By Amy Bickel The Hutchinson News email@example.com
KIOWA - Each year, this little town on the Kansas border is typically the first to usher in the state's staple crop. This year, it could be the first town in the state to bin what little is left of the drought-stricken winter wheat.
The annual June rite is expected to have a later-than-normal start - with combines expected to be rolling by June 18. But some of the first places to receive wheat in the state are reporting a well below average crop as harvest nears.
At OK Co-Op Grain in Kiowa, General Manager Steve Inslee estimates his cooperative will bin just a third of a normal crop.
Crop adjusters, he said, have written off about half of the wheat in his territory.
"We've been missing so many of these rains," he said. "We just can't catch up."
Last fall, farmers dusted the crop into the ground, hoping for a rain, he said. Rain, however, never came.
A late-winter snowstorm dumped enough moisture to help farmers get a stand, but the few showers that followed didn't help the crop mature.
"Conditions aren't in very good shape down here," he said. "We have some wheat that will be harvested, but a lot of it has already been zeroed out."
The same scenario is in much of the western half of Kansas, where drought, as well as several nights of below freezing temperatures, has zapped any hope for a bumper harvest.
The drought is easing in the eastern half of Kansas thanks to timely rains. In late April, the entire state was in some type of a drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. On Thursday, the agency reported that 75 percent of the state is in a moderate to exceptional drought, compared to 97 percent on April 23. Also, 65 percent of the state is in the severe to exceptional category, which has eased from 82 percent in April.
About 10 percent of the state is out of the drought.
Yet, while some are seeing an end in sight, western Kansas conditions are dire and worsening. The entire third of Kansas is in an extreme to exceptional drought, the highest rankings by the drought monitor, and the exceptional category has grown from 17 percent in late April to nearly 23 percent this week.
Southwest Kansas, in fact, is in the epicenter of the drought-plagued conditions, which stretches across the Oklahoma Panhandle into Texas, as well as parts of Colorado and Nebraska. And with conditions poor across the wheat belt, Inslee said one custom harvester told him he wouldn't have a crop to cut until Montana.
Some areas will have a good harvest, including in Reno, barring a hailstorm or something else. Still, 45 percent of the Kansas wheat crop is in poor or very poor condition while just 28 percent is good to excellent.
Stan Stark, general manager of the Farmers Cooperative Co. based at Haviland, said the group's Protection location could start around June 18, as well, but added their region, too, won't be a bin buster.
His territory will harvest just 25 to 30 percent of a normal crop, Stark said.
"We've gotten some rains, but it has been too late for a lot of the wheat," he said. "Especially the southern end of the Protection, Ashland, Coldwater area - the insurance company has already released a lot of acres and what they are making them cut isn't good."
This could be the worst harvest in the past three years - when the drought first began to dig in. Stark said while the elevator cooperative binned a decent crop in 2012 - coming close to its five-year average, 2011's bounty was about two-thirds of normal.
He expected harvest to start around June 18, as well, unless it turns hot and windy in the next few weeks, causing the wheat to ripen quicker.
The 2012 harvest was one of the earliest on record, with combines rolling at least three weeks earlier than normal and much of the harvest completed by this time last year, he said.
Meanwhile, Kiowa manager Inslee said the harvest of canola, an alternative rotational crop grown in parts of southern Kansas, could start this weekend or early next week in his area, but added "It's all frozen out or droughted out."
Of the 25,000 acres planted in his territory this year, farmers will only harvest about 3,000, he said.
Inslee said all he could do is keep his fingers crossed the storms that seem to circle his area will finally blow into his region.
And, for now, he said, all farmers can do is wait until next year.