Kansas Wheat film: Dust Bowl trials to 1940s triumph

by Laura Lloyd
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WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — With a budget of $650,000, more than 30 years in the television and movie business, and strong ties to hard red winter wheat farming in Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado, Jay Kriss set out to make a documentary that told the story of his grandfather, John Kriss, and the agricultural visionary he worked for, Ray Garvey.

“Harvesting the High Plains” was the result, an award-winning documentary that will be shown this fall on PBS stations and be part of a curriculum on agriculture that is being made available to schools.

Agricultural businesses and foundations, as well as a major milling company, were among the donors who made the movie a reality, Mr. Kriss said. New music was composed for the film, which relies on original documents, vintage photography and moving images of wheat farming, the Dust Bowl in Kansas and the then-record harvest of 1947.

“Wheat was the vehicle but the movie is really about the American Dream,” Mr. Kriss told Milling & Baking News. “These are the guys who stayed.”

He was referring to the Dust Bowl that ravaged Kansas and most of the High Plains and drove countless farmers and their families to abandon their land and seek survival in California.

In 1933, when extreme drought and poor farming practices already had caused disastrous wind storms that were driving small farmers off their land, a savvy and stubborn attorney named Ray Garvey wanted to raise wheat on the 4,000 to 5,000 acres of Kansas farmland that he had accumulated over a number of years. He was convinced that he could succeed where many others had failed if he worked with the High Plains environment instead of against it.

At the same time, John Kriss — Jay Kriss’s grandfather — contacted Mr. Garvey and said he wanted to manage his land. They recognized that the key factor to success was water management in soil that was often cracked and dry. Today, fields in the Western third of Kansas and Eastern Colorado still require skilled moisture conservation to produce healthy hard red winter wheat crops.

Mr. Garvey and Mr. Kriss came up with the “summer fallow” method, which meant that a crop was planted only every other year, giving the soil an opportunity to build up during the fallow year. Mr. Kriss the filmmaker, who calls himself a “suitcase farmer” of land he has inherited, said family members still follow the summer fallow method in land they lease out in Western Kansas and Eastern Colorado.

The innovative agricultural practices developed by Mr. Garvey and Mr. Kriss allowed them to stay in Kansas and slowly build their success, their land-holdings and their bank accounts when many other producers gave up, Mr. Kriss said.

“Garvey was never interested in the fast buck,” he said. But Mr. Garvey’s patient approach paid off and, in addition to farming hard red winter wheat on thousands of acres, he built many of the big grain elevators in Kansas City, Salina, Kas., and Fort Worth, Texas, among other cities, to hold his large crops, Mr. Kriss said. He died a wealthy man in 1959 and his manager did well financially also. The letters and telegrams the two men sent each other — about 10,000 of them — became the basis for the documentary, Mr. Kriss said.

“Harvesting the High Plains” is one of the history-based titles that Inspirit Creative, Mr. Kriss’s movie company based in Williamsburg, has completed. Among other film projects, he has a new movie based on America’s westward expansion that will premiere at the 2014 Sundance film festival, he said.

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