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Bringing in the wheat

Farmers struggle to plan ahead each season while at the mercy of weather

Dan Olsen
A truckload of wheat harvested by Bret Grandbouche arrives at Craig Grain Company on Thursday morning. Prices are up, but the harvest is down this year as the worldwide harvest is off due to flooding and drought.
Dan Olsen

— After a summer of serious drought conditions, the fall of 2006 finally produced a good rainfall, just in time to keep most Northwest Colorado farmers from planting a winter wheat crop.

“You have to plant something, so they take the next best thing,” Gordon Grandbouche said while at Craig Grain Company.

The next option for farmers is to get in a crop of spring wheat, he said. A crop that will be at the mercy of moisture.

“A spring crop completely depends on summer moisture,” Grandbouche said. “If you have enough wheat to pay the combine bill, you harvest it. If not : You leave it.”

This is just one of the yearly dilemmas farmers face each season: They can plan ahead, but always remain at the mercy of the weather.

Colorado is a major wheat-producing state, with the 2005 harvest valued at $179 million.

With an average harvest of 24.4 bushels per acre, the state’s crop is 95 percent Hard Winter Wheat.

The harvest in Northwest Colorado began the first week in August and will run about a month, Grandbouche said.

Grandbouche comes from a farming background where his father, Lester, grew wheat in Nebraska in the mid 1930s before moving to Hayden. The Grandbouche family farmed wheat in Routt County from 1941 to 1958, and again from 1961 to 1967.

The family has been in the business in Craig since they moved west in 1967.

A truckload of wheat arriving at the business Thursday first pulls onto the scales to get weighed.

A ticket is printed noting the weight and date of the transaction, and a deafening horn sends the driver on his way to the grain bins to unload.

On Thursday morning, the first load came from Grandbouche’s son, Bret.

“I don’t know how many loads we will be making, but I know it won’t be enough,” Bret Grandbouche said as he cranked the lever below the truck.

As the load pours out of the truck and into the elevators, Gordon leans in and scoops out a measure of the grain for testing.

“First, we take a moisture sample,” he said. “If it’s over 13 (percent moisture), it’s too wet. That’s called ‘tough wheat.'”

Grandbouche said there are portable moisture testers on the market, but most wheat growers in the county have been in the business for a while, and can tell when the time is right to harvest.

Next comes the test weight of the grain, nominally at 60 pounds a bushel.

Drought-stricken grain that comes in lighter, at 54 or 55 pounds per bushel, is discounted because it takes more of the wheat to make flour.

The final test is a protein check, where a small amount of the grain is ground to a powder and placed into a machine that measures protein levels.

The majority of the wheat harvest goes to millers such as Pillsbury, General Mills or Con-Agra to make flour. Bakers special-order the type of flour they need for their products.

Bread bakers prefer Hard Red Winter wheat, while the Soft Red wheat grown in the east is used for making crackers. Hard Red Spring wheat from Minnesota and the Dakotas often goes into making rolls, Grandbouche said.

A recent innovation is a white-wheat, used in making whole-wheat white bread that children prefer, but none is grown around Northwest Colorado.

Wheat from local farmers is stored in the bins at Craig Grain with its capacity of 150,000 bushels.

The farmer decides when to sell the wheat.

“Everybody has their own marketing plan,” Grandbouche said. “We can give them a feel for the market, but it’s their decision.”

When the time is right to sell, the farmer lets Grandbouch know, and he purchases the grain from them. The business then turns around and sells the product to buyers, shipping it mostly by train car, but sometimes by truck.

Train cars that hold 3,300 bushels of wheat arrive for loading at Craig Grain and are back on their way to mills within 24 hours.

A bushel of wheat will produce about 60 loaves of bread.

The market price of a bushel of wheat on Wednesday was $4.94, a good price for a low-yield year.

“This year’s (worldwide) crop is at a 30-year low,” Grandbouche said. “Russia and Bulgaria had low yields. Texas and Oklahoma were flooded out, and so were England and France.”

The plight of the farmer is familiar to Grandbouche. He said he knows of few other professions that are at the mercy of everything that can’t be controlled, such as weather, politics and fuel prices.

Grandbouche has seen great changes in the wheat business throughout the years.

In the early 1980s, there were 150 wheat farmers around the county, he said. Now only a handful of them remain.

Grandbouche also worries about the national trend of replacing farms with urban development.

“There’s only so much productive ground in the United States,” he said. “Greeley has thousands of houses built on good, productive land. Fifty years from now, we may regret developing on that land.”

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext.207, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com


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