Wheat Harvest

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Text by Kris B. Mamula; photographs by George T. Mendel.

Few American symbols have been more enduring than amber waves of grain. But wheat production peaked when Ronald Reagan was still new to the White House, and it has been steadily declining since then. What’s more, experts say that innovation in cultivating and harvesting America’s icon of plenty has stalled in comparison to other crops.

“Wheat has been left in the dust in terms of production,” says Colin A. Carter, professor of agriculture and resource economics at the University of California, Davis.

Key to America’s wheat harvest are some 600 custom cutters, like the three Befort brothers, who bring about 35 percent of the country’s grain crop to market, says Ron Misener, president of U.S. Custom Harvesters Inc., a Hutchinson Kansas trade group. Independent harvesters start in North Texas in late May, where the wheat ripens soonest, then follow the harvest north through Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska and sometimes even Canada by early September. This year’s harvest will take the Beforts some 700 miles through five states between late May and mid July.

Independent wheat harvesters first hit the road in 1944. A bumper crop and shortages of manpower and fuel that year prompted the U.S. War Food Administration to pay farmers $6 an acre to cut wheat, and commit 500 new Massey-Harris combines to the effort. Some 25 million bushels of wheat were harvested with the combine’s 14-foot cutting bars. That’s less than half the width of today’s wide-mouth monsters of the field.

Those early brigades inspired generations of kids throughout the Midwest. As a child, Steven Befort remembers the hoopla in the Befort hometown of Hays, Kansas as a stream of combines made their way south for the first harvest of the season.

“You kind of waited for it all year,” says Steven, 33, a compact, unshaven man, who does carpentry work in the winter to support his wife, Christy, a hospital billing clerk, and daughters, Rebecca, 8, and Heather, 5. “It’s something in your blood.”


Copyright © 2004-2006 George T. Mendel. All rights reserved.