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Some Farmers Reap Losses in Wheat Harvest

Western Kansas farmer John Thaemert stands in a field of parched wheat. The plants would reach his waist by now in a normal year.
Frank Morris
Harvest Public Media
Western Kansas farmer John Thaemert stands in a field of parched wheat. The plants would reach his waist by now in a normal year.

By Frank Morris


The Kansas wheat harvest is in full swing in Kansas, but many farmers are expecting to reap a financial loss this year. Persistent drought has parched wheat stands western parts of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas, places where wheat was once one of the most reliable cash crops. Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports.

Across Kansas this week many farmers are working 18 hour days.


They're driving combines, huge, bug-like, machines that chew back and forth across wide, fields of ripe, light brown, wheat.
John Thaemert farms the rolling hills of north central Kansas. Settlers here, like his grandfather, quarried their fence posts from stone, because there weren't any trees to cut down. This is wheat country, too dry for more profitable crops like corn and soybeans to grow with out irrigation.

The old adage is wheat has nine lives and we've been through 11 of them this year. So, uh, it's been a trying year.

The fifth trying year in a row. Thaemert says the drought here is the worst in memory. Walking out into a hard, steady wind, crunching wheat seeds, or berries , in his teeth, Thaemert pulls the brittle head off a scrawny, mummified little plant, and rubs it in his hand.

You know, after you get out here, you see what we talk about there's just, there's hardly anything in her you know, how you going to harvest this crunch, rustle It all blows away Yeah there's hardly any barriers in it.

Just as Thaemert faces his most pitiful harvest in years, fuel costs are hitting all time highs. And it takes a lot of diesel to till, plant, and harvest this crop, and then ship it 230 miles to millers in Kansas City.
Like almost all farmers he carries a heavy debt load, so rising interest rates take another deep cut.
Pain on the farm is quickly spreads to rural towns like Ellsworth Kansas.


Allen Doubrava manages the COOP here, where farmers drive truck loads of wheat to sell, or store, before shipping it east.

Well wheat's our number 1 crop, very dependent on wheat crop if we have half a crop, we're probably going to have a 50% decrease in revenue too.

Lousy as the wheat harvest is in western Kansas at least there is one. Farmers in parts of Oklahoma have abandoned their wheat fields, reporting the smallest harvest in half a century. Texas is worse.

We're at the lowest wheat production in Texas since 1925. It's the worst wheat production we've ever had.

David Cleavinger, who farms near Amarillo, says crop insurance won't cover the losses. And, unlike in past dry years, high plains wheat farmers will likely see no federal disaster relief.
Cleavinger says congressional leaders, bowing to pressure from the white house, killed a four billion dollar agriculture disaster relief package last week. He says he understands that with the Iraq war, the exploding budget deficit, and farmers closer to the gulf of Mexico still recovering from hurricanes, money is scarce. Still he says wheat farmers feel betrayed.

Rural America was the people who put this administration into power, and we feel like they turned their backs upon us. You know, loss is loss, it doesn't matter if it's a hurricane or a drought.


This isn't a pitchfork wielding mob, it's the sound of hard red winter wheat prices being discovered by assertive men in loud sport coats in the pit, at the Kansas City Board of Trade.
The drought out west has driven prices up to 9 year highs. And that's been great for wheat farmers in eastern Kansas and Missouri where it's rained enough to produce a decent crop. Wheat did well, mostly in damper climates where farmers, and the communities they support, don't depend on it.


Back in western Kansas John Thaemert, dumping fresh cut wheat out of a 30-year-old truck into a storage bin. He says it's hard to keep his spirits up.

It's that, uh carrot on a stick, and the stick keeps getting longer and the carrot's kind of drying up. So, I don't know how much hope a guy could have.

For now Thaemert and others are pinning their financial hopes on resuscitating some kind of federal disaster relief package. Regardless, he'll plant wheat again next year, though he's not sure all his neighbors will.

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