Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia on July 7, 1974 · Page 49
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Sunday Gazette-Mail from Charleston, West Virginia · Page 49

Charleston, West Virginia
Issue Date:
Sunday, July 7, 1974
Page 49
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AZETTE-MAIL , W. IV, IK SUB. July 7,1974 URRENT FFAIRS ·Editorials ·Seller ·Jones ·Nader World Awaits Word on Wheat Harvest'74: No Joy in Fields Mankind it nearer today to a nart'e*f-fo-harte*t existence than it has been in generation*. That'* largely because America'* huge irneat reserve i« almost gone. Now the nation'* farmers are harvesting the 1974 wheat crop. B'iM it be enough ? The world iraitt. ByPaulRecer WELLINGTON. Kan. (AP) -The field was gilded to the horizon with ripening grain, but the farmer cursed softly, miserably, to himself as he waded through waist-high wheat. "This just wasn't the year," he said. "Last year we raised the best wheat a man can grow. We're just not going to make it like that now. Damn it all." With rough hands, he gently cuddled a bundle of wheat pods."See this one here." he said. "They're all supposed to be long and full like that. But most of them just didn't fill out." Pulling down a cap to shade his eyes, he watched a distant combine churn through rippling grain like a ship at sea, leaving behind a wake of straw and dust. Two trucks parked nearby held heaps of the reddish-gold wheat and a boy was ankle- deep in the grain; leveling a load with a shovel. The farmer eyed a faraway bank of silver-gray clouds plump with the promise of rain or of hail. He nervously tugged again at his cap. "I made 45 bushels an acre here last year," he said. "I'll be lucky to get 30 now. , I swear, it's enough to turn you into city people." V fringes of the wheat belt destroyed crops. Farmers simply plowed under fields of grain too dry to mature. Through central Kansas and Oklahoma, the weather played tricks with timing. Last fall, when winter wheat was planted, the fields were too wet. In March, when the tender plants were beginning to race toward maturity, a freeze stunted thousands of acres. And in May, when the grain pods were filling out, hot, dry winds blew for days, causing kernels to shrivel. "I don't think I planted a single acre in wheat I could call good condition," said Ostrander, who had 2,200 acres in wheat. The result is showing up now at grain elevators. 'I know farmers who made 45 bushels an acre last year," said an elevator operator in Wichita. "They'regetting25and30now. And a lot of that is not good quality." Weight tells a lot about wheat quality. Last year, a bushel from this area weighed 62 pounds or more. This year, many are less than 60. "Two or three pounds difference may not sound like a lot," said one elevator man. "But when you spread that over millions of bushels, well, that's a lot of bread." THE SCENE WAS common in Kansas and throughout the wheat belt. In a business (hat is really a boom or bust contest with nature, 1974 will be remembered mostly as a draw. The farmer won some. But so did nature. The harvest is just past half completed, with combines now cutting fields in Nebraska. But even before they started in Texas last month, the 1974 wheat crop had assumed an importance matched by few in history: Almost gone are the immense surpluses of government grain from previous years. No longer can stored wheat be pulled from federal bins to counter rising prices at home or turn back famine abroad. The U.S. agricultural marvel had been available for years to the nations of the world, proppping up wheat supplies when crops failed, as they might this year in Africa. Asia and India because of drought. Harvest. 1974, also is a new era for the farmer. Without the huge government surpluses to tilt the supply-and-demand equation, the farmer commands Ihe grain market He, alone, is the source of supply. By withholding his wheat he can drive up price. The holdout has begun. Farmers who were slung last year by the profiteering of speculators have stored up to 90 per cent of their newly-harvested grain instead of selling. Across the wheat belt, many said they're waiting for the price to reach $4.50 a bushel, it was $4 a bushel as June ended. "By mid-July, Ihe American farmer could control a big percentage of the world's supply of free wheat," says Charles Rhoades of the Oklahoma Wheat Commission. "It's a war of nerves and the farmers have conlrol for Ihe firsl lime.'' The precise ef feel on prices al Ihe consumer level mighl not be known for months. But almost certainly, experts feel, if theholdoulconlinues, prices will go up for bread, cereal; macaroni, pasta, pastries and the hundreds of other food products tied to wheal. From government desks in Washington, the 1974 wheat crop looks good. but there is concern. The governmenrs June estimate placed the tolal harvest at a record 2.09 billion bushels, some 300 million bushels more than last year. But this was nearly 100 million bushels less than the May estimate of 2.1 billion bushels. Some experts, among them Thomas E. Ostrander. president of the Kansas Wheat Raisers Assn. think the final figure will be less than 2 billion. Besides the 750 million bushels consumed at home each year, a billion bushels is to be sold abroad in 1974. That leaves