My first car, a blue 1989 five-speed Ford Escort, passed westbound down a rural highway in north central Kansas. Warm summer winds swept over the gently sloping plains. The near ripe greenish wheat was turning gold. It was set off in brilliance against the deep blue horizon in front of me by the rising sun behind me. It was a Van Gogh moment. Kansas was preparing for a bumper crop come late summer in 1990, and the futures markets were down, down, down. Some places would yield over 40 bushels an acre, which was remarkable given that anything above 30 was respectable. Meanwhile, the vast prairies of yellowing Hard Red Winter Wheat undulated from the windy horizon, giving me the sensation of sailing on an ocean.
At age 24, fresh out of graduate school, I was on a business trip for the Continental Grain Company, for whom I worked in Hutchinson. I bought grain from my office on the seventh floor of the Wiley Building, and my territory was mostly south central and western Kansas along the Southern Pacific and Atchison-Topeka-Santa Fe railroads, paralleling the old Santa Fe Trail. China and other big buyers would soon be in the market for millions of tons. I was trying to make some inroads into the northern counties where the Union Pacific-Missouri Pacific and Burlington Northern rail lines ran. When I stepped out of my car, I was taken in by the luminous expanse of countryside. Winds blew from beyond sight, wafting through my thick crop of hair, soon due for a cut along with the wheat. I had been reading some history about this remote and lonely land from which came the crops of my trade. Stories about covered wagons crossing the Santa Fe Trail and tales of travail about 19th century homesteaders captured my imagination.
Despite the non-commercialized splendor of America’s rural Heartland, I felt a tinge of sadness. The way of life was vanishing like a mirage. The gentle, brassy voice of Don Williams singing the hauntingly beautiful ballad “Broken Heartland” ran through my mind. I often played Williams’ music – along with the country likes of George Strait, Paul Overstreet, Ricky Skaggs, Randy Travis, Keith Whitley, Patsy Cline and Charlie Pride – in my Escort’s cassette deck. I carried soft drinks and cold beer (not taboo then and there) in my ice chest on the passenger seat. My trade had put me in touch with farmers, co-op managers, elevator operators and interloping middleman traders who, never taking possession of a single grain, sold it almost as fast as they bought it, perhaps for a penny/bushel margin. They knew the corners and characters of Kansas well enough to do this. A middleman named Wilbur was perhaps the fastest gun in the central Kansas grain business. He often had a good deal for me, which meant I had missed an even better deal from some unknown source. But there was no reason to think that I, a rookie outsider working for a giant like Continental and destined to move on, would compete with old timers and good ol’ boys.
I continued westward to an unincorporated rail stop called Studley, en route to visit a co-op manager. Meanwhile, Don Williams sang “Broken Heartland” from my cassette. “He climbs up on his John Deere/ Shoves a plug of Redman in his jaw/ His eyes stretch cross the valley/ Way down to where they’re puttin’ up a mall/ His baseball cap says Kansas/ But Washington says how much he can grow/ There’s a bank note in his pocket/ That says in thirty days they’ll have his home.” The ballad went on in flowing melancholic beauty, like the wheat. “It’s hard living in a broken heartland/It’s enough to break a man and his beliefs/Lord, give him strength to mend this broken heartland/’Cause he’s living proof of a dying breed.” I pulled into Studley’s Midwest Co-op at around Noon, where a lone smoke-ringed secretary was sitting behind a desk, with country tunes twanging in the background. “Is the manager here?” “He’s at lunch. He’ll be back in about an hour,” she said. “I could use a bite,” I replied, “Is there a place for lunch around here?” “Yep, there is,” she said. “Go about a mile down the dirt road (pointing to her left) and you’ll see an ol’ school in a grove a’ trees. There’s a place there.” My Escort headed down the dusty byway. Williams sang on. “His son’s gone off to college/Learning skills that’ll get him off the farm/And his wife just keeps it all inside/Still he finds his only comfort in her arms.” A dust devil spun through the hot dry field and across the road. “And this tractor’s been his treasure/Oh how could an auction measure its true worth/ And every night he asks the Father/That he may never lose this mother earth.”
