East central Kansas is just a little bit too dry for corn -- but too wet to justify spending $60,000 on a center-pivot system for irrigating each 160-acre field.
So the Whites raise wheat and soybeans on their 510 acres and rely on rain. Last year this meant seeing a lot of their fields burned up with drought. This year it's meant a wheat harvest delayed by too much moisture in the fields. And heavy rains washed out some newly planted soybeans, calling for replanting at a time when the entire family is already very busy with other chores.
But Warren White doesn't worry about going out of the farming business. One reason is that this farm has survived many bad years -- going all the way back, he says, "to when my mom's father's mother homesteaded this place in about 1871 ."
The main reason for Mr. White's confidence and his broad grin, is the classic picture he sees spread out before him. Moving in formation with as much precision the birds winging overhead, Warren White's three tractors cut back anf forth across an 80-acre field of soybeans beside the site of the original family homestead.
This is a particularly special day for Warren and his wife, Joan, as they lean back against the hot side of their pickup truck. It's the first day that their youngest son, Jeff, just turned 13, has been allowed to cultivate beans. Keeping right up with the tractors driven by his older brothers, Cletus and Duane, Jeff does his full share. Each tractor pulls a wide cultivator that slices through the soil between each low row of soybeans plants to root out weeds.
Jeff's contribution is important on this farm because cultivation is an almost nonstop operation. It keeps the tractors busy on weed control from the time planting ends until harvesting begins. Most of the White's neighbors cultivate their fields just once, using herbicide as their main weed- control tool. But the Whites never use herbicide, Mrs. White explains, because "we don't believe in it after seeing what all these chemicals do to the land, just poisoning it."
As with their neighbors, the White's crop yields bounce up and down from year to year depending on weather conditions. But, Joan White says proudly, though last year's bean yields were down due to the dry conditions, "we made 40 bushels [an acre] on some fields . . . and even when everything was so bad, the elevator man said our beans were the best beans around."
Jeff breaks from cultivating long enough to say that, yes, he plans to carry on in the family's farming tradition. To prove it, he already raises his own beef cattle -- part of a new family interest that began when Duane specialized in cattle feeding and livestock in agricultural college.
Jeff doesn't have much time to talk, however -- or maybe he just doesn't have much to say today because, as his father explains, "He's a little scared I will eat him out if he gets in the rows." But Jeff steers a straight course, careful to slice up the weeds without disturbing the rows of soybeans.
With soybeans to cultivate, more soybeans to plant, wheat to harvest, and hay to cut and bale for the cattle, Duane and Cletus are as determined to finish this field before dark as Jeff is. They all know how much is left to do tomorrow.
This constant activity may be one more reason why the White family farm is not only surviving but adding a few more acres every year to the original 80 -acre homestead.
Other farmers spend less time in their fields because they have invested more in time-saving applications of weed-killing chemicals. These "chemical farmers" have a greater cash investment in their crops -- and so must pay closer attention to the erratic swings in the price of grain on the trading floors in Kansas City, Chicago, and Minneapolis.