Nothing quite matches knowledge gathered in the field. That’s what I and 99 others gained in early May when we took the Wheat Quality Council (WQC)’s 55th annual hard winter wheat evaluation tour. The council sent us out with yardsticks and maps. We visited a lot of wheat fields, making 608 stops in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma, and we learned about the Colorado crop, too. It was an experience like no other I’ve ever had.

WQC sponsors two such tours annually: the first in late April or early May to see hard winter wheat in the Central Plains and the second in July to view hard spring and durum wheat in the Northern Plains. The May 2012 tour attracted a record number of participants: 100 people representing the grain, milling and baking industries, plus government agencies, universities, media, equity funds and market analysts, as well as wheat farmers. That’s 30 more than the past year.

Why so many this time? Even the council’s executive vice-president, Ben Handcock, wasn’t sure. “It may be that the crop is so early, or it may be today’s strong interest from the financial markets. Or it may be something entirely different,” he said.

I’d opt for the market angle. After all, the approach used by the current tour took shape right after 1973’s big Soviet grain buy that unexpectedly gobbled up much of the American wheat harvest — a deal reported first by Milling & Baking News, scooping everyone else, including big international newspapers. What was once a reasonably calm, if a bit sleepy, market acquired enormous volatility.

 Suddenly, crop estimates rose in importance as buyers struggled to adjust to wheat’s brave new world. Grain buyers and millers turned out for informal “field days” in Kansas and throughout the nation’s breadbasket. Bakers soon joined in. With WQC organizing the tours for the past 20 years, the outings became both educational events for the grain-based foods industry and good-faith attempts to gauge the size of the next harvest to help buyers plan wheat and flour purchases.

This year, we determined that Kansas will harvest a record wheat crop, with an estimated yield of 49.1 bu per acre and a total harvest of 403.9 million bu. The hard winter wheat in the state is well advanced, probably three weeks ahead of schedule. Some of us thought combines could be in the fields harvesting the first acres in late May.

It’s still to be determined just how good our estimates are, with final crop numbers not known until the US Department of Agriculture releases its August report. Check back then to see how close we got. “Things look favorable,” one experienced tour participant said. “But it’s still three weeks to harvest. And because it’s wheat, anything can happen.”

All I know is that I got close enough to come home with mud on my boots, pollen on my jeans and a new appreciation for the wheat supply chain. You can read my full report in the August issue of Baking & Snack.