Purchase photos

Small wheat crop looming

5/12/2013

By MIKE CORN

By MIKE CORN

Son of E. Lorene Corn

GOODLAND -- Fred Schields struggled to get his wheat crop up and growing last fall.

It hasn't gotten any better, what with little moisture and a string of three crop-killing freezes in a row.

"It's the worst I've seen in the 63 years of my lifetime," the Sherman County farmer said Friday.

His pessimistic outlook is matched by the first official wheat production estimate released Friday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The government's initial estimate of 299.7 million bushels is down sharply from last year's crop and even smaller than the 313.8 million bushels estimated recently by the 2013 wheat tour.

Oddly enough, the wheat tour is suggesting a greater share of the 2013 wheat crop will be abandoned than what USDA is suggesting.

The wheat tour thinks just 7.7 million acres will be harvested, while the USDA is suggesting it will be closer to 8.1 million acres.

Schields was quick to criticize the wheat tour for going no further west than Colby.

Conditions west of Colby, he said, are dismal.

"We've already released 65 percent of our acres," Schields said of insurance adjusters giving him the go-ahead to tear up two-thirds of his crop.

The 35 percent left likely will produce only 10 to 15 bushels per acre, if they produce anything.

"It's a disaster," he said. "I don't think people realize how bad it is out here."

USDA is suggesting the western third of the state will harvest only about half of last year's crop. The agency is suggesting yields in the three western-most crop reporting districts will range from 22.5 bushels in the southwest to 34 bushels in the northwest -- the district Schields's farm is in.

Conditions aren't sour just for wheat.

"We've got no subsoil," Schields said.

"We're flirting with another disaster."

But, he said, farmers keep doing what they do because they're optimistic enough to think rain will fall and crops will grow.

"Taking a $281 bag of corn and dumping in a planter and planting it, knowing you've only got two weeks of subsoil moisture is scary," he said.

In the course of the last 16 months, Schields said, he's only recorded two instances of rainfall in excess of a half-inch.

"All the other rains," he said, "they add up to create a total, but the value of them is nothing."

And he's troubled by how the wheat can cope with a string of freezing temperatures.

He faced a similar situation in 1992, when temperatures plummeted but the crop grew like normal.

He ended up harvesting 5,000 acres of wheat, producing just 1.8 bushels an acre.

"These guys who think their wheat is all right," he said, "we'll find out, but if I were them, I'd be worried.

"I hate to sound so pessimistic," he said, "but that's the real story out here."