Theres a big divide between farmers with deep wells and irrigation, and those without. Hans Hayden is a rare find: a talkative farmer. He likes to explain things. But when it comes to the wheat he planted this spring, theres not much to say. This field needed rain it didnt get.
At this point in time, it kind of looks like a desert, Hayden says.
In a good year, his spring wheat would be nearly 3 feet high by now. The top of each stalk the head would be heavy with grain.
Hayden walks across his Power County fields gentle slope. He steps on stunted rows and kicks up dust. He stops, and picks a single stalk of wheat.
You start seeing here? These heads have very few kernels in them if they even are here, he says.
He rolls the head in his hand, literally separating wheat from chaff. But he doesnt find a single seed. See, theres none in that one, and there should have been 26 to 45 in that head.
Hayden has 1,400 acres of drought-withered wheat.
Not far from Haydens farm, the slender arm of a pivot irrigation system arches over a cornfield. It sends out 3,000 gallons of water per minute. This is Jim Tiedes farm, and he can barely hold back a grin.
This is the time of year when you finally have the payday, and all of the work you do for the whole year, and planning, and the budgets and now this is the fun time of year when you get to reap what youve sown, he says.
Across the road, Tiedes potato plants are getting the same steady spray of water, and theyre thriving. His wheat fields are a short drive away. The kernels are plump. The field stirs and sways in the breeze.
You can hear the wheat rattling as we walk through, Tiede observes.
RAIN, WATER, SWEAT AND MONEY
A crop like this isnt luck. After the wheat came up in spring, it was irrigated for 60 days straight.
Tiede expects his crop will bring in a good profit this year. Wheat is selling for more than $8 a bushel.
Theres no such thing as drought under a pivot irrigation system, says Stan Gortsema, a retired county extension agent. I mean, turn the water on!
Gortsema says this divide between the so-called dry-land farmers, who dont have irrigation, and the irrigated farmers, who do is especially big in this area. A dry-land farmer plants and then prays, he says.
Hes looking to the heavens, saying, Come on, big guy! Give me some rain. And if it happens, it happens. And if it doesnt, he can lose his whole crop.
The irrigated farmer is in a completely different business.
Wheat is an Idaho dry-land farmers livelihood. For irrigated farmers like Tiede, potatoes and sugar beets are the cash crops. The wheat is there to give the fields a rest.
Most years, Tiede breaks even growing it. He says thats because irrigated farming has a hefty price tag.
Ill just give you a rough example: My operating loan for 3,000 acres is about $2.3 million, Tiede says.
Every year, Tiede takes out a loan in that amount just to cover the upfront costs of getting his crops in the ground. Costs like his $100,000 monthly power bill. It takes a lot of electricity to pump water in a desert.
Hayden, on the other hand, usually makes a pretty good profit. For him, this is the rare year when that wont be the case.
But Tiedes wheat will pay him well, because prices are high.
These big differences between Haydens and Tiedes operations are mostly a matter of historical accident. Both men farm land settled by their grandfathers. A century ago, all southeastern Idaho farming was on dry land. Then well-drilling technology came along, and the Tiedes struck gold. Their farm sits over an aquifer. Haydens doesnt. But hes OK with that.
I really like raising wheat, he says. Its a simple sentiment. But for him, its enough.
The bigger the irrigated farmer, the more he becomes a personnel manager. He never drives his own tractor, Hayden explains. Sometimes if you get very big, you just manage the managers. So then youre sitting in an office, and you changed your position.
This year, Hayden will lose money, while irrigated farmers nearby have a chance at record profits. But Hayden will stick with the life he has.
What everyone here will tell you, though, is that irrigated farmers arent immune. They have enough water this year thanks to the heavy snowfall that came the winter before last. It filled reservoirs to their brims. But if the dry conditions keep up, stores could run low. And if that happens, Hayden says, irrigated farmers, with their big upfront costs, will be in a tough position. He and other dry-land farmers will have less at risk.
Were playing the penny slots and theyre playing the $100 poker game, Hayden says. We both can win and we both can lose. They just make a lot of money when they make it and they lose a lot of money when they lose it, because theres so much more money involved.
And that, Hayden says, is one more reason why hes glad to be a dry-land wheat farmer, even in a bad, hot year.
PRODUCTION GOES ON
At the General Mills grain elevators in American Falls, superintendent John Peake says the drought thats hurt dry-land farmers like Hayden wont have a big impact on local production.
At the elevators, giant trucks full of freshly harvested wheat line up every which way waiting to unload. Inside, Peake looks on as grain pours from the back of an idling semi.
We dumped 325 trucks yesterday, which is roughly 175,000 bushels, he says. Thats a lot of wheat.
Peake will send out railcar after railcar, each holding 220,000 pounds of wheat. But he knows some farmers wont fare well.
I mean, being a dry-land farmer in southeast Idaho is a tough deal, Peake says. It was a windy year, it was hot early. It was just a tough year to be a dry-land farmer.
Molly Messick: firstname.lastname@example.org.