Car No. 13 pulled out of Manhattan, KS, on May 1 with skies darkening to the south. “Oh, great,” I thought. “We’re going to get soaked. Good thing I dragged along those wellies.”

I and 99 others set out that day on the 55th annual Hard Winter Wheat Tour organized by the Wheat Quality Council (WQC). I’ve known about the tour for years, and many friends recommended it. Now it was my turn. It was everything they promised, and it gave me a new understanding of wheat and its supply chain.

Drought looks different in the field than on the TV weatherman’s nightly report. Lots of eyes viewed this year’s crop, yet none saw any rain other than a few drops on the final day. Oklahoma farmers had it worse, as a group of tour members from Mexico found out: Hail ahead of a heavy thunderstorm a day earlier flattened wheat fields along the state’s northern border. In Kansas, however, the farther west we drove, the drier it got and the more advanced the crop became.

To say that 2012’s crop conditions were unprecedented would be an understatement. During early May, when wheat normally starts flowering, it had already headed, flowered and pollinated and was filling out, with some advanced into the milk and dough stages. Instead of counting booted stalks, we counted actual kernels.

The tour set records, too. It attracted its biggest crowd to date and made 608 stops in Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma. The tour also reported its highest estimated output ever, a whopping 403.9 million bu for the 2012 Kansas wheat harvest.

Starting at Manhattan, 21 cars headed west, their occupants ready to sample wheat in fields along the way to Colby, KS. The next day, we did the same thing all over again and rendezvoused at Wichita, with Kansas City, MO, our destination on the third and final day. Many adventures awaited along that 1,000 miles.

Two events, three purposes

WQC sponsors two annual tours of wheat country: a trek in early May through hard wheat territory in the Central Plains and a second in late July to see hard spring and durum wheat in the Northern Plains.

The council, a group of breeders, millers, bakers and their allied suppliers, has managed the tours for the past 20 years. These events started as “field days” in the 1950s, when wheat buyers rode the train to Kansas from Chicago, IL. Field days were largely social events until 1973, when the Soviet Union gobbled up much of the American wheat harvest, driving prices sky-high for a crop previously known for its low prices and sleepy market. That huge, unexpected deal prompted more interest than ever from grain buyers, wanting to know the size of the crop ahead of harvest. Millers and bakers soon joined the cavalcade, and most recently, equity fund managers and market analysts came aboard.

Crop tours serve three purposes, according to Ben Handcock, WQC’s executive vice-president, and his longtime volunteer tour coordinator, Dave Green, director of quality control and laboratory services for ADM Milling, Shawnee Mission, KS. The outings make a good-faith attempt to gauge the size and harvest dates for the crop. They provide educational and networking events for the grain-based foods industry, and they give exposure to US agriculture. Plus, participants have opportunities to visit local historical and geological sites along the way.

Briefed and ready to go

We converged on Manhattan April 30 from throughout the US as well as Brazil, Guatemala, Japan and Mexico. Taking the tour were five people from university grain and agriculture programs, eight bakers, nine wheat growers, nine media representatives, 13 from government agencies, 21 from the grain trade, 22 millers and 13 others including analysts and equity fund managers. Fifty-one were first-timers.

Jason Lamprecht, acting director, Kansas Agricultural Statistics, Kansas Department of Agriculture, Topeka, KS, told the group how to measure row widths and count wheat stalks, rows and spikelets. Jim Shroyer, a Kansas State University Extension agronomist, brought in samples of wheat plants to show freeze damage and disease conditions — stripe rust, barley yellow dwarf and wheat streak mosaic. We would also see weeds including mustard, cheatgrass and wild rye.

WQC issued each of us a yardstick and a purple K-State pen for recording readings. Drivers received maps and instructions for following the six different routes that wove through Kansas, southern Nebraska and northern Oklahoma.

To get things started on a convivial note, everyone sat down the first night to a Kansas steak dinner. The occasion brought out a few tales from the bad old days, too. Question: How do you measure the quality of the wheat? Answer: You throw your empty beer can out the car window. If it stays on top the wheat, it’s a good year. If it sinks, it’s a bad one.

Amid the waving wheat

In a field of wheat a few miles west of Manhattan, Mr. Handcock crouched down as he instructed a rapt audience. “Lay your yardstick across several rows of wheat to figure out the average row width, and record it,” he said. “Write that number down right on the yardstick.”

We’d been told how to do this the night before, but there’s nothing like getting a refresher course with the real thing right in front of you.

“Then lay the yardstick next to one of the rows,” he continued. “With one hand, gather the stalks along a one foot length. Count the heads, and write that number on the yardstick, too. Measure the height of the wheat from the ground up. Write that down. Pick a head or two and count the spikelets. Write that number down. Then find another location in this field and repeat.”

