From atop his John Deere combine, a jovial Charles O'Neil, a wheat grower near Carmen, Okla., forges through acres of thick, golden wheat. “I've never seen a crop this good,” he said.
Rain during harvest caused test weights to dip, but toward the end they averaged around 60 pounds per bushel. O'Neil said later varieties of wheat performed a little better. This bumper crop averaged 50 to 60 bushels per acre, some fields as high as 70.
“This is a day and night difference from last year,” said Doug Green, branch manager of the Carmen Farmer's Co-op. The 2002 wheat crop in the Carmen area was pathetic, at best. Growers here do not irrigate and depend on timely rainfall. It was dry throughout the entire growing season, and farmers turned lots of acres to crop insurance. Some growers did not cut a single acre of wheat in 2002.
“Because of the poor wheat yields last year, this is really two crops in one,” O'Neil said. “About 61 bushels per acre is the best I've heard this year. Last year we were getting about 10 and 15 bushels an acre.”
“This year we had good, timely moisture and we had snow. It has just been unbelievable,” Green said, adding that morale in town is completely different from the doldrums of last year's harvest. The conversations are upbeat, and area residents, as well as farmers are eager to give thanks.
Ask anyone in the town of 500 northwest of Enid and most tell you this is the best wheat crop they've seen in years, maybe in their lifetime.
Tulia less upbeat
Attitudes are not quite as positive five hours to the southwest in the Texas Panhandle town of Tulia. Yields on dryland wheat were about five bushels below average. “We got some moisture early and got good (stocker cattle) grazing on it, but then it got hot and dry. It (harvested with) good quality and a good weight, and that's kind of unusual when you have low yields,” said Tommy Womack, a wheat grower in Tulia and president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.
Womack said irrigated wheat was average with good quality and good test weights, and farmers are optimistic as prices have increased by about 50 cents a bushel since harvest. However, in recent years, irrigated wheat acres have decreased because of declining water supplies and high energy costs.
“I plant more dryland wheat than I did five or seven years ago because my water is getting low. I used to have more cotton and more irrigated wheat. Energy prices have increased significantly as well, so I went to more dryland,” Womack said.
Recent fuel cost hikes affect almost all farmers across the United States, which prompts many to re-think some of their farming practices. But for next year's crop, Womack plans to plant his usual 3,000 acres of wheat. “What usually determines how much wheat I cut is how much moisture we get in the fall and then cattle prices play into that also,” he said.
Womack uses much of his wheat as pasture to graze stocker cattle.
Half wheat, half rye
The outstanding wheat crop does not really entice O'Neil to plant more wheat. Usually he plants 50 percent wheat and 50 percent rye to spread his risk. On the other hand, Green notices producers around Carmen planting more milo, experimenting with no-till farming, and rotating crops.
“We used to have lots of milo around here, but when a farm program changed, that stopped. Now, with the latest farm bill, milo acres are picking up again,” Green said.
Womack has not changed to match the new farm program. “You just have to go with what works for you. It takes cattle, cotton, grain sorghum and wheat up here to make it work,” he said.
Sometimes, though, making it work is harder than it sounds. On a trip to Idaho this summer, Womack noticed the dry conditions from the mid-section of the United States all the way to Canada. But if history repeats itself, rains will come to the nation's grain belt eventually.
And maybe not this year or next year, but sometime, gas prices will drop, Tulia will be thanking the Lord for its bumper wheat crop while Carmen cuts a smidgen below average and prays for more rain.
“It all catches up, I'm a believer in the law of averages,” O'Neil said.