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SPOTLIGHT
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The white combine calls

Published on -7/9/2014, 10:02 AM

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Tuesday, June 24 arrived like most mornings in Finney County. The only difference -- humidity levels were high and the dew point skied off the chart.

Two inches of rain the last few days after nearly four years of drought concerned veteran farmer Dwane Roth. He believed conditions were ripe for a serious storm.

Shortly after noon, a cloud bank began forming on the northern horizon. Throughout the afternoon, it gradually moved closer and closer to his fields north of U.S. Highway 50. At 3:45 p.m., the rain began falling slow and easy. But not for long. In little more than a minute, marble-sized hail stones dropped straight down. A couple minutes later, hail the size of golf balls started blowing horizontally.

Within five minutes, the sky turned white, and the wind blew so hard visibility dropped to less than 100 feet. Reports of hail a foot deep were not uncommon.

The white combine (hail) left a swath of destruction 7 miles long and 5 miles wide approximately 8 miles northwest of Holcomb. The aftermath was devastating.

Wheat ready for harvest was hammered by the storm. The next day, the heads, stripped clean by the hail, drooped in the bright morning sun. Plump, golden berries covered the ground between rows, and the promise of 70 bushel-per-acre irrigated crops evaporated as the white combine reaped its wrath.

A beautiful, chest-high corn crop also met a similar fate. Stalks lay twisted and broken while the leaves were left torn and tattered. Some of the crop lay pummeled into the soil, and the corn left standing stood less than knee high.

Bruised and battered corn stalks are prone to disease, especially when they're growing as fast as they are at this time, Roth said. Stock rot and lodging could result in significant losses.

One veteran farmer pulled up in his pickup, stepped out and looked to the west at one of his fields of corn.

"It looked pretty crappy," he said. "My dad always told me after a bad storm, you should take off and go fishing for a week. But he never did."

When asked how he slept the night after the storm and before he could survey the damage the next morning, he replied while interjecting some patented western Kansas humor.

"I slept just fine," he smiled. "I'm a good Catholic with a clean conscience, and we always sleep well -- even after farming for nearly 50 years."

Then he added as he cocked his head to the right and looked me squarely in the eyes, "I'd much rather be looking at this crop than looking at you, if you were my doctor, telling me I had six weeks to live."

Always able to look at the bigger picture, many of the Finney County farmers surveying the damage believed their corn crop would come back. Some even hoped they'd harvest at least half a crop if no more hail hit their farms.

With years of farming under their belts, most of these farmers understand that by the end of June, there's little they can do but wait and see how the rest of the growing season pans out.

"This is usually the way it goes out here," Roth said, rolling the battered corn stalk in his hands. "When you come out of a drought, you're going to get some significant weather. So many times the results aren't what you hope for."

And what about the drought that has lasted for years, especially in southwestern Kansas?

"You know, they say farmers are the eternal optimists, and I'm hoping it's over, Roth said. "I'm not certain it is. But hey -- I'm breathing. We're going to be OK."

John Schlageck is a leading

commentator on agriculture and rural

Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwest Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.

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