With this quick bit of on-the-job training, he turned us loose on Kansas’ wheat fields. We stopped every 10 to 15 miles, searching for fields not fenced in or posted against trespassing. The passengers did the measurements; the drivers did the driving. Each day, the tour coordinator reshuffled drivers and passengers.

It’s one thing to view wheat through a car window as you speed down the highway. At this time of year, it looks like a lush, velvety, emerald green carpet, rippling like water in the wind. But get out into the field, and that carpet turns into thicket of stiff stalks a foot taller than your knees. Walking in it is slow going.

During the tour, some drivers caravanned with other cars, doubling up the number of data takers in a given field. This helped when trying to figure out row widths. The tour’s several farmers and wheat commission staffers quickly straightened out the rookies on such matters.

Our second-day driver followed a car driven by his colleague, Mr. Green. At a number of stops, Mr. Green conducted a master class in wheat’s life cycle.

“Wheat is an opportunistic plant, making the most of its conditions throughout the growing period,” he explained. Because the plant can generate more shoots, called tillers, depending on moisture conditions and slough them and the resulting stalks off during dry periods, its estimated yield constantly changes. “Each row on the head has the potential for three or four kernels, but if stressed, the plant won’t fill all of them,” he said.

Off the beaten track

The farther west we drove, the more field conditions changed. Different planting patterns were evident from the edge-to-edge style of eastern Kansas to the no-till method now emerging in the western part of the state, an approach developed to hold down wind-driven soil erosion. While rain supplied the moisture in the east and central regions, the much drier west employed center-pivot and flood irrigation.

Besides wheat, we saw corn and alfalfa, along with at least one very large dairy operation in the far western reaches of Kansas. We found plenty of tumbleweed and even a rare example of devil’s claw, a weed whose seed evolved to latch onto the legs of passing bison. Rabbits, prairie chickens and lots of red-winged blackbirds populated fields along with cattle and horses, and a few hawks and turkey vultures circled lazily overhead.

I did not get to see the World’s Largest Ball of Twine at Cawker City, KS, but I did visit the Garden of Eden at Lucas, KS. We also stopped at the Cottonwood Ranch, the Dalton Gang Hideout, the Big Basin Prairie Preserve with its red rock formations hiding St. Jacob’s Well, the Carrie Nation House, the Medicine Lodge Stockade Museum, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, the Mennonite Heritage Museum and, finally, the Kansas City Board of Trade.

Each day’s crew brought interesting company. I was fascinated to hear grain traders sharing tips with market advisers on what they follow about the crop and farmers talking with bakers and millers about the difficult drought conditions they face. But it wasn’t all business. At a BBQ restaurant one day, I heard a city dweller exclaim, “Dorothy, I know we’re in Kansas because there isn’t a vegetable to be found on this menu.” At another lunch stop, someone pointed out that you have to be a local to know that “chicken fry” refers to beef not poultry.

Amber waves of grain

We had a daily deadline at 6 p.m. when the group reassembled to hear results tallied from our sampling activity. Each car elected one person to give the evening summary. It should be no surprise that my car-mates selected me all three days, although I insisted that someone else act as statistician. WQC gave us a formula to calculate estimated yield, which plugged in our data about row widths, stalk heights, head numbers and row counts. Our show-and-tell reports noted the number of stops we made and counties we visited, along with average calculated yield and where we found the biggest and smallest numbers. We also estimated the days remaining before harvest. Kara Hobart, quality engineer, General Mills, Minneapolis, MN, tabulated each day’s results.

To supplement what we learned from our own samples, WQC called on state grain commission representatives to detail conditions in other parts of the Central Plains. Caroline Brauer, staff assistant, Nebraska Wheat Board, Lincoln, NE, observed that her state had avoided much of the drought that affected Kansas and described results from a crop tour done the previous week. Darrell Hanavan, executive director, Colorado Wheat, Fort Collins, CO, also shared results from a recent crop tour in Colorado, reporting yield as low but a crop with a lot of upside potential. Mike Schulte, executive director, Oklahoma Wheat Commission, Oklahoma City, OK, said things in his state looked favorable — especially compared with the past two years, Oklahoma’s worst.

“Things look favorable,” Mr. Schulte said, “but it’s three weeks to harvest. Anything can happen.”

As we finished the leg to Kansas City, we had one last task. Mr. Handcock asked each of us to estimate the number of acres of wheat that Kansas will harvest and the average yield per acre. Then, he told us to calculate total wheat production, from which Ms. Hobart generated our prediction that Kansas will harvest a 2012 crop of 403.9 million bu.

How close did we get with that early May estimate? The Economic Research Service of the US Department of Agriculture had the final say on 2012 figures for Kansas in its Aug. 9 wheat report. Because that number came out after this issue went to press, you’ll have to check it yourself here.

WQC posted this year’s tour data and analysis of the results on And if you wish to take next year’s wheat crop tours, the website will have date and participation information, too.