Vignettes From The Wheat Belt

Where patriotism, politics, and planting mix easily

THE elevator was designed to carry one person. This time it lifted three. Two inside a narrow cage with no door, dusty with pulverized grain bits. A third standing on the roof, gripping the cable for balance.

With the click of a button, a hidden motor winces and strains from below, heaving its load 150 feet up a darkened shaft to the top of a milk-bottle collection of concrete silos.

Grain elevators are the Sears Towers of the Kansas plains. They pierce the skyline without competition, rising from flaxen fields like huge marquees announcing the only local concern.

From atop the cooperative silos here, it is easy to see why Sumner County is called the wheat capital. Grain fields roll out as far as the eye can see, wind sweeping across like ripples on a pond. Farmers here boast that they produce more bushels than any other wheat-growing region in the world.

Meet Bob Dole day

Ask the moon-faced man in overalls and flannel shirt if he came to the pancake rally because he is a Republican, and he'll shake his jowls without even looking at you.

His hat tells his story.

As a young sailor in World War II, his ship, the USS Wasp, had come under fire from Japanese Zeros, and he was injured. Once back in the States, he had surgery, but ran into trouble getting Uncle Sam to pay the bill. So he turned to a young county attorney in Russell, Kan., named Bob Dole.

That was 50 years ago, which illustrates an important point in prairie politics. People here don't always support candidates because they belong to a particular party. They sometimes belong to a party because they support a particular candidate. Personal connections go a long way.

So does patriotism. A flag flaps from the chest pocket of the Dole supporter. It is a familiar motif in the Midwest: One Illinois farmer has stamped the stars and stripes on his barn.

Harvest moon

The wheat is in the silos, and in coming weeks Kansas farmers will be preparing their raven-black loam for the new winter seeding. Combines will be harvesting corn in Iowa, Indiana, and Illinois. This year's crop cycle is reaching its climax.

Yet even as tillers kick up dust for another planting cycle, farmers across the nation's breadbasket are keeping an eye on the horizon, a thousand miles to the East. Republicans in Congress are considering the most significant overhaul of the nation's crop policy in 60 years.

Federal farm subsidies are under assault by a penurious Congress. If the more radical reconstructionists have their way, the federal government could be off the farm entirely in five years.

Steve Van Allen leans over the fender of his red pickup outside the Conway Springs, Kan., grain elevator and ponders what an end to farm subsidies would mean. Like many of his colleagues, the orange-shirted wheat farmer is not sure.

If the government withdraws too quickly, the small farmer may be forced off the land. Will there be changes in land leasing and machinery rentals? Will American farmers be able to compete overseas?

Mr. Van Allen smiles. ''It's hard to say, isn't it?'' he asks. He pauses, then wonders aloud about the question that looms larger than a weather report: whether his boy will be able to carry on the family tradition.

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