less than 300 millkm bushels for emergency famine relief, plus 170 million bushels of old-crop wheat in silos, the smallest reserve since 1947. For the farmer, the 10-figure harvest estimate from Washington is remote. To him, it's the per-acre yield figure that pays the bills and there was no joy hi the grain " 4 - ' Texas, Oklaftina and Kansas this THE WHEAT picture may improve. There are vast fields yet to be harvested in Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Washington, all of which expect bumper crops because of the increased acreage planted this year, the first since the 1940s without government subsidies or planting restrictions. But farmers in the Dakotas and Minnesota have had a difficult time planting spring wheat, the grain which is seeded in the spring and harvested in the fall. Heavy rains in many areas keep farmers out of their fields and some will have no crop. Fanners average 1,000 acres around Wellington; the center of Sumner County and the most prolific wheat area in Kansas, in turn the most prolific wheat state. Some farmers here work three times that much land. , The dark, compact, sweet-smelling soil is ideal for growing wheat and is some of the most expensive farmland in the nation. Choice land is selling for $1,000 an acre and very little is available. Hence, a 1-000-acre farmer is working on $1 million worth of land. And each year he invests in this land, in the long months before harvest, $100,000 in fertilizer, seed, sometimes irrigation, and the labor of weeding and cultivation. It's an investment that will pay off only on the whirn of nature. Too much rain in the fall and planting can be late or even impossible. A late spring freeze can scar SOURCE OF LIFE FOR WORLD'S STRUGGLING MILLIONS Ripe Grain Springing Up Toward Sun in U.S. Wheat Belt and. stunt the wheat, lowering production. And after eight months of slowly maturing, the most perilous time of all for winter wheat is the 10-to-14 day harvest period. A sudden hail storm can flatten the crop. "I've seen a field after hail. It looked like it had been plowed under," says a young farm wife. Fire is also a serious menace. Lightening or heat from a faulty combine or truck can start grain fires that burn away harvest dreams in only brief moments. "In a good wind, fire can skip through a field faster than a man can run," says Ostrander. These dangers are so real that Ostrander and other farmers spend $10.50 an acre for insurance that pays only enough to replant the following year. "Our biggest customer this year paid a premium of $23,000," said a Wellington insurance agent. ». SINCE THE MEMORY of man began, harvest has been a lime of awe and wonder, a time of assurance that the future will be padded with plenty. Wheat, many believe, made civilization possible. A grass whose origin is unknown, it has sustained human beings since written history's dawn, and maybe before. The wheat harvest is perhaps man's most ancient ritual. In Kansas, the wheat harvest is a time of gut-wrenching tension. People and machines muster as if for an invasion. Farm wives abandon air-conditioned homes to drive trucks in dust and heat. Young children, left on their own, play in the straw at field side. Tempers flare. Minor breakdowns loom as tragedies. Highways jam with trucks and lumbering combines. Exhausted workers push themselves, straining for every bushel. A bank of clouds appears on the horizon at sunset. Lightning makes evil webs of silver and yellow light, like distant warfare. The air cools and smells of rain, or perhaps hail. Nature twists the screws one more turn. "Someone's catching hell over there tonight." says a farmer, looking across flat Kansas countryside to the storm. He hurries away, tension speeding his step. Townspeople speak in almost hushed tones. Their economic futures, too, rest on the tender reeds waving in the fields. "With that storm out there, they'll work through to midnight," says a cafe worker. "It'll be dangerous on the highways tonight." Combine headlights stab the darkened fields. Three times around, the thresher blades cutting cleanly, and skillful hands guide the massive machine to a waiting truck. Grain pours in a torrent from a combine spout into the truck. The flow stops and quickly, like performers in a long-practiced dance, the machines separate. The combine returns to the field to slash more gold from the plains. The truck charges off, roaring down dusty gravel roads toward a country elevator blazing with light and alive with activity. Like worker bees from scattered fields, trucks rush into the elevator, bringing sustenance for the hive of humanity. They arrive at the rate of almost one a minute, scurrying to a sheltered pit where workers open the truck's tailgate and loose a flood of grain. Conveyor belts will move it from the underground pits up into the 10-story elevator for storage. In three minutes, the truck is empty and racing back to the field. Another truck replaces it. And then another and another. Railroad cars and larger trucks will transfer the wheat later to distant terminals. Last year farmers from Texas to Oklahoma sold early in the season at $2 a bushel, and then watched the price driven up finally to more than $6 a bushel as millions of tons were purchased for export to Russia. Exports in recent years