CHATTANOOGA — David Gammill can cut the then-and-now down to one wheat field.
Standing in the doorway of his barn, 13 miles southwest of Chattanooga, the 58-year-old nods his head to a wheat plot.
Last year, Gammill found the cracks in the Miller clay soil type were mid-forearm deep.
“You didn't dare drop your pliers,” he said, “they'd be gone.”
Now the lush wheat field is waist deep with a strong south wind pushing across it.
“The waving golden wheat looks like an ocean of promise,” said Gammill, who is the third of four generations of his family to farm in the area. “We haven't got it made yet. What I want to see is the grain going into the bin. Then I'll take a deep breath.”
On Friday night, a severe storm struck the area with golf-ball and up-to-softball-size hail and damaged numerous wheat crops, he said.
"Most of ours is still good," Gammill said Saturday. "But between Randlett and Grandfield, it devastated thousands of acres of wheat."
Grandfield, 11 miles from Gammill, is the closest community with an Oklahoma Mesonet weather network site.
Records for that location show the 2010-11 wheat crop had only about 2.96 inches of precipitation. Gary McManus, of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, said in comparison, this year's crop has had about 18 inches precipitation. It is important to point out that conditions vary. While Grandfield in southeastern Tillman County has had 8.4 inches of rain since Jan. 1, Tipton in western Tillman County has received only 4.8 inches.
For Gammill, it wasn't only precipitation that has blessed his crop. Since planting in late October, the average low temperature at Grandfield has been 41.7 degrees. More specifically, Grandfield only spent one hour below freezing in March and April this year. Their lowest temperature was 31 degrees.
While warmth may have helped in that regard last summer's heat was excruciating with 101 days of triple-digit temperatures.
“I've never seen it any harder,” Gammill said. “The ponds were low going into the summer and then in the heat of the summer everything dried out. The grass just absolutely never grew.”
Last year the wheat wasn't much higher than the tops of his Red Wing boots. Now the variety of wheat called Duster reaches the black belt looped through the Wranglers of the 5-foot-10 farmer.
Because of good growing conditions, wheat harvest is starting early in areas of the state.
Mike Cassidy, of Cassidy Grain in Frederick, said they received their first load of this year's wheat crop Friday. It was cut Thursday, a few miles west of Frederick.
Shaking off the dust
So much of the state is trying to shake off last year's dust.
“I just had a truck in here with some of last year's wheat and there was just so much dirt,” said Scott Lovett, manager of Co-op Services Chattanooga, while looking out the window at the grain elevator office. “They had to put the header on the ground to get what they got.
“Last year was just a horrible year.”
Statewide, there were 70.4 million bushels harvested for grain, the lowest total production for wheat since 1957. In those drought years, Oklahoma production topped 71 million bushels only once from 1950 to 1957.
Lovett said they have a capacity of 1 million bushels at his location and in 2011 took in only 175,000 bushels.
Gammill praised last year's crop for making anything at all with such little precipitation.
His wheat crops average 33 bushels per acre in a decent year. Last year, he averaged 9 bushels on what he could cut.
“We've dabbled in other crops when wheat was dirt cheap,” said the southwest Oklahoma producer who serves on the Oklahoma Wheat Commission. “We keep coming back to wheat. It's is the one that is a dependable producer here in this dry part of the state.
“It can come back and it is so versatile. You can graze it, bale it or you can cut it for grain.”
The people who raise it are just about as durable, he said.
The swings in agriculture are seldom gentle.
Gammill had the wheat crop of his dreams in 2008, cutting 50 bushels per acre. The next year, a late freeze wiped out his wheat crop. In 2010, he had closer to his average crop with 28 bushels.
Last year, while he averaged 9 bushels, he said many in his area didn't cut any wheat.
Many of them who raise cattle also had to significantly reduce their herd size because of no pasture for grazing and the cost of bringing hay in from far away. Most ponds were dry, forcing many to haul water.
The effects of such a drought certainly didn't stop at the fence post. It has been felt throughout many communities and counties.
Recently the white erasable board in Lovett's office had the cash price for a bushel of wheat closing on the previous day at $6.15.
“You just do the numbers on a million bushels that runs through this elevator, at say 6 bucks,” he said. “Well that's $6 million and then you go back to 175,000 bushel. You're looking at roughly a million dollars. So $5 million has a huge impact on this county, I mean huge.”
A way of life
Through the years the Gammill family has raised other crops and cattle. In 1995, Gammill got into the insurance business. In 2006, he bought into an agency at Grandfield. His son, Josh, helps run that today. They are examples of the many families who use off-farm incomes to help them remain on the farm.
“You've got to have optimism and a determination to be in agriculture,” David Gammill said. “There's no way around the lows to get to the highs.
“We've had a lot more lows in the last 30 years than highs, but there's a quality of life out here that you just can't get anywhere else.”
The waving golden wheat looks like an ocean of promise. We haven't got it made yet. What I want to see is the grain going into the bin. Then I'll take a deep breath.”