Against the Grain: Harvesting Crews Tackle Drought and Delays in Crucial Wheat Crop Season

In the sprawling wheat fields of Sharon Springs, Kansas, waves of golden wheat fall rhythmically under the combine operated by Laura Haffner. The wheat fields, covering 320 acres in this far-west region, are some of the most bountiful she has seen this season – a stark contrast to the devastating impacts of the years-long drought predicted to produce one of the poorest wheat crops in the country’s history.

Against the Grain: Harvesting Crews Tackle Drought and Delays in Crucial Wheat Crop Season

A break in the drought occurred unexpectedly in May, with heavy rains extending into July. Although this was a welcome respite for some crops such as corn, sorghum, and soybeans, which are to be harvested in the fall, the rain also brought significant delays for the harvesting crews. These seasonal groups, essential to the country’s bread supply chain, follow the maturation of crops throughout the summer and early fall, moving from the south up north. The delay in Kansas has led to an alarming drop in harvested winter wheat, standing at only 60% as of July 10, compared to over 90% at the same time last year.

Custom harvesters like Laura and Ryan Haffner, along with Brian Jones, are feeling the strain of this agricultural tug-of-war. “A year to remember for all the wrong reasons,” Jones remarks, emphasizing the industry’s vulnerability to weather conditions. For them, timing is everything, and delays can result in crops being decimated by hail, diseases, or drying kernels. The rain-induced delay is not just an operational challenge but a relationship management issue too, as harvesters must balance customer expectations against the reality of their position.

One proposed solution to this problem is splitting the teams. The Haffners plan to divide their 18-person crew, sending some to Colorado and others to Montana, to tackle the delays. This arrangement allows them to spread their efforts geographically, providing a modicum of stability despite the volatile weather conditions. However, for smaller crews, like Jones’s, splitting isn’t a feasible option. Instead, they are resorting to drastic measures like skipping states, such as Nebraska, to focus on those with higher acreage.

While the rain did help some fields, most of the harvest thus far has been disappointingly sparse. The lowered yield naturally results in a significant reduction in income for the harvesters, making this year one of the most challenging harvests in the last 15 years.

Kansas, being the country’s top producer of winter wheat, is set to produce just 577 million bushels of hard red winter wheat used in bread, a significant drop since the late 1950s. The industry is not just fighting against nature, but also changes in agricultural trends, technological advancements, and market consolidations. The number of farms has decreased drastically from 6.8 million in 1935 to two million in 2022. Also, the shift towards biofuels and development of more drought-resistant crop varieties have contributed to a 50% reduction in wheat acreage between 1981 and 2022.

The custom harvesting industry itself has seen shrinkage, with an estimated three to four harvesters leaving the industry annually. The industry also relies more heavily on international workers via the H-2A visa program, as it becomes harder to recruit domestically due to the seasonal nature of the work and low local unemployment rates. Despite the rising costs associated with this program, it remains an essential lifeline for the industry.

Custom harvesting, however, still holds allure for some, offering the chance to travel, operate heavy machinery, and behold the majestic sight of shimmering fields. The Haffners’ crew this year includes workers from South Africa, the U.K., and Australia. They live in RVs, dine together in the fields, and exchange playful banter over their radios, creating an atmosphere of camaraderie amidst challenging conditions.

The industry’s struggles are personified in Laura Haffner, whose commitment to the task at hand is evident. “I’m making sure that I’m getting all the grain,” she says, constantly scanning the fields as she operates the combine. “I don’t want to leave even a tiny little strip.”

Despite the looming challenges and unpredictability, the harvesters’ hustle continues, a testament to their resilience and crucial role in maintaining the breadbasket of the nation. The year 2023, with all its weather-induced challenges, serves as a stark reminder of the hurdles faced by this vital industry and the need for continued innovation and adaptability in the face of changing weather patterns and market dynamics.

In conclusion, the story of the 2023 wheat harvest is not just a tale of a seasonal struggle against the whims of Mother Nature but also a reflection of the changing face of American agriculture. With dwindling numbers of custom harvesters, an industry heavily reliant on international labor, and the pressures of market consolidation and shifting crop preferences, the challenges faced by harvesters like the Haffners and Jones have never been more pressing.

However, in spite of the dire predictions and historical setbacks, there’s a palpable sense of resilience and determination to see the season through. The hard work of custom harvesters, their adaptability in the face of adversity, and their pivotal role in the food supply chain remain an integral part of the country’s agricultural fabric. The commitment echoed in Laura Haffner’s refusal to “leave even a tiny little strip” of grain is emblematic of the grit and perseverance inherent in this industry.

The uncertainties and hardships of 2023 will undoubtedly leave an indelible mark on the industry’s narrative. But with these challenges also come opportunities – for innovation, for cooperation, and for reimagining the future of harvesting in the United States. It’s a testament to the American spirit of resilience and determination, proving that even in the harshest of seasons, the hustle to bring in the wheat crop goes on.,This article is an original creation by If you wish to repost or share, please include an attribution to the source and provide a link to the original article.Post Link:

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