Wheat Tours: A Firsthand Look at the Farmers Feeding the World

August 7, 2019 By J.M. Ascienzo

Americans take their private property seriously, so it came as a surprise that I could simply walk into a stranger’s wheat field in rural Kansas with a yard stick, measure a stalk of wheat, and check for bugs or disease. And yet I did this— over and over— across the state for about a week in May, assessing wheat quality and estimating crop yields as part of the Wheat Quality Council’s Annual Hard Winter Wheat Tour.

Since the 1960s, the Wheat Quality Council’s Wheat Tour has brought together stakeholders from the community – including millers, commodity traders, farmers, scientists, bakers, researchers, and USDA officials – twice yearly in Kansas and North Dakota. Participants hail from across the U.S. and countries such as Brazil, Chile, China, Mexico, and Switzerland. What started with maybe a dozen people on the first tour is now upwards of 100 participants per tour each year.

As part of the Winter Wheat Tour, participants were organized into carloads and set out each morning to visit farms in different counties across rural Kansas. We flung yardsticks into wheat fields and took three measurements: the crop’s height, distance between rows, and number of stems per foot. Back in the car, each person reported their measurements and observations. Both mattered: observations noted signs of disease, budding, and dryness, while measurements calculated yield. Farmers forgave our trespassing because the numbers are important—they help to estimate the number of wheat bushels per acre the state will produce this year.

Kansas Wheat

Wheat is a big deal in Kansas. Each year, America produces the equivalent of 50 million football fields of wheat. Kansas is the biggest wheat-producing state. And the network of those who rely on wheat is massive— everyone from wheat mills and bakers to bankers and railroads are directly impacted. And that’s not including consumers! From bread and cake to cereal and pretzels, wheat can be found in many everyday foods. Plus, drinks like bourbon and beer contain wheat. But wheat’s not just a big deal, it’s big business. In 2017, wheat was Kansas’ top agricultural export, bringing in nearly $1 billion. And that network extends globally. Kansas exports half of its wheat to countries like Mexico, Canada, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. That’s why the Wheat Tour attracts folks from all over the world.

On Tour

The Wheat Tour isn’t just about crop quantity and quality. Part of its purpose is to educate those in the wheat industry who don’t have a background in agriculture. Dave Green, the Wheat Quality Council’s executive vice director, says that most participants have never set foot in a wheat field, much less farmed.

“In addition to teaching them the basics about wheat itself, you also have the opportunity to learn what a grain elevator does, how the farmer sells his grain, what a flour miller does,” said Green. “Plus, it’s a great way to meet people from across the industry and bond.”

Claire Hutchins, a market analyst at U.S. Wheat Associates in Washington, D.C., has participated twice, first on the Winter Wheat Tour in Kansas and again on the Spring Wheat Tour in North Dakota—the second-largest wheat producing state behind Kansas.

“These tours are a great opportunity for everyone along the wheat supply and value chain to connect in a way that is nearly impossible to replicate in an office or other professional setting,” Hutchins said.

Farmers Partnering with Food for Peace

U.S. farmers don’t just feed Americans, they feed people all over the world. While only two percent of Americans are farmers, that two percent helps feed the world through exports to developed and developing nations, as well as through U.S. foreign assistance programs like Food for Peace (FFP). Today, FFP serves many purposes, like alleviating food insecurity and providing nutritional support. But its most well-known provision is Title II, which provides emergency assistance to people facing extreme hunger, or about 1 in 9 people around the world. Since it began in 1954, American farmers have partnered with FFP to help feed more than 4 billion people. In 2017 alone, FPP fed 70 million people in 53 countries.

Matt Nims, deputy director at FPP, joined the tour in Kansas this year and is grateful for the program’s partnership with farmers in Kansas and across the country.

“Food from American farmers is one of many ways USAID responds to food crises globally,” Nims said. “Last year, we bought 1.46 million metric tons of food from U.S. farmers, purchased on the commercial market. This food helped us reach 35 million people — many in crisis — in 30 countries around the world. We are proud to save lives with food grown by U.S. farmers.”

Feeding the Future

By 2050, demographers predict there will be 10 billion people on the planet— that is three billion more mouths to feed than right now. Scientists at Kansas State University (KSU) and its partners at the Kansas Wheat Commission and Kansas Association of Wheat Growers are not betting against these numbers—they are taking action by creating new climate-resistant wheat varieties to help alleviate extreme hunger and poverty. USAID is helping their efforts by funding KSU’s Feed the Future Innovation Lab, which received a $14 million extension in 2018.

Wheat is the staple crop for one-fifth of the world’s population. To meet the demands of 10 billion people by 2050, wheat production will have to increase by 1.5 percent per year.

And from what I’ve seen during my travels in Kansas and North Dakota, the wheat industry is doing its part.