KANSAS CITY — The 2020 Hard Winter Wheat Tour, the milling and baking industries’ annual first post-dormancy look at the wheat crop, has been canceled due to concern and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
The cancellation was announced March 30 via an email from Dave Green, executive vice president of the Wheat Quality Council, to registered tour scouts and those who have attended in the past. Registration for 2020 at cancellation totaled approximately 30 people, about a third of the normal cohort for the late-April-early-May tour. Most attendees were waiting for indications of all-clear signs before registering, he said.
The Wheat Quality Council maintained hope that the 2020 tour could be staged if initial timelines on flattening the curve of COVID-19 proved successful and cities and states began to lift travel and other restrictions. After the president extended government stay-at-home guidance through April, the council opted to cancel a month out in the best interest of tour event contractors and attendees.
“Even if toward the end of the month if they start to loosen up lockdowns, I don’t know that these small towns want strangers coming through from all over the country, potentially spreading germs around,” Mr. Green said. “So, even if we could physically get people to come and the hotels were open, I just didn’t think it was a good idea. You finally get to a point where we’ve got caterers involved and hotel reservations and I didn’t want to wait until a week before to cancel these catered events and such.”
Even before the tour officially was canceled, there had been talk of small group field events designed to offer an abbreviated look at the crop, which could be made public through photos and videos posted online. That possibility remains, provided there are signals that the spread of the virus is lessened and scouts can move freely for non-essential purposes, Mr. Green said.
“There is starting to be talk that maybe we could have some farmers go out and take some video of their crop and discuss what they’re seeing in their area to provide some information publicly, but nothing’s been formalized yet,” he said.
The Hard Winter Wheat Tour has never before been canceled, those involved said, even in years where outside factors put the event in question, such as a snowstorm the week of the tour.
“Certainly not in my lifetime,” said Mr. Green, a milling industry veteran at the helm of the WQC for the past 3½ years. He’ll now wait a year for what will be his 41st winter wheat tour, which began initially as Wheat Field Days for wheat buyers to eye the crop’s potential.
“Through the Council, they would get some buyers together every year and get them into the wheat fields and show them the new varieties and new plantings and give them a chance to get out in the field,” he said. “They would stop at three or four different fields to give them an idea of the crop.
“Then in about 1972, when the Russians increased wheat purchases, and price just became so sensitive, and everybody was more interested in ‘how big a crop do we have?’ and ‘when is it going to get harvested?’ That’s when the tour started getting bigger crowds and they actually kind of formalized into what we see now, where we cover a lot of ground, traveling across the state, trying to do a good job for estimating the size of the crop.”
The Spring Wheat tour scheduled to begin and end in Fargo, ND, from July 20-23 is still scheduled, for now. Potential cancellation depends on similar factors that sealed the fate of the 2020 winter wheat tour, Mr. Green said.
“The National Agricultural Statistics Service, they developed the yield formula, and they put together the book for us that has all the data, all of the steps that scouts take, and the data from the last few years,” he said. “And they need a month to put that together, so they said try to get to us a month ahead of time because they need to start gathering their data.”
The milling and baking industries stand to lose a fair amount of information from the cancellation of such tours, intended as snapshots of the condition of a crop around the same dates each year for the benefit of the whole supply chain.
“The scouts aren’t there to prove or disprove anything or to issue a final verdict, but to take an unbiased look at the crop,” Mr. Green said. “We run the same yield formulas every year, we cover the same routes and we try to do as nice of a job as we can with credibility. This is a public tour, so we publish all of our data, the farmers participate. So, they get information they wouldn’t have either about how things are around the state.”
The winter wheat tour joins a long list of cancellations that include numerous trade shows, some of which are considered invaluable as a networking venue.
“This is part of our industry tradition, and it’s very unfortunate,” Mr. Green said. “These events become a part of your life, the people that go always enjoy it, so it’s a personal disappointment on top of everything else.”