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Wheat comes a cropper: Wondering how they cope

I've watched the 2006/2007 Southwest wheat crop with unusual interest. I cheered it on. I watched the weather. I yearned for a good crop following two years of near busts.

Last fall proved favorable for planting. Good moisture accumulated early to get the crop off to a good start. Prices rose, riding the coattails of corn, spurred on by the ethanol demand.

Winter was mild. Moisture continued and the wheat responded.

Many farmers, encouraged by a promising start and prices better than most had witnessed in decades, added a bit more nitrogen than usual in February or early March and put on a fungicide they might not have used under less hopeful conditions.

Most escaped serious damage from an Easter weekend freeze and by early May were anticipating 60 bushel per acre yields.

Hessian fly took the first bite out of my Pollyanna pie.

Significant acreage in Northeast Texas suffered severe damage to the rare but devastating pest. Many farmers had not seen Hessian fly damage since the 1970s and here it was, chewing on the best crop they had seen in years. Infestations were so bad some baled wheat hay before the fly rendered stalks too weak to stand and ruined any chance of income.

Others left the grain to fill and expected 50 percent losses.

Still, bad as the fly was, infestation occurred on a relatively small percentage of the Southwest crop. Most of the remaining acreage remained in good shape and yield potential looked excellent.

Then it started to rain, inundating South and Central Texas and much of Oklahoma. And wheat farmers who were not able to get the crop out of the field before the deluge began could do nothing but watch yield and quality deteriorate with every inch of rain, every hail stone and every gust of wind that whipped across flooded fields.

Wheat stalks lodged, leaving natural crop circles scattered across acres of what once was a bumper crop.

Many could do nothing for a month or more. Quality deteriorated. Grain sprouted in the head. Yield estimates plummeted. Those 50-bushel assessments dropped to 20. Discounts knocked as much as $1.50 per bushel off prices. Some lost more with grain they sold as livestock feed.

I can't imagine the disappointment growers felt as they watched, helplessly, as the crop wasted away in the fields. Many had hoped to gain enough from this wheat season to offset heavy losses from the last two.

And some may still make decent yields. A lot will make nothing.

I'm just an observer with no vested interest in this crop other than to know some good farmers who will lose a big investment to bad weather, again. But I consider many of them friends and I am truly saddened by the loss and wonder at how they cope.

But they do. Perhaps it's the realization that they've weathered such storms before and they're confident they'll do it again. I'd go nuts.

But the ones I've talked to recently take it in stride, harvest what they can and look to another year or to whatever crops they have in the fields this summer. Diversification helps, some say.

And one probably put things in perspective for most of them.

“It's in the Lord's hands,” he said.


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