are a major reason why the government's stored surplus is nearly gone. THE WHEAT HARVEST is people. There's Ostrander, a short, dignified- looking man who planted his first wheat crop in 1947. "It was a total washout... Why don't I sell out and quit this risky business? My relatives ask me that and I really can't an- L.T. ANDERSON Don't Brood on Grants in City Traffic TOO LITTLE RAIN m the western The only time I ever saw a youth working in one of those federally funded jobs-for-youlh programs he was employed at Coonskin Park to open and close a gate for the convenience of members of a private skeet club. I thought at the time it was a hell of a waste of the taxpayers" money, but I was unaware of the scope of the boondoggle. The boy might have been a Harvard medical student with his own investment portfolio. Newspaper stories of recent date have made it clear enough to me that the best way to get a jobs-for-youlh job is to be born into the family of an influential citizen, or better yet. the family of a politician. IT WAS^hen 190.000 in public money was thrown away on a Charleston traffic safety public relations program thai il dawned upon me that Ihe depths to which the federal grant can be taken are bottomless. I observed al Ihe lime of Ihis modest taxpayer swindle that the total boodle would have purchased four kidney dialysis machines, thus benefiting mankind. Today, as I watch pedestrians stoop and squint in search of crosswalks, I recognize that the $80.000 would have been well spent for paint, justifying the traffic safety theme. In fact. Ihe greatest part of the money wenl for police overtime pay. The policemen I watched during the great traffic safety boondoggle seemed to concentrate on warning pedestrians, who. of course/fwely hit auto- mobiles. If you wish to contend that Charleston's streets are safer after the $80.000 blitz, don'l ask me to testify. I'm still leaping from the paths of cars rounding corners where I am undertaking a legal crossing. *· IF THE TRAFFIC safely granl lumed oul lo be a windfall for policemen, just look at what the job's-for-youth program is doing this summer toward helping well-heeled politicians out with the college tuilion bills they soon will be receiving. You and I. who pay taxes in order to subsidize the family incomes of public servants, have every right to brood. But don't brood on a downtown street where, if you don't remain alert, somebody will ki^ you with his car. J V swer . . . It's what I do well . . . There's a feeling of satisfaction." ! Then he laughs and adds: "Besides, I'm so deeply in debt, I really couldn't consider it." - ; Tfiere's Stan Gotlula, a rolund jnan in blue overalls, a green cap and muttonchop mustache. He leads one of the hundreds of contract harvest crews -- called custom cutters. They come from villages in Nebraska, South Dakota or Kansas; -small towns they call home. They leave before Memorial Day and don't return to their homes until nearly winter. " They bring squadrons of combines" and trucks and wander like gypsies, harvesting for farmers from Texas to the Canadian border. ^ ·; Gottula is from Elk Creek, Neb., tf town. he says, "with a population of 150 .and we (cutter crews) take seven combineslout of there. When we leave, just about; all the young hands go with us." -'X He and his partner, Gordon Rpbison. have more than $150,000 invested iri their three combines and four Irucks. In a good season, they'll gross $60.000. In a bad year, they'll have trouble finding customers and sink deeper into debt. . » » "When we first started, we just drove up and down, knocking on doors," he says. "I've been at it nine years, since I wa15. It gets into your blood. I graduated "with high honors from college and tried teaching for a while. But I couldn't stand }he confinement." Tommy Winter, 16, is the youngest of the crew. He hooked on with Gottula last year, in Hobart. Okla., after promising, "If you take me with you. I won't eat much." He was an untrained 15-year-old living in town, but now he handles a six-ton combine with artistic precision. The harvesl is also the young farmer. just gelling into Ihe business. There's Marlin Zeka. a dark-haired, serious man in his early 20s. He's one of nine children raised on wheat farms in Oklahoma and Kansas and how he's trying lo build his own grain empire. He worked lasl year, as always, for his falher. Frank Zeba. and a bumper harvesl gave him enough for a downpaymenl on 160 acres. Three years ago he married a Wellington girl. Patli. and she works beside him in Ihe fields. "I'm a town girl." says Palli. a sinking; graceful woman of 22 with sun-kissed hair and a faint sprinkle of freckles. "I thoughl I'd marry a doclor or a lawyer. But I fell in love with a farmer." Now she drives a two-ton truck along dusty roads, delivering wheal from her husband's fields. For Ihe farmer, the work doesn't end at harvest. After the fields are stripped, he'll spend up to 3.000 hours and many thousands of dollars plowing, cultivating and fertilizing. getting ready for Ihe nexl crop. Peace comes only after the October planting. Then the wheat people relax and altfte does the work. "Fro . From Nov. 1 to Jan. 1, 1 don't attend to do anything,'* Ostrander says, "and I don't care who knows it."

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