Kansas pours out wheat -- and wants more 'bread'

Offsetting drought-caused losses for other crops, this year's US wheat harvest will set a new record. Last week the Department of Agriculture raised its wheat harvest estimate to 2.35 billion bushels. This is up 10 percent over 1979 and tops the previous record harvest of 2.14 billion bushels, set in 1976.

The key to this success story is Kansas -- because only seven countries in the world produce more wheat than this state.

Farmers here, in an area that early explorers called the "Great American Desert," annually harvest between 300 and 400 million bushels of wheat. This harvest makes Kansas the No. 1 state in wheat yield and accounts for 20 to 25 percent of US production.

More important, the Kansas wheat farmer is part of a steadily expanding industry, because overseas demand for American grain is rising. This demand is predicted to rise with increasing speed as more and more nations switch to eating bread made from American wheat flour and switch to eating meat fattened on American corn and soybean meal.

In 1979, wheat was nearly one-quarter of the 130 million metric tons of grain and grain products the United States exported. The direct trade value of those exports was over $20 billion, an amount that does not include the new jobs and new markets created at home to supply this export industry.

Midwestern farmers frequently complain that their steady buildup in export sales goes unappreciated by the 97 percent of Americans not directly involved in farming. They feel this lack of appreciation is particularly glaring in Washington -- and particularly inappropriate when wheat, corn, and soybean exports play a major role in helping pay the bill for US oil imports.

One Midwestern reaction to the lack of appreciation is a suggestion by farmers and local politicians that the Department of Agriculture move from Washington to Kansas City, where it would be closer to the farmer.

If that seems a wildly unlikely proposal, it's not that far from positions taken by the Midwest's representatives in Washington. Sen. George McGovern (D) of South Dakota has joined his farm-state colleagues to oppose the embargo on grain sale to the Soviet Union. He has also complained that too much decisionmaking is done by bureaucrats who "come out of Harvard or MIT," rather than by people "with a farm background."

Policies certainly might be different if they were decided in Lindsborg, Kan. This quiet and still very Swedish town, surrounded by good wheat country, appreciates wheat and the family farms producing it at 40 to 60 bushels per acre.

Lindsborg's mayor, John Riggs, says simply that "Lindsborg's economic source is agriculture." Being a dentist as well as mayor, he is closely in touch with the agricultural seasons. His patients pay their bills after the wheat harvest in July and after the corn, soybean, and milo harvest in the fall.

What the Lindsborg farmers say they need most is better prices for their grain -- rather than having to sell a bushel of wheat for $3.70 when, according to the National Association of Wheat Growers' latest survey, that bushel cost $4 .59 to produce.

Ron O'Dell, assistant manager of the Farmers Union Elevator Company in Lindsborg, knows precisely what it means each time the price of wheat goes up or down on the video screen relaying Chicago and Kansas City prices to his office. Farmers delivering grain ask him for advice on whether to sell their grain, because prices might drop lower, or whether to put their grain in storage, in anticipation of a price rise.

Pulling at his long black sideburns and twisting his railroad cap, Mr. O'Dell says it's hard advising farmers today. "Since the Nixon administration and we got in the world market, we get these wild fluctuations, so that you can gather all the information together, and then they pull off an embargo or some such in Washington and you can be sucking swamp water."

Advising farmers on when to sell isn't easy, he says as he checks a new batch of wheat for weight and moisture content. "When they are so skinny as right now , selling below the cost of production, you know that if you make a mistake you will see a sale bill for that farm next spring."

Larry Dahlsten's answer to this constant threat of going broke is to manage his 650-acre farm with stop watch precision.

An electronic monitoring system in the cab of his huge Massey-Ferguson 5500 combine harvester gives him a constant check on how much wheat is being thrown back into the field with the straw after threshing.

His own design in mixing equipment allows him to grind and mix feed from his own storage bins for his hogs. Using his carefully kept records, he can work out exactly what feed mix gives the best weight gains.

One key to success, Mr. Dahlsten says, is "marketing on a regular basis." He has enough on-farm storage for most of his wheat -- and has a trusting banker. This combination allows him to avoid selling at harvest time when prices are low. Working with market reports, a calculator, and the skills he and his wife have honed over the years in college and on the farm, he then waits for the right price -- and hopes it all works out to give him some profit.

His figuring must be fairly accurate (and there must be some profit), because the Internal Revenue Service did a complete audit on his past two years and, he says with a grin, "they didn't need a single penny more."

Local farmers naturally conclude that only the politicians who live near the farms -- and have to dodge 20-foot-wide combine harvesters on the highways -- can understand the farmer and his needs.

Mayor Riggs recognizes the importance of agriculture and so devotes a lot of time and effort to farming issues. So, although all the farms are outside the town limits, the mayor has been lobbying hard for state and federal support for more farm irrigation in the area.

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