Wheat farmers keeping wary eye on the sky

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

In wheat country, this is nail-biting time. The most magnificent of crops -- which feeds hundreds of millions of people worldwide -- is three weeks away from harvest in the Golden Plains. And -- because livelihoods are at stake -- growers are getting more anxious by the minute.

"Right now, we have prospects for a good wheat crop," says Al Holub, manager of the Culbertson Elevator, "but, as is always the case, we have to hope the hail and hot winds stay away."

The anticipation ... and the agonizing ... is a part of the annual drama leading up to harvest. It starts in the last half of September, when the seed is put into the ground, then slowly builds in intensity until reaching the peak of expectation in mid to late June, just before harvest.

This year is particularly exciting because -- for many growers -- prospects have never been better. "For the most part, the wheat is just beautiful," said Morrison Sutton, who has been farming in Hitchcock County for more than 50 years.

Driving around a 35-mile circle Tuesday near his Stratton home, Sutton said he saw wheat in the height of its glory, ranging from vibrant green in color in many Nebraska fields, to lighter colored Tam wheat on the Kansas line.

Still, Mother Nature is a fickle lady. "There are spots that didn't catch the right rains, and the wheat there is not doing too well," he said.

Randy Peters, who farms 3,500 acres of wheat in the McCook area with his sons, Ryan and Randon, has a similar outlook to Sutton, seeing a lot of good wheat, but also noting problems in other fields.

"At this point, the wheat in this area ranges from really good to really poor," he said. The trouble spots are the result of two problems: wheat streak mosaic and leaf rust.

But for those who have escaped the yield-damaging diseases, the outlook is outstanding. If the weather stays close to what it's been like the past couple of days -- with temperatures from 80 to 85 degrees -- the wheat yields could rank up there with the great crops of the past, such as 1948, 1958 and 1980.

As of today, the Culbertson Elevator manager, Holub, said custom combine crews are bumping up against the Oklahoma line. If the custom harvesters progress steadily from there -- and the weather cooperates -- they are expected to roll into this area in late June. "It all depends on weather conditions," Holub said. "It it stays cool and cloudy, the harvest will get into full swing the first week in July. But, if it turns hot and windy, cutting could start a week earlier."

Whatever happens, the countdown to harvest has begun. For many in the Golden Plains, hopes are high, but -- through years of experience -- growers have learned not to count their wheat until it's in the bin.

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