Just when Kansas wheat growers thought this year couldn’t get any worse, Mother Nature dealt them a cruel blow with a record freeze. April 23 may have driven the final nail in the coffin for some wheat fields in southwestern Kansas.
Temperatures were plenty cold in Ford County, where Rick Konecny recorded 18 degrees for an overnight low. East of his farm, Dodge City reported a 23-degree night and north in Garden City the mercury dipped to 19 degrees.
“I’m not sure if our wheat crop can survive this freeze,” Konecny said. “This is a pretty severe freeze for this time of the year.”
While he’s worried about the wheat crop, the veteran Ford County farmer hasn’t given up.
“Who knows what may happen,” he said. “We’ll have to wait until it warms up. You can never count a wheat crop out. When you do, it’ll prove you wrong.”
Compounding the late April freeze was an earlier freeze when temperatures dropped as low as 13 degrees April 10. After this killer freeze, Finney County farmer Gary Millershaski said his wheat looked like someone sprayed a defoliant on it.
When you couple these two hard freezes in April with the continuation of a three-year drought—some label as the worst since the 1930s, you have a recipe for disaster.
That’s been the case on Konecny’s three farms within a 22-mile radius west of Dodge City. During a 21⁄2 year period, his land has fallen behind by 34 inches in moisture. That’s in a region of Kansas where the annual rainfall is 16-17 inches per year.
With no subsoil moisture and no rainfall, the winter wheat crop on Konecny’s farms looks bleak.
“We see some clouds once in a while,” the dry-land wheat farmer says. “A front occasionally moves through and the forecast is for moisture, but all we receive is a couple points of precipitation.”
Konecny’s wheat crop 22 miles southwest of Dodge City is “virtually gone.” Brown spots started to show up in early April.
“This wheat crumples in your fingers,” he says. “This year’s crop never got going.”
Freezes are a funny thing, Konecny says. When a freeze hits a dry plant that is already stressed for moisture it disrupts the cellular structure, and even though the plant may still look green, it kills it, he says.
“It’s kind of like when you take a flower or leaf and press it in a book,” the Ford County farmer says. “It may maintain the same color but there’s nothing there. It’s not a live plant anymore.”
While many believe a wheat crop has nine lives, Konecny doesn’t believe this adage holds true this year. Couple that with his past three wheat crops that averaged 25, 5 and 3 bushels-per-acre, the prospect of another wheat failure would hit him square in the heart and deep in the pocket.
“It’s very hard right now,” he said. “As a farmer I’m used to producing, you want to produce a wheat crop. It’s your livelihood. It’s how I grew up. Harvesting a good wheat crop helps define me and my self-worth. There’s a real weight that comes on you when you deal with three years of drought and raising very little grain.”
Continuing to farm represents a legacy of several generations, Konecny explains. He feels not only responsible for his immediate family but the future of his children and the rich tradition of family farmers that were his parents and grandparents.
“Late at night, you sometimes wonder, ‘Am I done? Can I continue to farm? How long do I go on with 50 years and the better part of my life devoted to farming?’”
In spite of the dire circumstances and the prospect for another drought and crop failure, Konecny says he’ll keep the faith and pray to his God to help him weather this drought.
“We simply go through the effort as farmers,” he said. “I just always try to uphold my end of the bargain and pray. He’s always seen us through.”
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas.