Every year the Hard Red Winter Wheat Tour crisscrosses Kansas, examining fields all over wheat-growing territory and coming up with an estimate of harvest, based on conditions as of the first week of May.
Every year, the tour involves a few pros -- producers, wheat commissioners, K-State folks and media regulars -- and a whole lot more first-timers who have a connection to the wheat industry but may have never been to Kansas or even seen a field of growing wheat.
Checking out the condition of the crop and seeing first-hand what the potential promises and pitfalls might be is always interesting. Getting to know the wide diversity of people participating, however; is priceless.
This year, on Day One, I had the privilege of being in the car with experienced pros Ben Boroughs, a Cimarron native now working for the North American Millers Association in Washington, D.C. and Tanner Ehmke, a Dighton native who works for Co-Bank in Denver; and relative newcomer to both America and wheat harvest, Shijun Yan, the Chinese leader of Confucius University at K-State, a special program dedicated to fostering understanding and cooperation between China and America.
Shijun is still learning English and American measuring standards such as feet and inches instead of meters and millimeters and was intrigued by some of the "cultural" stops that are a mainstay of the tour.
Tour leaders strive to introduce participants to local cafes and coffee shops and allow them to explore Kansas tourist attractions on or close to the routes of the tour.
Popular annual stops include the world's largest hand-dug well in Greensburg (way more impressive in today's museum that it was before the tornado 9 years ago), the Dalton Gang Hideout in Meade, the world's largest ball of twine in Cawker City, the Garden of Eden in Lucas, Monument Rocks in Gove County and other wonders.
Our winter wheat tour route took us past the Great Ball of Twine and I tried to get Shijun ready for the experience, explaining that this was the largest ball of twine in the WORLD. Maybe there is something like this in China? Maybe even bigger?
"Twine," he repeated with puzzlement on his face. "What is twine?"
I tried to explain. "It’s like string." Nope, he doesn't understand string either. "Like rope, kind of." He smiles. Politely.
And then we arrive. We pile out of the car and walk up to the attraction. I mentally note that the sign says "sistal" twine and I wonder if there is a larger ball of another variety somewhere in the world.
Shijun is impressed. He wants pictures. We all do. So we take pictures. And then we head out to explore more winter wheat fields. And now, in some strange way, we all are all a little more bonded because we took our picture at the Great Ball of Twine together. And we traveled across Kansas together looking at wheat and doing math together. And we all wonder a little bit if we did it right or if our results are going to stand out in a "this was a really clueless car" way.
We get to our daily destination and share our numbers and our experiences and we have a beer and dinner and we laugh about what we saw today.
And like it always is, this tour is about so much more than just getting an up-close look at the hard red winter wheat crop and a forecast of what harvest might be. It's about making a personal connection to other pieces of the vast puzzle that is the total wheat industry in Kansas, the U.S. and the world. And coming away knowing you are privileged to be part of it all.
I hope we sent Shijun back to campus with a little bigger picture of Kansas and Kansas wheat and a connection that he'll remember every time he looks at that picture in front of the world's largest ball of twine.
And I really hope Shijun enjoyed the tour --he told me he did -- and that he will share all the things he saw and learned with Confucius University. His mission is to foster greater understanding about American culture and Chinese culture. I think we gave him a great start.