America – the beautiful

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Oh beautiful, for spacious skies…

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For amber waves of grain…

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For purple mountain majesties…

Um… what happened to the mountains?

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Note: Click on any of the pictures in this blog post to blow them up to a larger size.

Well, if you head west on this road – which happens to be I-70 in Kansas – you’ll eventually find the Rockies.

But east? You’re talking miles and miles of flat land. Straight roads, intersecting at 90° angles.

And crops: wheat, corn, milo, sorghum… with some unexpected (to us Easterners) cattle ranching and oil drilling thrown in, for good measure.

I’d never been to Kansas before. But back in late June, a group of us from King Arthur visited some of the farmers who grow “our” wheat – the wheat that’s milled into our flour.

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It was a whirlwind tour.

We flew west out of Vermont on a Monday morning. Upon arrival in Denver, we were met by our hosts, Kent Symns and Marcia Walters, the hard-driving duo behind the American White Wheat Producers Association.

Kent and Marcia had rented a van and stocked it with cold drinks, Oreos, cold drinks, fruit, chips… did I mention cold drinks? The weather map showed highs of 99°F the entire week we were there – which was actually cooler than the 113°F (with 60mph winds) reported a week earlier at one stop along our tour.

We drove over 1,000 miles, visiting seven farms, a mill, and Kansas State University.

And we witnessed two big truths about wheat farming.

First, our American wheat farmers have a passion for what they do, built on the generations who’ve farmed the land before them, and on creating the legacy they’ll pass along to their own children.

And second, farming is hard, endless labor; the folks who pursue it work in uncertain circumstances, always one dry spell away from losing their entire crop.

That’s what’s happening in eastern Colorado and western Kansas this year. While America the Beautiful may be on most Americans’ lips this week, our Great Plains farmers might very well be humming a Willie Nelson tune:

Blue skies, shinin’ on me, nothin’ but blue skies, do I see…

Living through the second year of a terrible drought, these farmers begin every phone conversation with, “Did you get any rain? How much?”

Sometimes the answer is “Two inches!” – cause for much rejoicing.

But too often it’s “No, nothing.” Or “Three hundredths of an inch.”

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Our Baking Education Center director, Susan Miller, at the Sayles farm. Unlike Kansas, Colorado was quite chilly the evening we were there.

The drought-stricken fields look like this: sere. With wheat that’s mere inches, rather than feet high.

The first stop on our tour was the Curt and Kerry Sue Sayles farm in Siebert, CO. Curt’s acreage makes him one of our bigger producers: he farms 5,000 acres.

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Clockwise, from top left: Curt Sayles talks about wheat, in his kitchen and in a dry field; pulling wheat to show how shallow its roots are this year; sunset from the farmhouse; a 120′-wingspan sprayer; part of the dinner we enjoyed, which featured steak, shrimp, salad – and Rocky Mountain oysters; the focus on wheat extends even to the farmhouse’s exterior.

This year, Curt’s wheat crop is practically non-existent, due to the drought. Still, there’s hope; Curt and Kerry hope to salvage something out of this year’s planting, and are already looking forward to a better wheat crop next year – if only some rain will fall.

Next day, the long, straight road brought us into Kansas, where our first stop was Sharon Springs – and the Mai farm.

Bill; his wife, Wilma, and an assortment of family members pursue dry-land farming, a type of farming that uses very little water. Dry land farming is the way to go in western Kansas, which is often drier than the eastern part of the state.

But this year, with just 7″ of rain (compared to a normal 17″), even that water-conserving method didn’t work; Bill has lost his entire wheat crop.

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Clockwise, from top left: Bill with one of the hand-carved wooden signs he makes for his different wheat varieties; an early start at the Mai farm; Kansas State agronomist Jeanne Falk gives us a lesson in wheat biology; yes, it’s VERY dry; equipment used to transfer wheat from storage to trailer trucks; wheat ready to ripen; and cinnamon buns, courtesy of Wilma, Bill’s wife.

Still, the Mais remains upbeat – they’re ready to plant white wheat again this fall, for a hopefully better harvest next summer.

Next stop: Leoti, KS, about 50 miles from Sharon Springs. Charlie Ayers; his wife, JoAn; and daughter Kara farm several thousand acres there.

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Clockwise, from top left: Charlie shows us small, shriveled wheat kernels, the result of insufficient water; lunch in the Ayers’ home; controls for the grain elevator; furrows plowed to prevent erosion; JoAn’s homemade sandwich rolls; the farm’s grain elevator.

