Wheat Belt drought
taking heavy toll


April 26, 1996
Web posted at: 5 p.m. EDT

WELLINGTON, Kansas (CNN) -- Wheat prices are setting records at the Chicago Board of Trade as a drought in the Wheat Belt shrivels the crop. Some are calling the conditions -- in some of the most fertile wheat-producing land in the world -- the worst since the dust bowl days of the 1930s.

Farmers say they've never seen it so bad, bankers call the drought a disaster, and the people in Wellington, Kansas, the "Wheat Capital of the World," have watched the wheat crop shrink into nothing. (1.1M QuickTime movie)

The federal government says half the crop across the United States is being lost to drought. Dry topsoil is being blown into ditches, and bugs ravage what crop is left. Many farmers have already plowed their plantings under. And the worst may be ahead.


"We thought it was tough," says farmer Tim Isaacs, who farms more than 3,000 acres in Sumner County, the biggest wheat-producing county in the country. "But we haven't seen anything yet if it continues to be dry."

The crop in much of the county already is a total loss. The plants needed moisture down at the roots weeks ago, but now the dirt at that level is dry. And now it's too late.

At a town meeting, Isaacs joined others to discuss what could be the worst U.S. wheat crop in history.


"That could be about over $50 million just from the income of wheat alone that we might lose in this county this year," said County Extension agent Ed LeValley. "We've been across 70,000 acres of wheat in Sumner County to date that will be destroyed and put to something else."

"There's going to be a larger impact than just our local economy," said Wellington's mayor, Stan Gilliland. "It's going to effect the whole world."

stockpiles line graph

The drought has already affected the world. In the span of a decade, U.S. wheat stockpiles have gone from an all-time high to what is likely to be their lowest level since the 1940s, making it only a matter of time before prices start to rise on Main Street.

Wellington's local donut shop, which uses its share of wheat flour, is eyeing the coming price increase.

"Our product will go up," said Elaine Freeman of Daylight Donuts. "Probably go up about the time that nobody has anything to spend."

Prices have already more than doubled from the normal three dollars or so cost of a bushel of wheat.

"We're pretty much in uncharted waters. Wheat prices have never been this high." said grains analyst Joel Karlin of EVEREN Securities.

Farmers might be expected to be happy, at least, that what wheat there is will bring high prices. But farmers say it doesn't matter how high the prices go if there's nothing to sell.

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