Kansas farmers abandon their wheat fields after a severe drought

WICHITA, Kansas (Reuters) – Farmers in Kansas, the largest producer of wheat in the United States for bread making, are abandoning their crops after a severe drought has damaged farms ravaged by the cold.

They deliberately sprayed wheat fields with crop-killing chemicals and demanded more insurance payouts than usual, Reuters found during a three-day tour of the state, betting the grain was not worth harvesting. Other farmers turn over the bleak-looking fields to cattle to graze.

Abandoning fields will lead to a shortage of wheat in the United States, the fifth largest wheat export in the world, with inventories falling to a 16-year low. High abandonment rates are an economic blow to farming towns and are forcing wheat buyers to adjust purchasing plans by buying the staple grain elsewhere.

Nationally, growers of winter wheat plan to give up 33% of the acres they’ve planted, the highest percentage since World War I, the USDA said in a May 12 report.

Kansas farmers are expected to give up about 19% of acres planted last fall, up from 10% last year and 4% in 2021, according to the report. But farmers, grain dealers and representatives of major food companies who traversed the state on their annual crop tour last week warned of an even greater proportion of unharvested acres.

Crop conditions point to a similar result to 1989, when farmers didn’t harvest 28% of the wheat they planted, said Justin Gilpin, CEO of the Kansas Wheat Commission and chair of the rounds.

“You have a wheat crop that didn’t come,” he said.

Gilpin said the high price of hay is also pressuring wheat farmers not to harvest their fields for grain so they can be fed to livestock.

Kansas farmers are expected to produce just 191.4 million bushels of wheat this year, the smallest since 1963, according to the latest monthly government projections. Participants in the WQC round expected an even smaller crop of 178 million bushels.

Grain buyers and tour leaders said uncertainty about the size of the harvest largely centers on how many acres will be given up. Some dead wheat farmers will plant sorghum in another attempt to produce crops this spring.

Insurance providers must have an opportunity to assess fields before crops are destroyed or abandoned, and adjusters are busy visiting fields.

Fram Farland, a major grain producer in Colby, in western Kansas, expects to harvest about 47% of the roughly 9,500 acres (38.45 square kilometers) of wheat planted, Christian Wilson, who does field operations and agronomy for the farm, said.

At least 60% of the crop is expected to be abandoned around Lakin, in southwest Kansas, said Gary Millershasky, a farmer and scout on the tour.

Painful crop deaths

Evan Backhouse, commodity manager, said PureField Ingredients, operator of a wheat protein facility in Russell, Kansas, will need to buy wheat from other parts of the state because of significant abandonment in western Kansas.

Farmers who pull the trigger to finish their crops do so after watching fields struggle throughout the growing season months.

“It’s like watching a loved one suffering from a terminal illness,” said Clay Shem, a farmer in Sharon Springs, Kansas, near the Colorado border.

Parts of Oklahoma are also suffering. In six northern counties, an estimated 65% to 70% of the crop will not be harvested, said Mike Schulte, executive director of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission.

While farmers get some financial protection from insurance, Schulte said, local businesses are at risk when acres are abandoned, as fewer harvest crews come through the area, where they usually spend the money at restaurants and hotels.

Dean Ernie Minton said the poor harvest could leave the Kansas State University College of Agriculture with less than $1 million a year in funding from the Kansas Wheat Commission because the commission is funded by wheat sales.

“We may not be able to do much,” Minton said. “It slows down the entire life cycle of wheat research.”

(Reporting by Tom Polancic) Additional reporting by Julie Ingwersen in Chicago. Editing by Caroline Stauffer and Margarita Choi

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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