Like his neighbor, Bill Mai, Charlie has probably lost most of his wheat crop due to drought.

But he’s philosophical about it. He’s farming his family’s land; daughter Kara, ready to take over, represents a third generation.

They won’t give up.

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On the way from the Ayers farm to Dighton, our next destination, we passed through Grigston.

Population: 1,150. Size: 718 square miles, including 495,358 acres of farm land.

Kansas is dotted with “big/small” towns – not a lot of people, but LOTS of land. Grigston appears pretty typical – this grain elevator was by far the largest structure in town.

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Clockwise, from top left: healthy wheat; Ron picks some stalks for “show and tell;” the wheat, thigh-high, had benefited by recent rainfall; the King Arthur crew takes advantage of a good photo op.

Ron Suppes, who farms a few thousand acres of white wheat, is also commissioner of the Kansas Wheat Commission – he’s a busy man. Yet he took the time to leave his office/garage to proudly show us some of his white wheat, a couple of feet high and slated to be harvested in a few weeks.

After all the dry land and dying wheat, it was good to see the wind rippling across Ron’s healthy fields.

OK, time for a break – after all, this IS a food blog.

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And in Kansas, even restaurants are all about the harvest. This beautiful wall art is in Gella’s Diner, in Hays.

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Clockwise, from top left: JoAn Ayers’ homemade ice cream sandwiches; an old-fashioned chicken dinner at the Brookville Hotel; Rocky Mountain oysters at the Sayles'; raisin walnut roll and cinnamon rolls, WheatFields Bakery, Lawrence; a bread basket at the National Festival of Breads, Manhattan; and a hard roll with pesto, Gella’s.

I can’t resist sharing some of the food shots I grabbed along the way. And just a word about that chicken dinner, whose photo doesn’t do it justice.

The Brookville Hotel in Abilene includes just one item on its menu: a family-style chicken dinner. Included in that dinner are “relishes” (cottage cheese and sliced peaches); creamy sweet-and-sour coleslaw; mashed potatoes with cream gravy; creamed corn; fried chicken; biscuits with “creamy butter” and strawberry preserves; and homemade vanilla ice cream – served with chocolate sauce, if you ask for it. We did.

Next day, it was back on the road again. We were looking for a farmer ready to harvest his wheat, one who’d be willing to take the time to talk to us about the process – and maybe, just maybe, give us a ride in his combine.

We found just what we were looking for in McPherson, at the Kaufman farm. Bob and his son, Stacy, were just starting on their first field of the season. The combine was revved up; the grain cart, which drives alongside the combine as a mobile storage bin for the harvested wheat, was ready.

And so was I. Stacy invited me to climb the ladder into the giant piece of machinery.

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Here’s the view from the cab, looking over at the grain cart.

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Clockwise, from top left: Stacy allowed me to accompany him on a few turns around the field; view from the combine’s front seat; wheat stubble, left in the field to help preserve the soil; loading from the grain cart into a truck; the computer screen in Stacy’s GPS-guided combine; “Hey, you missed a patch!”

Want to join me? Take a ride in Stacy and Bob’s combine:

After Stacy graciously took three of us on individual trips around the field, it was time to get back into the van and head to Kansas State University, in Manhattan – “the Little Apple.”

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We were scheduled to take a course in wheat biochemistry and milling methods the next day, after a tour of K-State’s massive new state-of-the-art “teaching” mill.

But that’s a story for another day – and another blog.

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As we continued east, driving for hours past long, long trains; grain elevators, and endless fields of wheat, I pondered all I’d learned.

The farmers we visited are passionate about their wheat – just as we’re passionate about our King Arthur Flour.

Our partnership is symbiotic; we need one another, and we share success and hardship in equal parts – with Mother Nature ultimately in control.

Now I think it’s time for me to stop writing, and let the farmers talk for themselves. Watch Stacy, Kara, Bill, and more of our farmers speak eloquently about their love of wheat, farming, and family.

I promise you, after seeing and hearing these agricultural heroes with your own eyes and ears, you’ll never take farming – or flour – for granted again.

Thanks, farmer friends. Together, we feed America – and the world.

Enjoy all of our farmer videos.

