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Good Wheat Harvest Will Spell Stimulus for Kansas
The American wheat harvest, the cronerstone of the midwestern breadbasket and the back bone of our economy is pictured using an antique combine.
Credit:  Image courtesy of the author

OTTAWA, Kan. -- One of the most important economic stimulus packages for Kansas -- the an-nual winter wheat harvest -- is under way. And for many parts of the state, the harvest will be economically stimulating.

“Agriculture is the most important component of the Kansas economy,” said Bill Spiegel, wheat farmer and spokesman for the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers. And wheat is one of the most important components of Kansas agriculture, he added. “Wheat supports a lot communities, and not just small ones,“ Spiegel said.

In most parts of the state, the quantity and quality of the wheat has been good, he said. Accord-ing to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service, at an average yield of 40 bushels per acre, the Kansas wheat crop for this year will be more than 430 million bushels.

However, because of higher-than-average yields, some estimates put the harvest at more than 600 million bushels. The Kansas Association of Wheat Growers likes to say if all of the wheat harvested this year in the state were loaded into grain-hopper rail cars, the train would stretch from the Kansas-Colorado border to the Atlantic Ocean.

At Thursday’s prices on the Kansas City Board of Trade, each of those bushels would be worth at least $5.60. And farmers aren’t the only ones who benefit from the wheat. Others make money selling fertilizer and fuel to farmers, lending money for seed, and from hauling, storing, milling and baking the wheat.

Indeed, wheat farmers get only nine cents of each of the bread loaves sold at grocery stores, Spiegel said. Wheat has become a dominant cash grain in the Great Plains because wheat, which is planted in the fall, can survive the bleak winters and thrive in the blistering hot and windy Plains summers.

Most of the Kansas wheat is descended from the Turkey hard red wheat smuggled into the U.S. by German Mennonites who emigrated from the Russian steppes 125 years ago. Hard red winter wheat has the protein and baking characteristics that make it ideal for breads, cakes, pastas and other cereal foods, Spiegel said.

Once the wheat is harvested from fields, it goes to neighboring elevators and then to the big grain terminals at Kansas City and Wichita, said Matthew Vajnar, grain trader for the Ottawa, Kan., Co-op, which has elevators scattered across east-central Kansas, including Johnson County.

Nearly all of the wheat harvested will end up on the dining-room table, he said. Although there have been some experiments using wheat as animal feed, nearly all of the wheat is eaten by hu-mans, Spiegel said. “Wheat is truly the staff of life,” he said.

Half of the wheat harvested in Kansas will be eaten by Americans, he said. The rest will be ex-ported overseas, where it will compete in the international commodity markets with wheat from Australia, Canada, Argentina and the European Union, he said.

The characteristics that make wheat hardy enough for the Great Plains also makes it tough enough to compete in world markets, he said. “The quality of our wheat gives it an edge against other competitors,” Spiegel said.

The Kansas Associations of Wheat Growers’ central office in Manhattan always hosts trade delegations from other countries, he said. Last week, the office hosted a group from Nigeria, he said. Because of its oil wealth and fast-growing population, Nigeria is a prized destination for wheat exporters.

“The Nigerians told us that, last year, they bought a lot of wheat from the EU,” Spiegel said. “But it wasn’t up to the same level of quality as ours so they were coming back here.”

The state’s wheat harvest, which normally begins in late June, is at the half-way point, he said. Traditionally, the wheat harvest starts in Texas and moves north as wheat matures, ending in the northern Dakotas and Canada in the early fall.

Much of the state’s remaining wheat is in the north-central and northwest part of the state, he said. Most of the wheat in Franklin County, which is immediately to the southwest of the Kansas City metro area, has been harvested, Vajnar, of Ottawa Co-op, said.

Although the harvest has gone well in most parts of the state, that hasn’t been the case in east-central Kansas, he said. The harvest is better than last year but last year was poor, he said. The quality of this year’s wheat was slightly below average, as well as the yields, he said. What’s more the amount of wheat acreage planted is about half of what was planted last year, Vajnar said.

“A lot of guys harvested their soybeans too late last year,” he said. “They’ll plant their wheat seed into the bean stubble after they harvest but it was too wet to do that last year.”

The unusually bad wheat harvest last year also discouraged many from going back to wheat, he said. Unlike counties to the west, a bad wheat year isn’t as catastrophic for farmers in Franklin County and other parts of east-central Kansas, he said.

Wheat has been a secondary crop in much of eastern Kansas, used as a rotational crop to rejuve-nate grain fields or as an extra source of cash. Fall crops -- soybeans, corn and grain sorghum, also called milo -- are the main cash grains for that part of the state although farmers in areas that are more traditionally part of the Wheat Belt have also been expanding their acres of fall crops.

Because of their more varied uses, including for food and commercial and industrial purposes, soybeans command more money per bushel and are in greater demand. The price for corn, popu-lar as animal feed and for human consumption, has also risen over the years because of demand for ethanol and commercial and industrial purposes as well.

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