As the yardstick sank in a crack at David Gammill's powder-dry wheat field, the farmer's heart plummeted as well.
The wooden measuring stick went 20 inches into the southern Oklahoma earth.
Behind Gammill, his son, Josh, was at the helm of a John Deere 9600 combine.
In a good year, that 30-foot header on the machine would be gathering 40 bushels per acre, David Gammill said. This time, they hope it'll make 15 bushels.
Wheat harvest has started in Oklahoma. And as usual, the outcomes likely will vary not only throughout the state, but possibly within counties.
The Gammills are an example of the angst and determination that mark each Oklahoma wheat harvest.
“We thought that first field we cut would only make 5 bushels and we got 15. This should be about the same,” David Gammill, 59, said of the field near Faxon. “Right now, with all the crop has been through, we feel fortunate to get that much.”
Mark Hodges, executive director of Plains Grains Inc./Oklahoma Genetics Inc., which tests wheat for quality, recently traveled to southern Oklahoma visiting some producers who are in harvest, including Gammill. Seeing the cracks, he went to his pickup for some baling wire to poke into the ground to get an idea of the depth. But he happened to find the yardstick in the truck's cab.
Even though Gammill's heart dropped when the yardstick sank past a foot and started approaching 2 feet, this wasn't breaking news. He's watched the cracks multiply and widen for months.
He knows this crop has endured drought and at least five freezes just to get to this point.
Gammill had the wheat crop of his dreams in 2008, cutting 50 bushels per acre. The next year, a late freeze wiped him out. In 2010, the 28 bushels an acre was close to his average. In 2011, combines harvested 9-bushel-an-acre wheat in his fields. Last year, some of his neighbors' crops got hailed out while Gammill came away with 35 bushels an acre.
Ups and down. The challenges are usually more bountiful than the crops.
“That's why you're truly paranoid about being ready and in the field as soon as it will harvest,” he said.
Time to harvest
Minutes earlier Josh Gammill, 31, had pulled the combine alongside a truck to dump the wheat. He got out, and his father handed him lunch in a small ice chest. He climbed back into the cab of the combine. There are few to no breaks when it's possible to harvest.
“When you get into the field you have to stay with it,” Josh Gammill said.
Thinking back to the months before wheat harvest, David Gammill couldn't remember a real good rain since the 2 inches in October. And once the wheat was ready, they needed to get it harvested before rains came. As it turned out, they received about 2.5 inches of rain this past week, in his particular area, just days after starting harvest.
“A rain on wheat that's ready to harvest can lower the test weight, which will cause the wheat to weigh less per bushel and lower the yield,” he said. “As thin as this wheat in our fields is, it should only have a minor effect on the overall yield, but the test weight and the quality will be less.”
Adapting with time
Through the years, the Gammill family has raised crops and cattle. In 1995, David Gammill got into the insurance business. In 2006, he bought into an agency at Grandfield. His son helps him run that. They are examples of families who use off-farm incomes to help them remain on the farm. That's where they want to stay.
“The older I get, the more I appreciate my childhood,” Josh Gammill said. “Even the days that I didn't like working and wanted to go do something else, I'm glad I was here, doing this.”
What are the estimates for this year's Oklahoma wheat crop?
“Well, that depends on who you talk to, ranging from 100 million-bushel crop down to some are estimating below 70 million bushels,” Hodges said. “My estimate is not as low as 70 million, but I'm on the lower side of that range.”
Hodges, 59, said the five-year average in Oklahoma is 118 million bushels of wheat.
“But within that 118 million there's years with 70-plus million, there's last year with 154 to 155 million, so there's a very wide range in there,” he said. “If you think back 10 or 15 years, the long-term average was 160 million bushels in the state. But now there are less planted acres. This year, there's going to be a lot less harvested acres.”
In a back office of Co-op Services Inc. grain elevator in Lawton sits General Manager Charlie Swanson. He talks about how the freeze hurt a crop already battered by drought. Then some of his producers received hail damage.
“I think we'll be lucky to take in a third of what we did last year,” said Swanson, 63. “We'll probably be close to 50 percent of an average crop, but we're thrilled to get that much after what we've been through.”
The drought's effects don't necessarily end when rains come. And a lesser crop will have ripple economic effects, Swanson said.
“It even affects our business down the road because people won't buy as much fertilizer,” he said. “They won't have the money to buy it like they do when they make a good crop.”
Josh Gammill's presence at the wheel of the combine is an economic decision. Because they anticipated a small crop, the Gammills didn't think they could justify paying for custom harvesters. That, in turn, can affect communities where expenses by crews can include diesel, food, rooms and other necessities for life on the road.
As the combine behind him makes another round in the wheat field, David Gammill says:
“We're optimistic I guess. You just hope you get one of those good years often enough so you can still pay the bills.”