Wheat harvest is over for several area farmers, primarily because they planted fewer acres of the golden grain this year.

About two years of prices that barely cover costs have resulted in a 1 million-acre drop to 7.5 million acres planted statewide for the 2017 wheat crop, said Jordan Hildebrand, program assistant for the Kansas Wheat Commission.

"That's the lowest acreage planted in 100 years," she said. "The markets are telling farmers not to plant wheat just yet."

Last year, Kansas farmers produced 467.4 million bushels of wheat. This year's projection is 303.6 million bushels.

"I'm not sure where North Dakota stands — hopefully we'll still be the wheat state," she said. "There's a lot that can happen between now and the end of harvest, so who knows."

In the Salina area, Hildebrand said she had heard good things about this year's crop. She said wheat diseases haven't been as bad.

"There were good growing conditions during grain fill in April and May," she said. "The saving grace will be above-average yields. Quantity is the key this year."

In western Kansas, she said the wheat streak mosaic virus has had a severe effect in some fields.

She said an increasing number of wheat varieties available could help increase yields. As state funding for research at Kansas State University has decreased, several private entities have become involved in wheat variety development, giving farmers more options for plants that might do well in their area.

"Varieties that do well in the Garden City area would probably not be as good in Johnson County," Hildebrand said. "The wider variety helps with weather, disease pressure and all the little factors that play a role in wheat production."

Prices a concern

Jason Kern, who farms with his father, Larry, near Bavaria, said they expect to finish cutting late today, if all goes well. The Kerns began running their combine on June 12, along with a combine run by custom cutter Kurt Larson, of Waterville.

He said yields were well above average, and there had been less disease pressure this year, which improved the crop. He said test weights have been above 60 pounds per bushel.

"It's a lot better than it's been the last couple of years for us," he said. "We're thankful for what we got. We just need a better price."

Minneapolis area farmer Steve Clanton, who previously served on the state's wheat and soybean commissions, said his wheat harvest was over Saturday, in two and a half days. He said he planted about 30 percent less wheat than he has in the past.

Instead, he's planting more soybeans, which are worth about $9 a bushel, compared to wheat prices, which have remained below $4. He said with rains in August, he can get a good soybean crop. 

"My son works for the American Institute of Baking, and he says somebody's got to grow the wheat, but I said, 'Somebody else. Not me,' " Clanton said.

Straw bales destroyed

Clanton pointed out that while corn and soybeans have industrial uses, wheat is used only for food. 

Lola Mattison, who farms with her husband, Donald, said they were also finished cutting because they had planted about half as many acres of wheat as they have in the past, instead planting more soybeans. She said this year's harvest lasted about five days, when it usually takes about 10.

"The quality was good," she said. "We were pleased with it. Yields were all over the place."

She said harvest went off without a hitch — until her husband attempted to deliver 60 bales of wheat straw to Orscheln's Monday evening. She said apparently someone tossed a cigarette out their car window, which caught his load of straw on fire.

Salina Fire Marshal Roger Williams said firefighters were sent about 5:30 p.m. to the intersection of North and Ohio streets, where Mattison was just about to turn toward the store when he noticed the fire.

Lola Mattison said a good Samaritan stopped to help her husband unhook the truck from the trailer, preventing the fire from spreading to a tank of diesel. The straw was a total loss; the trailer was scorched, and its tires were destroyed, but it's still functional, she said.

"It was a crazy way to end it," she said. "It has been a decent harvest, but it's also kind of scary because the price has been so low for the last two harvests that people are having a hard time paying their bills right now."

Still chugging along

Natalie Wood, who farms with her husband, David, east of Solomon near the Saline-Dickinson county line, said they, too, cut back about 400 acres on wheat planting.

"The price had a lot to do with it," she said.

She said they expected to be harvesting for eight days, but rain and a few minor breakdowns have slowed the process. She said they've been cutting for a week and are about half done.

"A lot of your preparation all year is getting ready for this," she said. "It's exciting, and it's stressful, but you do it each year and do the best you can."

Although harvest in the Salina area is well underway, it's just getting started farther to the west. Shawna Dunlap, who works in the office at the Midland Marketing Coop elevator in Natoma, said the first load of grain had rolled in Monday. She said about a half dozen farmers in that area had started to cut. By mid-afternoon Tuesday, 15 more trucks had arrived.

"We'll be here until late tonight," she said.

Hildebrand said harvest is just getting underway in the Hays area and sporadically in patches west of there, while it is about 95 percent complete in south-central Kansas.

"Harvest is still kind of chugging along in eastern and central Kansas," she said.