 

 

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel was born in Wisconsin, grew up in New England, and graduated from Brown University. She was a journalist in Massachusetts and Maine before joining the King Arthur Flour Company in 1990, where she's been ever since. Author or co-author of three King Arthur ...

comments

  1. gmabaking

    your pictures and reports of your travel are lovely. you capture the essence of the love and respect that is behind the farming industry. i know that with texting etc, we have in many instances dropped the habit of using capital letters. imo as the teens say, there are some words that are worthy of that capital letter…..for instance God and country. since you do so in the rest of the blog, i believe that extra effort is not too much to ask for the word America in the heading.
    Thank you for the feedback. We appreciate when our customers are aware and conscious of grammar and other details and look out for us to make corrections when necessary. The lowercase lettering in the title of our blogs is a stylistic formatting that we use for the face of our blogs. Unfortunately, I am unable to change it at this time. I’m really glad you enjoyed reading about our most recent trip to the west. ~Amy

    I add my thanks to Amy’s for the time you took to comment here. Many areas of our site use all lower case formatting; it’s not indicative of how we feel about the importance of any one word or title, it’s simply a design/graphic element our creative team has decided to adopt. As Amy said, it’s not something we can go in and change for one blog – it requires a lot of back-end work, and would change other blog titles as well. So – much as we’d like to capitalize America – in this instance, we just have to live with it that way. Thanks again – PJH

    Reply
  2. "daisy in nj"

    Thank you for such a great post that drives home the very real connection between wheat farmers and flour. While aware generally of drought conditions, I was surprised and saddened to learn that many farms are losing an entire season’s crop.

    The videos letting the farmers speak for themselves were wonderful and also appreciated.

    Happy 4th to you all at KAF and thanks for today’s (and every) always enlightening blog post.

    And happy 4th to you, too, Daisy. Thanks for taking the time to connect with us here. PJH

    Reply
  3. Bo

    Great article and pictures, wonderful insight on our nation’s birthday to the farmers who keep our agriculture alive.
    Happy birthday USA and thanks KAF.

    Thanks for taking the time to post here, Bo – happy 4th! PJH

    Reply
  4. Darlene A Johnson

    I loved most of your article. I did not like the part that makes Kansas sound like a flat state. I would have thought that by going through Hays, McPherson and onto Manhattan that you would have seen our rolling hills. We are farmers (yes, wheat is one of our crops) north of Hays, KS. Like many others we were affected by the drought. On dry land that normally gives us 40-60 bushels per acre, we were excited to have fields that yielded 25-30. Many farmers lost their wheat crops this year but it is a part of our business. They say that farming is the biggest gamble out there. We agree. It is a labor of love, which I am so glad to see that your group “got”. Generations have done this and generations will, God willing, continue to farm and ranch to feed a world/nation that really doesn’t understand the toils.

    Darlene, on the last day, on our way to Kansas City to catch the plane back, we did drive through some rolling hills; and before that, it’s true, the land “undulated” a bit. Not dissing your state’s flatness at all! It reminded me of the ocean – with waves of grain instead of water. That big, open sky is wonderful; and the clear light. Best of luck with your future crops. And yes, we at King Arthur “get it” – our 223-year-old business has ALWAYS depended on nature, weather, and farmers, so never fear – we feel for everything you go through from planting to harvest. PJH

    Reply
  5. Susie Bouchard

    Thank you for sharing your travels in this touching blog. It’s going to be a reminder to appreciate every bag of the precious grain with all my might this year. Well done! Safe travels on your return to Vermont.

    Thanks, Susie – well said. PJH

    Reply
  6. Reese

    Beautiful photos and a great story. Thank you for the glimpse into the lives of those who work so hard to provide us with our daily bread.

    Happy Independence Day, everyone!

    And the same to you, Reese – enjoy your day! PJH

    Reply
  7. Kirsten

    What a great story! Really enjoyed the pictures and features on the farmers. My (Kansan) grandmother called grain silos the “cathedrals of the prairie.” This brought back some great memories of visits back to Kansas where my grandfather grew up and my father was born. The “family farm” is still in the extended family, which is amazing to me. We saw the grain storage that my grandfather built and the fields he farmed without a tractor.
    And I stopped eating fried chicken after the Brookville Inn. There was simply NO POINT–nowhere is fried chicken as tasty as what the Brookville Inn serves!

    Cathedrals of the prairie – love that, Kirsten! Thanks for sharing. And yes, amazing to think of all the farming that happened in years gone by, with just farm animals and humans to do all the labor. Finally – AGREE about the Brookville! Their mashed potatoes were awesome, too – and the ice cream. And everything… PJH

    Reply
  8. Tom | Tall Clover Farm

    I have a new appreciation for the wonderful flour and people behind it (at all levels) who make it possible for me to make, bake and enjoy a whole good things on my daily dining table. Happy Fourth, great post, and pics.

