Every year toward the end of April, a group of about 75 farmers, agricultural researchers, bread company representatives and other folks who care a lot about wheat pile into cars and drive across Kansas, America's No. 1 winter-wheat-producing state, to wander through the fields and assess how their crop is faring.
This year, "crop scouts" on the Wheat Quality Council's winter tour weren't encouraged by what they saw.
"Typically, we would think about a wheat crop getting to be 24-36 inches tall," said crop scout Dalton Henry, director of governmental affairs for Kansas Wheat, a group that advocates for the industry. "We found wheat plants that were headed out that were 8 or 10 inches tall or just a foot tall."
"The stands we looked at were substantially thinner than normal," Henry added.
A long-lasting, soil-parching drought has taken a toll on wheat crops across Kansas, as well as in key growing areas of Oklahoma and North Texas. This year's wheat tour projected that Kansas' harvest this year will be the lowest since 1996, an assessment that was echoed by the Department of Agriculture soon afterward.
Based on statistics offered in yesterday's U.S. Drought Monitor, it looks as if these predictions will come to pass. More than 62 percent of Kansas' wheat is now in poor or very poor condition, according to Rich Tinker, meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and author of this week's report. And compared with Kansas, even more of Oklahoma's winter wheat -- 78 percent -- is in poor condition.
Wheat in Draper Lake. (Credit: Flickr/jeshua.nace)
In Okla., worst wheat conditions in decades
Wheat is Oklahoma's No. 1 crop. But now, 21 percent of the state is under "exceptional" drought, the Drought Monitor's most extreme category. According to a report by the Tulsa World, this year's harvest could be the worst since the 1950s.
In addition to drought, a harsh winter and a series of spring freezes have also factored into an unusually bleak outlook for the south-central Plains' wheat crop this year, according to Brad Rippey, a USDA meteorologist.
"During the last two decades, only the drought-affected 2005-06 crop was rated lower overall at this time of year," Rippey wrote in this month's analysis of drought's effect on U.S. agriculture.
In response, the USDA has already slashed its projections for this year's U.S. wheat supply by 10 percent from the 2013-14 growing period.
According to Daryl Strouts, president of the Kansas Wheat Alliance, most of the region's farmers will be compensated for their losses, at least through crop insurance. But after several years of subpar conditions, he said, these insurance payments, which are based on average crop yields, won't make up for much of the losses for some wheat growers.
"I haven't heard of any farmers that are going out of business, but certainly there are farmers that are struggling," Strouts said.
'The drought has a long tail'
Strouts explained that this year's conditions were a long time coming: "The old saying is 'the drought has a long tail,' and certainly that's where we have been in western Kansas," Strouts said.
Winter wheat isn't planted every year. Most often, Strouts said, farmers plant the crop once every two or three years, allowing moisture to build up in the deeper regions of the soil during off years.
"You can kind of get away with one year of drought because you're banking that moisture," Strouts said. "But when you go through a couple of cycles -- now we're three or four or five years in -- we've pretty well depleted that subsoil moisture, and we're not accumulating anymore."
Rain has started to fall over some of the affected region, with Kansas and Oklahoma likely to see around 2 inches of rain this week. But Tinker of NOAA said that because the winter wheat's growing season has nearly ended, it will be too late to impact crop yields.
"The plant is very much developed," Tinker said. "It would be hard to bring those numbers up significantly."
"Everybody has this tendency to think we've got one good rain and the drought's over," Henry of Kansas Wheat said. But he explained that only consistent, heavy downpours will alleviate wheat farmers' woes.
"We'll probably see the effects of this one for quite a while yet," Henry said.
Reprinted from ClimateWire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. 202-628-6500.
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