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Drought conditions in Kansas, the nation's largest wheat producer, take a toll

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Drought has withered wheat fields in Kansas. Farmers there expect the smallest harvest more than half a century. Here's our friend Frank Morris of our member station KCUR.

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Kansas is the Wheat State, and that's hard to miss. Big, white grain elevators tower eight or 10 stories over little prairie towns. And usually, this time of year, thick waist-high wheat carpets big parts of the state.

JOHN THAEMERT: You'd just be smiling and say, yep, we're going to have a good crop. That's typically what ground like this would look like. Not this year.

MORRIS: John Thaemert, a robust guy in his mid-60s sporting faded overalls and a bright green shirt, is standing on ground his grandfather farmed before him. It's a patchy field, dotted with stunted plants.

THAEMERT: All of my wheat looks pretty bad, but this is by far the worst - thin, short, dead spots typical of a crop that you would want to abandon.

MORRIS: Because the grain from this field wouldn't cover the cost of harvesting it. Farther west, deeper into the drought - crops even worse. Farmer Mike McClellan says he'll likely abandon all 1,500 acres of wheat he planted. That means spending another $20,000 just to kill his crop with herbicide. That way he can collect crop insurance and stop the failing plants from drawing any more precious water from the dry ground.

MIKE MCLELLAN: You're seeing a lot of depression out here in farm country just because of this. It's a hard decision to decide to destroy your crop.

MORRIS: A punishing, sustained drought is forcing that decision on farmers across parts of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska, according to Kansas Wheat Commission researcher Aaron Harries.

AARON HARRIES: Oh, yeah. I mean, farmers have gone through two and, in some cases, three years now where you just wait for it to rain and it doesn't rain. And that's just depressing for folks.

MORRIS: It's also depressing wheat supply. Harries says this year's Kansas wheat harvest will be the smallest since the Eisenhower administration in the 1950s. That's upending a long history of Kansas wheat feeding people across the world.

HARRIES: Unfortunately, we're seeing now, which we've never seen before, is - some Eastern European wheat is being imported into the United States. That truly is unfortunate. And if you think about it, that wheat is going to go on trains into Kansas.

MORRIS: To Kansas flour mills that normally buy wheat from Kansas farmers. It's a mind-boggling coals-to-Newcastle situation, but wheat's in short supply. It's not just the drought. Russia's invasion of Ukraine choked exports from those countries and drove up prices. Abandoned fields on the high plains just make matters worse. And they're also taking a toll on Kansas farm towns. Cars, trucks and clothes aren't selling. Businesses up and down Main Street are taking a hit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good, you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #: Good. I'm all right.

MORRIS: In Ellsworth, Kan., Riley Zamrzla runs the co-op where farmers sell wheat and buy farm supplies. But with little wheat to fuel the local economy this summer, he says the town's just hanging on.

RILEY ZAMRZLA: Pretty much everybody's just praying that we get a - get an average fall crop. I don't want to go on another bad crop. So hopefully fall crops turn around.

ZAMRZLA: And they might. Kansas farmers got some good news recently. It came from the sky.

THAEMERT: We're going to get wet.

MORRIS: A sudden downpour drives farmer John Thaemert into his metal machine shed to keep from getting soaked. But beaming at the deluge, Thaemert looks about ready to go out and dance in it.

THAEMERT: Yeah, doesn't that smell good? And it sounds good. This is a rare treat for us now. Boy, it's coming down. And they're big drops.

MORRIS: This rain comes too late for most of Thaemert's wheat, but it's good for other crops he's planning to harvest this fall, and it sure boosts his spirits.

THAEMERT: Yeah, this is a nice rain.

MORRIS: For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Sylvan Grove, Kan.

(SOUNDBITE OF YEARS' "THE ASSASSINATION OF DOW JONES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris
[Copyright 2024 NPR]

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