Kansas wheat farmers celebrate end of drought

Monday, June 23, 2003

GOODLAND, Kan. -- As summer rolls in, Kansas turns khaki. To a wheat farmer like Ken Palmgren, that's the color of money.

"Yeah, the fields are yellowing up right nice," Palmgren said recently, gazing over the waves of grain that stretch across the rolling hills of Sherman County.

The ocean of wheat is turning from deep green to the tawny shade that signals harvest time on the High Plains where Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado meet.

"It looks like we're going to cut quite a bit of winter wheat this year," Palmgren said, cradling the top of a stalk in his palm to judge the weight of the kernels. "And that's something we haven't been able to say since -- when was it now? -- let's see, not since the crop we put in 1999."

Drought since then slashed yields drastically across the Farm Belt.

Wheat production last year was the lowest in three decades, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "We've had guys in this county with no crop one year, no crop the next year -- and then the bank comes in and shuts them down," Palmgren said.

This season, a moist winter and spring brought wheat farming back to normal levels. As the harvesters moved north from Oklahoma into Kansas this week, most forecasters predicted a bumper crop of winter wheat in 2003. That is good news, of course, for Ken Palmgren and his fellow farmers, but it's also important for the national trade accounts.

Bread, cereals, cookies

The winter wheat harvested in the next few weeks will be sold, by the millions of bushels, all over the world. And that, along with other agricultural exports, will help offset America's persistent trade deficit in manufactured goods, now running more than $30 billion every month.

"Winter wheat -- that's the grain you use to make bread, cereals, cookies," said Justin Gilpin, a marketing expert at the Kansas Wheat Commission. "Well, every country needs bread. So our crop is going to East Asia, South Asia, the EU, Africa. In fact, the biggest export market for Kansas hard red winter wheat is Nigeria."

Despite its global prominence, winter wheat is the most lackadaisical of the major cash crops. In contrast to summer-grown products such as corn and soybeans, which pop up from the ground shortly after planting and push relentlessly to maturity in a single spurt, winter wheat takes a rambling, laid-back route from seed to silo -- with a three-month nap built into its life cycle.

"We put in the seed in September," said Palmgren, who devoted about half his 5,200 acres to winter wheat this year. "The crop starts growing with the autumn rains, and that gets the shoots up to about six inches high. Then when the freeze comes in December, the wheat lies down and goes dormant."

The wheat hibernates through the winter as snowstorms put moisture into the soil. In March or so, warm weather and spring rains awaken the sleeping crop. In June, with the stalks about 3 feet tall, rising temperatures turn the wheat from green to gold, ready to be harvested before the hot, dry days of summer can shrivel the crop.

'Business is so global'

The system is so well adapted to the weather across the wheat belt -- a swath of central plains reaching from Texas to Montana -- that most American wheat today is grown on the extended winter schedule.

"The whole point is to grow wheat in a region where there's really not enough rainfall to grow wheat," said Roger Stockton, a crop specialist with the Kansas State University Research-Extension Center. "You take advantage of the timely rains in fall and spring, and the crop is so tenacious it can survive a long winter in the field." But while the wheat gets a three-month winter break, a wheat farmer has little time for relaxation.

"A guy who tried today to sell like my grandfather did, just haul the grain to the silo after harvest and wait for a check in the mail, would be out of business pretty quick," Palmgren said. "Today, our business is so global you have to keep up all the time on your markets and your competition."

The focus on foreign markets prompted Palmgren to make a major shift in his farming this season. In addition to the "hard red" wheat (with a reddish-brown kernel that gives whole-wheat bread its dark color) that is the Kansas staple, he planted a "hard white" variety, using new hybrid seeds developed in the past five years.

"That hard white, it's the main crop coming out of Australia," Palmgren said. "A lot of customers want it, because you can use it both for pasta and for bread. The Egyptian government is buying a lot of hard white, so this will give us a shot at that market."

The son and the father of Kansas wheat farmers, Palmgren, 62, has adapted easily to the high-tech, information-rich culture of modern agriculture. But the cost of the business still staggers him sometimes. When he was harvesting wheat last summer in his $150,000 combine, he drove over a deer's antler that had been shed in the field. "It cost me $1,200 to replace that tire," he said, wincing at the memory.

And like farmers everywhere, Palmgren spends much of his time second-guessing his decisions on planting, watering, fertilizing and selling. In late April, he sold a future contract for 10,000 bushels of this year's crop, getting $3.10 per bushel.

By mid-June prices for this year's wheat were running less than $3.00 per bushel, Palmgren said. "I ought to feel pretty good about that. I sold at the right time. But in fact, I'm sitting here thinking: 'Doggone it, why didn't I sell more at that price?'"

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