Roving crop cutters find work drying up because of drought

Monday, August 5, 2002

WELLINGTON, Kan. -- Any other year would find Dave Hermesch a busy man, joining hundreds of other agricultural nomads in their combines to follow ripening crops of wheat across the Plains.

But the work normally awaiting the Oklahoma man and his 12-member crew is literally drying up, another blow dealt by the wilting drought that has devastated the harvest.

"Usually if the drought or hail isn't too widespread, we can load our combines and go somewhere else to replace lost acres," said Hermesch, who is also board president of the Hutchinson-based trade group U.S. Custom Harvesters. "But not when it is as big and as widespread as this is now."

Around the country, about 500 custom harvesters make their living cutting wheat for farmers reluctant to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on machinery they would use only a week or two each season.

Kept afloat by creativity

These hardy crews have survived -- or even flourished as the business passed from generation to generation -- without crop insurance or a farm bill, though they face many of the same problems that plague the farm economy, including fickle weather and competition from abroad.

In the past, creativity often kept them afloat.

When it became difficult to find domestic laborers willing to work long hours on the move, for example, custom cutters recruited mostly grown farm kids from Australia and South Africa who wanted to see the world.

But so devastating is this drought, cutters say, that for some this harvest may be the last.

Hermesch's run normally begins in May with the winter wheat harvest in Texas and runs through Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, North Dakota and South Dakota before ending with the last of the fall crops in December.

By season's end, he and his crew normally would have cut nearly 35,000 acres. This year, he has already lost at least 6,000 acres -- and he says there is nowhere to go to make up the losses.

Some cutters have lost as many as four stops in their winter wheat run, and the harvest is often slim where they do cut. Because cutters are paid based on how many bushels are cut and hauled, low crop yields mean low bottom lines.

U.S. Custom Harvesters is surveying its members to gather loss estimates, with hopes of getting cutters included in government drought aid.

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