    Thank you, Tom. Bake on! PJH

    Reply
  9. Cynthia Forrester

    I grew up on a dairy farm in Norwich, VT, so am a big fan of your wonderful company. Made my first ever trip to Kansas in 2012 and thought it was a beautiful place. My heart goes out to the hardworking farmers who often lose so much. Thanks for a lovely story and the pictures. So good to be reminded of all the love and labor that goes into something we take for granted will always be there in abundance.

    Beautiful words, Cynthia – being from a dairy background, clearly you have first-hand experience with the 24/7 nature of farming! :) PJH

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  10. Anita

    Your wonderful blog helps me remember that bag of flour I buy isn’t just a commodity. It’s the result of the hard work of many, many people. Thanks to all our farmers!

    We second that, Anita – thanks for your kind words. PJH

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  11. Sandy from Kansas

    Great article. I live in rural Kansas with wheat fields all around us. Our farms appreciate being appreciated. Glad you had a good time.

    Thanks, Sandy – the hospitality (and food!) was wonderful. And we surely do appreciate farmers everywhere, even more so after this trip. PJH

    Reply
  12. bubbasue

    I had the pleasure of working in Havre Mt. for 6 months a few years back. I am an east coast lady by birth and had never seen wheat growing until I traveled “the hi-line”, route 2, in northern Mt. It was a beautiful site to see, field after field of “golden waves of grain”. There were silos with gig “G” on them beside the railroad tracks. Made me stop, think and appreciate where my bread and cereal come from.I really enjoyed this article and pictures and would like to see more. Thank-you for sharing.

    And thanks for sharing your thoughts here. I plan on doing another post detailing how the wheat is actually milled into flour – fascinating process! PJH

    Reply
  13. Tom

    In that magnificent part of this great country, wheat is much more than a crop. It is a way of life. Wheat is the driving force in many communities. Even if one does not farm, wheat is of major importance. Wheat dollars roll over many times in the small communities of Kansas.

    My DSW is from a small town just south of Hays. The population is resourceful, kind, caring, opinionated, hardworking and genuine. Not to mention the abundance of excellent cooks – people that can whip up a meal for their family, a meal to share in hard times and community-wide meals for fund-raisers.

    I feel you glossed over the effects of the drought. Sure, the farmers will continue to farm – if they have the resources. Lost crops are much more than words. It’s the fuel, seed and fertilizer at planting time, weed control, machinery depreciation and repairs, interest on the money spent putting a crop in the ground. The need to maintain the idle harvest equipment. Not to mention that taxes always continue.

    Didn’t mean to gloss over the lost crops at all, WB. It’s just that the farmers themselves seem so matter-of-fact; the ones we spoke to aren’t panicked, and seem to have no thoughts at all of giving up, or not continuing what their families have done for so many years. They say crop insurance helps; but I’m sure it’s not the same as a healthy harvest. They’re strong in many ways, for sure… PJH

    Reply
  14. Louise

    Thank you for making me more aware of the real connection between home bakers and our nation’s farmers. I value my baking even more because of the love, dedication and hard work that brought good KAF flour into my home. Happy 4th!

    And we hope you had a wonderful 4th too, Louise – thanks for connecting here. PJH

    Reply
  15. bobbenson1932

    As an 81 year old Kansan , I want to thank you for this wonderful exposure . It is a great blog . The truth of it is , We need your wonderful company and You need our fabulously independent Farmers . It is a great team and may both go forward in the future Forever !!!!!!!!!!!

    I’ll drink a nice cold lemonade to that! Thanks – PJH

    Reply
  16. Ricardo Neves Gonzalez - Petrópolis, R.J. - Brazil - SENAC Rio

    For us brazilians this kind of travel along crop fields is common and really a pleasure.What change is the species involved. Wheat fields are rare, along wide Brazil. Here the farmer´s got focus on soybeans. Brazil is nowadays giant 1st world soybean crop producer, having surpassed United States as a major world producer. One of the challenges we now have, is how to manage on right way the substitutions of cattle grassfields and soybean crop production at protected areas without great damages on environment. Amazon forest losted great part of it´s trees exactly due to soybean crops and cattlefields expansion . Meanwhile 85% of wheat we use here, are imported from Argentine. As i said in another posts, we have great deficiency in wheat flours of good quality. All we have is half/half a flour that is balanced to bread baking and that supports pastry uses. Around 7% protein, nothing more. Anyway i feel that we´ve been making miraculous breads with that kind of poor proteins flour. We always dream here with better wheat fields, better crops, better flours. All we have of quality, come from Italy and from small organic local farmers supported by Embrapa, national agricultural researcher. I love the respect you have by wheat farmers. This makes all the difference! Nice post!

