Farmers in Kansas Give Up on Wheat after Drought, Cold

    26 May 2023

    The midwestern U.S. state of Kansas is one of the country's top grain-producing states. But farmers there are having to kill or plow over their winter wheat crop after a bad growing season.

    Farmers plant winter wheat in the autumn and it grows during the winter and early spring. Harvest time is in the summer.

    By the month of May, farmers have a good idea about the health of the wheat plants.

    Mark Nelson, a scout on the Wheat Quality Council's Kansas wheat tour, checks a winter wheat field north of Minneapolis, Kansas, U.S., May 17, 2022. (REUTERS/Julie Ingwersen)
    Mark Nelson, a scout on the Wheat Quality Council's Kansas wheat tour, checks a winter wheat field north of Minneapolis, Kansas, U.S., May 17, 2022. (REUTERS/Julie Ingwersen)

    This year's crop has suffered from the extremely dry and cold winter that Kansas experienced. The weather hurt the grain and kept it from growing well. As a result, farmers are choosing to kill, plow over or give up on their wheat fields. That information comes from a recent survey of industry experts and visits to Kansas farms by Reuters reporters.

    Some farmers will make an insurance claim to get a little bit of money. Others are letting cows walk their fields and eat the plants.

    Much of the wheat produced in Kansas is used for making bread. This year, many bread makers will have to look for other wheat sources.

    In nearby states, farmers who planted wheat in late 2022 are also reporting problems. Farmers across the U.S. plan to abandon 33 percent of their winter crop. That is the highest percentage in over 100 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

    About 19 percent of the winter wheat fields in Kansas will not be harvested this spring. That is up from 10 percent last year and two percent in 2021.

    Farm experts who recently visited Kansas say the percentage could grow even higher.

    Justin Gilpin is chief executive of the Kansas Wheat Commission. He said the percentage of abandoned fields could come close to 1989. That year, farmers gave up on 28 percent of their wheat.

    "You have a wheat crop that didn't come up," Gilpin said.

    Gilpin noted that there is a great demand for hay. Hay comes from the stems and leaves of plants such as wheat. The wheat is cut, dried and sent to farms for animals to eat. Some farmers are cutting the plants early, making hay and then selling it to animal farms.

    In Kansas, farmers are expected to produce only 191.4 million bushels of winter wheat this year. That would be the smallest wheat harvest since 1963. But the Wheat Quality Council, an industry group, believes the amount will be even lower.

    Those in the wheat business are not sure of the numbers yet because they do not yet know how many fields will be abandoned.

    People who work for insurance companies are going around Kansas, looking at fields, and deciding how much they will pay the farmers for their lost crops. Other farmers with dead wheat are thinking of planting sorghum, which could still grow this year even in dry conditions.

    The wheat-growing problem is not only in Kansas. In the neighboring state of Oklahoma, farmers are also worried about their harvest. In the northern part of the state, close to Kansas, some farmers will only harvest about 35 percent of the wheat they planted last year.

    Clay Schemm owns land in western Kansas. He said planting wheat in the autumn and then seeing it fail to grow is "kind of like watching a loved one go through a terminal illness."

    The bad wheat season also hurts the businesses in the area, such as hotels and restaurants. When farmers decide not to harvest their wheat, fewer laborers come to the area to help. As a result, not as many people eat at restaurants or stay in hotels.

    Kansas State University's College of Agriculture also suffers. It normally gets about $1 million from the Kansas Wheat Commission for programs and research. However, that money comes from wheat sales. If less wheat is sold, less money comes in.

    "We may not be able to do as much," said the College of Agriculture's leader, Ernie Minton. "It slows down the whole lifecycle of wheat research."

    I'm Dan Friedell.

    Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on a report by Reuters.


    Words in This Story

    survey –n. an activity where many people are asked the same question in an effort to gather data about what most people will do or think

    insurance –n. an agreement in which a person makes regular payments to a company and the company promises to pay money if the person is injured or dies, or to pay money equal to the value of something (such as a house or car) if it is damaged, lost, or stolen

    bushel –n. a unit for measuring an amount of fruit and grain that is equal to about 35.2 liters in the U.S. and to about 36.4 liters in the U.K.

    abandon –v. to give up on something

    terminal –adj. a kind of disease that is not curable

    sorghum –n. a kind of tropical grass that is grown for food