I pulled up to the abandoned school, where an electric Budweiser sign flashed in what was once a classroom window. I was probably one of a handful of grain merchants who stopped in each summer before harvest, trying to source wheat for either the flour mills in Kansas City or for the export terminals near New Orleans. An otherwise attractive lady behind the counter stared me down with a straight, plain and direct face. “What’s on the menu?” I asked. “What do you want?” she replied. “What do you have?” “Whatever you want.” “I’ll have a ham sandwich and a Budweiser,” said I, throwing a softball, worried that anything else might be met with, “We don’t have that.” Her plainspoken simplicity, typical of High Plains talk, was stern but sweet. They don’t have much, and they don’t expect much. At the mercy of markets, merchants, weather and Washington, they take what they can get and give what they have.
I later made a trip, even further west, to Cheyenne Wells, Colorado, trying to expand the frontiers of my territory. I spent the night in a simple but clean little motel. Otherwise, the sky, the wheat and the highway were all I saw. It was a dizzying, grassy moonscape. During high noon, you’d have no idea which direction you were headed were it not for road signs, which pointed you to the horizon of your choice. The highway was a line too straight to be real. Some early homesteaders went mad out there. Others would run to the tracks when a train was scheduled to pass, just to see people. I dined that evening at a little steakhouse. I was clearly reckoned an outsider, save for the waitress who called me “baby.” After dinner, I watched the sunset in the western sky, leaning against a massive irrigation pivot in a milo field. The next morning, I took due south toward Tribune, KS, as winds tore from infinity to infinity through the plains. An antelope flashed across the lonesome highway. Tribune was divided by a north-south highway that turned Main Street into a wind tunnel. Seating myself at the town’s eatery, an old farmer in overalls leaned toward me and asked, “Where you from?” “Hutch,” I said. “The big city,” said he dryly.
When I returned to Hutch, I took a call from a farmer who trucked from Amarillo. Amarillo and Enid had grain terminals, and free-on-board prices weren’t better in Hutch. So what on earth was he doing up here? Like many farmers, I reckoned, he was hauling loads of whatever he could get – rock, cement mix, manure, fertilizer – to squeeze a buck out of his truck. Trucks were good capital in those days because fuel prices were low. But it was a gamble that hung on the luck of finding something to haul and then something to backhaul. When he called, I told him with disappointment that I didn’t have anything. I asked what brought him here. Sure enough, he had a farm and a truck, and he worked nights at a bar. His wife worked days at a school cafeteria and moonlighted waiting tables and bar tending. He desperately needed money to rescue his farm and home. “And every night he asks the Father/That he may never lose this mother earth/ It’s hard living in a broken heartland/It’s enough to break a man and his beliefs/Lord, give him strength to mend this broken heartland/’Cause he’s living proof of a dying breed.”
My Kansas days witnessed one of the final battles of a prairie culture to which history had never been kind. The culture sprung from Mennonite farmers, fleeing Czarist persecutions in Russia, bringing with them Turkey Wheat – the predecessor of today’s high yielding Hard Red Winter varieties – to the Great Plains in the 1870s. After graduate school, I declined a job offer on the Hill for the grain merchant job in Kansas because I wanted to see for myself what was left of this life. In those days, I was probably the only merchant at Continental who favored the “Save the Family Farm Act,” which never passed. Perhaps it was a noble but romantic pipedream.
That previous winter, temperatures lapsed to -30 degrees, with -60 wind chill. The power steering fluid in my Escort froze. Larry Steckline’s “Mid America Ag Network” reported that the coldest air in North American was right above us, blasting from the Artic through the North American plains. Aptly named, Hard Red Winter Wheat is sowed in the fall, and it must freeze deeply in order yield well. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it yields much fruit” (John 12:24). That winter, my parish priest planted a seed of his own. He suggested that I sign up for an hour at their Adoration Chapel. That was new to me. Until then, I was not very religious – at least not until I signed up for the 3:00AM shift on a sub-zero Monday morning. That’s where my soul felt the first hints of a priestly vocation. At the time, I wasn’t sure if it was God talking or the first stages of prairie madness. Little more than a year later, my blue Escort left the prairies behind for a job in Washington. I was off to another “big city.”
In this month of Independence Day, my memory wanders back to the wheat fields. The wheat and the wind remain, but the way of life has mostly disappeared. Nonetheless, I thank the Father whose Providence has blessed our country with the culture and virtues of plainspoken and honest farm families, if only for a brief passage of history.