The annual Winter Wheat Quality Tour, which typically comes during the first week of May, is about taking a detailed look at the progress of the wheat crop in Kansas and giving farmers an idea of what the prospects for harvest appear to be given the current conditions.
However, I can attest — as can most participants with multiple years of experience on the tour — it is also about discovering (or promoting) Kansas, making friends, establishing business relationships and creating lasting memories.
Many of the participants in the tour start off knowing next to nothing about the people who grow hard red winter wheat or the challenges the crop faces in the field from weather, insects and disease. Many of them have never even visited Kansas or seen a field of growing wheat.
At the end of three days of walking — or in this year's case, wading — the wheat fields of Kansas, they have a pretty good knowledge of the crop, how it's grown and who grows it. They also get a pretty good picture of the challenges it faces and the amazing resilience of the crop that gives Kansas its nickname: the Wheat State.
I am a Wheat Quality Tour veteran. Before I was editor of Kansas Farmer, I was an ag writer for the Wichita Eagle and a frequent tour participant. It was on the tour that I first met wheat producer Ray Crumbaker from Brewster. He's now retired. I remember how excited he'd get toward the end of the first day of the tour as we got closer and closer to Thomas County — and how hard he pushed us to stop at the best fields and give the most positive report possible.
It was also on the tour that I met Dave Green (now the executive director of the Wheat Quality Council, then a lab quality guy for ADM) and the venerable Ben Handcock, who preceded Green in that role for decades until his retirement last year.
It has been on the tour that I have gained new insight into the personality of people I knew in a totally different role. Jim Shroyer, the guru of all things wheat (and birds), turned into a practical joker who talked me and K-State photographer Dan Donnert into playing an elaborate joke on a western Kansas banker during the tour.
I remember a Russian guy who kept asking to see "government-owned land" until we finally took him to the Byron Walker Wildlife Refuge out by Kingman on the way into Wichita on the second day of the tour. He said, "This is a park, not a farm." And we said, "That's what government-owned land in America is. Farms are privately owned businesses." I still don't know if he believed us.
Dave Green says he stresses visits to Kansas attractions because it helps people who may only do one tour in a lifetime fondly remember Kansas.
"I guarantee you that those people don't remember the potential yield of any wheat field they sampled, but they tell the story of that great big ball of twine or that crazy museum with 2,500 different patents for barbed wire at every cocktail party they go to for 20 years," he said.
It was on a Wheat Quality Tour that I first discovered the world's largest hand-dug well and stood at the bottom, looking up at the amazing accomplishment of determined people and fell in love with the spirit of Greensburg, a town on a comeback roll from a tornado that literally wiped it out 10 years ago.
It was on the wheat tour that I discovered that the bank clock at Hoxie — which like its counterparts across the country shows the time and temperature — also displays the daily grain prices at the local elevator.
It was on the tour that I first discovered the geographic center of the U.S., experienced the Garden of Eden, the Cottonwood Ranch and the Dalton Gang Hideout.
This year's tour was no exception for meeting amazing people. I now know Brandt Laidlaw, a trader with Emerald Grain in Melbourne, Australia; Jim Sun, a China-born grain analyst with Ardent Mills in Denver who came to this country at the age of 9; George Dickson, a trader with Macquarie in New York City; David Hoff with Ardent Mills out of Tampa, Fla.; Brian Stromberg with J.M. Smucker in Orrville, Ohio; Taylor Smith with Corfo Agri in Chicago; and Julie Ingwersen with Reuters in Chicago.
We spent a day together in a car. But we also spent a day together piling out of that car and trekking through mud, snow and ice into wheat fields. We counted heads and counted tillers, measured row widths and the height of wheat plants, and learned how to count spikelets on heads and calculate potential yield with a National Agricultural Ag Statistics formula. We grew cold and wet and tired together. We learned that Jim Sun could eat a 16-ounce hamburger in less time than it took the rest of us to finish a chicken sandwich.
On our final day, our car even experienced running flat out of gas. Fortunately, we were close to a gas station, and all it took was a few yards of pushing and a downhill slope to roll up next to the pump. (Yes, there are pictures. I saw Julie taking them.)
A LITTLE PUSH: If you are going to run out of gas, the place to do it is just yards from a gas station. Brian Stromberg and Taylor Smith are the pushers and that's P.J. Griekspoor walking to the right. The shadow, with phone camera raised, is Julie Ingwersen.
Our driver was embarrassed, for sure. But it was one of those wheat tour memories — something you stash away that you shared with perfect strangers who are now kind of friends. And yes, Dave Green (the driver who ran out of gas), you are so right in what you say every year: The mission is the evaluation of the crop and the statistics, but the memories really are what this is all about.