    Ricardo, it must be very difficult dealing with flour made to such uncertain/low specs; kudos to you for still being able to produce good bread, as I know you do. And thanks, also, for trying to support your small local farmers, and to save your land… PJH

    Reply
  17. LeAnne Ferry

    Thanks for your great article and pictures of my beautiful state. Being the granddaughter of wheat farmers, . My Granddad worried about the yield and moisture content of the wheat. Proud to use King Arthur flour and proud you use Kansas wheat.

    Thanks for using our flour, LeAnne – and we’re proud to use Kansas wheat, and Texas wheat, and North Dakota wheat… we love all our wheat growers! PJH

    Reply
  18. Emily

    So glad that you made it to my home state AND to my alma mater, Kansas State University. There are some hard working folks in Kansas. And, they make a mean fried chicken dinner — glad you found the Brookville!

    Mean fried chicken is right, Emily – believe it or not, one of our group had NEVER had fried chicken. I told her, “You’ve seen the promised land with THIS friend chicken!” :) PJH

    Reply
  19. Marsha

    This is one of my favorite blog posts, ever. It’s gorgeous, a great story and wonderful people. Thank you so much for informing the public on how hard a farmers life is, but full of beauty also. Loved it.

    Thanks so much, Marsha – glad you enjoyed it. PJH

    Reply
  20. Diane Hart

    My family farmed all of my life….proudly. Something you learn is not to take anything for granted, never assume anything, have respect, and learn to pray. Mother Nature is a hard taskmaster……..

    Indeed she is, and I’m sure that’s a lesson you learned through experience, Diane, isn’t it? Thanks so much to you and your family for doing what it takes to feed us all. PJH

    Reply
  21. Gwen

    The “hard roll” and pesto at Gella’s is Grebble with sunflower seed pesto. I am seriously addicted!

    I like your flours and mixes, and the recipes in the catalog.

    Thanks for the information and kind words; happy baking!-Jon

    Reply
  22. Donna

    (I tried to use the “reply” link to put this with the comment and response about capitalizing America in the blog title but got an error notice.) I wish your creative design team would rethink their choice to use all lowercase as a “design element” in the blog titles. I find all lowercase titles disconcerting and unappealing, and when a proper noun is presented in lowercase, I find it objectionable.

    Thank you so much for the feedback, I will certainly pass it along.-Jon

    Reply
  23. Karen

    I’m a grateful customer of King Arthur flour for more than 15 years. Thank you for this profound insight about America’s farmers. Their courage and determination is inspiring. They deserve accolades and our gratitude.

    They all certainly do.-Jon

    Reply
  24. Dana

    God bless the farmers. How I wish we could send them some of the rain we’ve rec’d here in Northern Wisconsin.

    Reply
  25. Emma Shirey

    My question is about the grain. Is any of these farmers growing GMO grain?

    Emma, none of the wheat these farmers are growing is GMO. Despite a “rogue” patch in Oregon back in May, there’s officially no GMO wheat being grown in the United States. PJH

    Reply
  26. DONNA MARIE

    THANK YOU all for doing what you do……The King Arthur VIDEOS were Wonderful…….Made me cry……Bless you ALL !

    And bless you, too, Donna Marie – thanks for connecting with us here. PJH

    Reply
  27. Susan

    Beautiful pictures, interesting information, worthy topic. But the correct wording of the song is ” purple mountains’ majesty” . It means the majesty of purple mountains.

    Susan, I checked the lyrics on several sites, including the Boy Scouts of America – and I, too, thought it was purple mountains’. But this is what I came up with – not possessive. Who knows the “official” wording, I wonder? What do you think would be the best site to verify? PJH

    Reply
  28. Shay

    I’m at my favorite pizza place- Pizza Paradiso Orlando. If we’re really close friends I could have been with you to all your travel. This is adventure to me! You capture great pictures and good food too. Never been to any farm lands and because of your page, I begin to realized there’s amazing view there. Thank you for this page, I’ll get to plan to visit one this coming days.

    Reply

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