US wheat harvest: bountiful in bushels but tight in profits

The Midwest's bumper winter wheat harvest is moving north through Kansas this week, with giant combines churning their way toward Nebraska and the Dakotas. Some farmers dodged the drought, hailstorms, insect attacks, and a late May frost so successfully that fields normally yielding 30 to 50 bushels per acre of hard red winter wheat are yielding 60 to 70 bushels per acre.

But even those farmers with such exceptional yields have neighbors with yields so low it doesn't pay to run a combine through their fields. Others who had been racing to cut their wheat found it easier to explain the urgency when heavy rains hit Monday morning, holding up all harvesting plans, ruining others, and calling for replanting some washed-out soybean and milo (sorghum) fields.

Millions of bushels of wheat are pouring into church-like country grain elevators and into cathedral-like terminal elevators with their grain-weighing head houses towering more than 250 feet above the rich, flat Kansas cropland.

The laden fields with uncut corners left for rabbit, quail, and deer, and the long lines of grain trucks waiting to unload into elevators open until after midnight, offer a vision of plenty. But America's "4 percent" -- the crop, dairy, and livestock farmers producing this plenty for the nonfarm population -- warn that this vision can be deceptive.

As his $90,000 combine pours 170,000 bushels of wheat from its bin into the one-ton truck his daughter-in-law, Theresa, is about to drive to the grain elevator, Kenneth Ott is clearly proud and pleased. This year he has harvested another crop that's at least "fair" from the land just northwest of Wichita that his grandfather first farmed. He's happy to have his son, Bruce, already making many f the decisions on the 2,200 acres they farm together. Between the 30 -bushel wheat now being harvested, milo being planted this week, alfalfa, which should give at least five cuttings this year, and a large sheep raising operation, the Ott family runs a successful farm.

But, Bruce Ott explains, "I don't really believe we are getting a fair shake. You've got to want to be in farming, because if somebody wants money, he looks for some other job that will pay."

To help keep farmers afloat financially, Kenneth Ott spends a good deal of time explaining the situation to Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, whose son, Bill, is one of four hard-working young men helping the Otts plant and harvest crops this summer. Yet Mr. Ott isn't sure even she will listen to the "4 percent" -- and wonders about the future of his own farm as suburban houses ring more of his fields and as a paving company turns more of the land he once farmed into barren sand pits.

Farther northwest from Wichita, in Haven, Kan., the Showalter family farms on rich Arkansas River bottom land isn't as bothered by the threat of encroaching houses, sand pits, and garbate dumps. Yet this 3,500-acre operation is also under pressure. Bob Showalter and his two sons are proud of one field yielding over 70 bushels per acre. If their feed crops do as well, they'll raise more than half the feed for the 4,000 beef cattle they market every year. But says Mr. Showalter's son, C. B., before roaring back into a wheat field with one of the farm's three immense combines, "The only way you survive in farming today, which is terrible, is to see one of your neighbors quit. Then you can farm land and spread your costs over more acres."

Later C. B.'s wife, Joan, cooks another meal to take into the wheat fields for the 12 to 20 hands ready for full dinners and suppers every day during the harvest. She agrees that whether they like it or not, today's farmers must expand to survive. "There's a lot of people quiting farming," she says with a shrug, "so we've always had a chance to buy or rent more land."

C. B. Showalter doesn't expect the pressure to ease -- even if the government "gets clear out of farming" as he would like. With current tight government controls on prices, he explains, farmers' profit margins are barely enough in bumper years to cover the losses in poor years. This forces many small farmers out of business, he says.

Phasing out government programs, he argues, would also be painful for many farmers now forced to depend on government support payments. But otherwise he sees current programs leading to the disappearance of small independent farmers. The final turn on that road, C. B. warns, will lead to a takeover by big business and "once big business gets in, consumers will be seeing just the prices big business wants to charge -- take it or leave it."

Another 20 miles farther northwest from Wichita, Doug Wildin, who farms 2,000 acre of grain, sees the same risks if America doesn't learn to appreciate its farmers. If government policy is to spend $140 billion on the Defense Department while ignoring agriculture, he says, "agriculture will end up in the same position we are in with energy."

As long as prices for farm products remain near or even below the cost of production, Mr. Wildin insists as he races to repair his broken combine, America risks squandering its agricultural plenty just as it squandered its energy p lenty.

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