”

Moore won’t be spending his harvest bonanza on anything fancy. But he did drop a few hundred bucks at Hey Machinery Co. in Baldwin City to replace two ragged tires on a piece of farm equipment.

“We pay our bills as we go,” said Moore, who credits the longevity of his farm — through good seasons and bad — to his late wife and to Danny.

“Hard work,” he said, “is what’s done it.”