Given where I work, wheat waving usually has something to do with KU fans waving their arms back and forth in celebration of a football touchdown. Forget all that. This story is about real wheat waving in the Kansas wind. This is about the “Breadbasket of America.” This is about Kansas and wheat and why Kansans should celebrate being “The Wheat State.”
Nearly two weeks ago, I spent a Saturday afternoon with Steve Hayden as he harvested his winter wheat along with farm hand Mike Coffin and Coffin’s dog, George. Hayden’s operation near Ottawa, to my city guy eyes, seems huge. He farms over 1,200 acres of row crops – wheat, corn and soy beans – and another 300 acres of hay. He also has 110 head of cattle spread over a few other farms that provide some of the healthiest beef in the state.
My thought is that Americans fail to thank farmers enough for what they do for our country. We stroll through grocery store aisles picking up our food with little thought to the monstrous task involved in producing the crops needed for that food. We drive by fields rich with crops never fully comprehending all the science, technology and sweat needed to sustain not only our population but much of the world’s.
When I am on my bicycle out in the country, I can slow down from the daily rush and begin to look at fields with real appreciation. The only problem is I have no idea what I am looking at outside of being able to say “that is wheat” and “that is corn”. That needed to change. I met Hayden thanks to my wife. Laura works with Hayden’s wife, Shanda, in the academic service area of Kansas Athletics. Shanda is one of three advisors working with the football team. Before a football game, I mentioned to Hayden that I really would like to understand what goes into farming and how I could better identify crops as I ride along. He invited me to come down to his farm anytime. The wheat harvest seemed the perfect time to begin my education.
Kansas produces nearly 20% of the wheat in the United States, making our state the largest wheat supplier in the country. Like all crops, weather plays a major role in the success or failure of a season’s growth. This year, Kansas has been suffering from a lack of ground-soaking rains after an unusually warm and dry winter. Initial predictions for this year’s crop were not good, yet surprisingly the warm winter weather spurred early growth that allowed most of the wheat to be harvested before really hot weather arrived.
A recent Bloomberg News story reported that Kansas farmers “may get 40 bushels an acre on average, up from 35 bushels last year.” Rosie Meier, a merchandiser with Great Bend Co-op stated, “As dry as it has been, it’s coming out better than what we thought. Two weeks ago, I thought we’d be making about 23 bushels an acre overall, and today I think we’ll be around 32 bushels.”
Helping to drive that average up, Hayden’s crop averaged a whopping 72 bushels to the acre. That is up from last year’s 47 bushels. With a bit of rain delaying the harvest, and some spraying of other crops, it took Hayden a week and a half to harvest his wheat.
While Hayden drove his combine through the fields, Coffin gave me a primer on wheat. He pointed out how the dry wheat heads were ‘nodding’ since the wheat stalks were actually dying when ready for the harvest. He explained how wheat in Kansas used to be taller than you see in fields today. The shorter stalks of wheat leave less waste in the fields. Taking a head and rubbing it in his hands separated the kernels from the head for me to examine. Eventually, Hayden pulled up to unload the kernel bin from the combine into a grain cart being pulled around the fields by a huge tractor. Later, the wheat would be trucked to a grain elevator for storage.
Taking advantage of this break, I climbed into the combine’s cab to talk with Hayden. Hayden did not grow up on a farm. His grandfather farmed, but his father left the farm to run a data processing company. Hayden did return often to work the fields with his grandfather and eventually graduated from Kansas State with a degree in agronomy. Later in life, Hayden’s father sold his company and bought land to farm, and Hayden has been farming since.
Riding in the air-conditioned cab equipped with a radio to help pass the hours, the view out the window was mesmerizing as the high-tech combine thrashed through the stalks with complete efficiency. Once the kernels were separated and stored, the combine spit any waste out the back in a golden cloud. Hayden seemed perfectly content as he made slight control changes as we rolled along.
When I asked him why he loved farming so much, he immediately said, “I love the independence. I like not answering to anyone and not doing the same thing every day.” He went on to say how he loved “always looking to the next crop and constantly checking on things.”
From my seat in the combine, I could see the culmination of all his hard work spreading as far as I could see. As we moved through the golden rich fields harvesting wheat, his green corn stalks were growing higher in adjacent fields. While I was in Iowa last week, Hayden was in the fields planting his soy bean crop right on top of the remains of his wheat crop.
As we came to a stop to unload the latest load of kernels that Sunday, I hopped down from the cab to take more photographs knowing more about wheat than ever before. Along with that came an even greater appreciation of the toil a farmer puts into his work helping feed us. Hayden invited me back for the soy bean and corn harvests to help further my education.
He laughed as he reminded me that once he completed all the harvesting for the year, he would be looking forward to winter and “working only 40 and not 80 hours a week.”