Kansas Wheat and Wind

TREGO COUNTY, KS – After attending a funeral in western Kansas, I boarded the plane in Kansas City with a memento from the trip – a few strands of wheat.

People were dumbfounded at this modest cargo, these golden stalks I held. Passengers looked confused – what was this stuff? It made no sense to them to bring a raw sample of an actual crop back to town, like wearing a tux to the beach.

The staring continued. Brows furrowed – even in Kansas City, a few miles from farm land. Finally a flight attendant came up, sent by the entire crew.

“We were debating what it is you have there. What in the world is it?”

She was trying to be nice, but condescension seeped through. She didn’t know it was what she had for breakfast, lunch and supper – her daily bread.

The Plains funeral was for an 84-year-old uncle, a lifelong Kansas wheat farmer. Burial was at the cemetery south of WaKeeney, near Zion Lutheran Church, which has served these High Plains farm families for more than a century. Heartfelt eulogies spoke of Uncle Leo as a shy man who was gentle with animals, ingenious at keeping the farm equipment running, faithful to God. He loved country music, ever since tuning in to Nashville’s WSM in the 1930s, because the signal on the Plains at night was so strong.

Leo Mai survived the Dust Bowl, the Depression, and 80 years of bad wheat prices – one of the last of my bachelor farmer uncles from a Volga-German immigrant family that settled here after 1910.

A visit to the Plains underscores the distance between city and farm life these days. In the urban American mind, the Great Plains are the great flyover stretch before you finally land again to check your email and texts.

Yet the Plains do us the favor of feeding the world. They make America a global leader in wheat production. For centuries, the Plains helped define the American character, a history that is now slipping away.

Explorer Coronado wandered through in the 1540s, looking for mythical cities of gold. The Comanche and the buffalo watched warily, sensing these gold-lusting European visitors were not good news. The Indians hung in for three centuries more, before they, and the buffalo, were wiped out.

Kansas bled from clashes over slavery a decade before the Civil War, then saw a population boom before the century turned. Immigrants came from Russia, Scandinavia, New England, Tennessee, bringing a self-reliant ethic along with hardy new strains of winter wheat.

Severities of weather further tested resolve – on a biblical scale. A ghastly locust plague in 1874 devastated crops. In 1886, wind chills of minus-100 killed the livestock. In the 1930s, dust storms and drought blew topsoil and hope away. Yet most people stuck with it and soon made the land bloom again.

Among them were my grandparents and their family of six surviving sons and two daughters, my mother included.

It is humbling out here. Standing in the forceful wind, you can hear yourself think, yet your thoughts are not equal to what you see – a vast horizon that reveals the very curvature of the Earth. (A genial Kansan at the funeral dinner said he had been to my town, Nashville, recently and liked the place, but for one thing: “Too many trees.”) You realize, out here, that you are actually stationed on a planet, sweeping through a solar system. The awesome wind tells its own narrative – about the mysteries of creation, the impermanence of human boasts and achievements. Incessant news updates feel far away.

Looking at the tombstones of relatives at the cemetery – these tough-minded, family-loving people, ethnic Germans who settled here from the Volga River in Russia – the mind reluctantly confronts the brutal forces of change. Depopulation has set in. Family farms are declining. Because of efficient machinery, it takes fewer farmers to work the field. Because of expensive equipment and mounting debts (yes, wheat prices are still bad), it is tougher for young farmers to get started. Some towns are putting their hopes in 24-hour slaughterhouses, run by low-wager earners and new immigrants in order to meet a new taste for pork across the global economy. It is hard to keep the kids on the farm. America’s address is in the city, pulled by the frantic undertow of the consumer age.

We know the names of the Kardashians but we do not know what wheat looks like, or what it costs a struggling farmer to grow it. Here, the country roads are lonely. But the fiercely golden wheat under the June sky is more beautiful than ever.