PATTERSON – Fall harvest is Jack Queen’s marathon.
The sun was setting, but the grain elevator here is humming with workers. Trucks full of corn made a line alongside a giant mountain of grain – golden kernels arching onto the heaping pile at a rate of 15,000 bushels an hour.
This region of Kansas is where the first fields of Turkey Red wheat emerged – which started the trend to make Kansas the nation’s breadbasket. But for Queen and his fall team of 33 employees, wheat harvest is just a fourth of their annual production.
“Wheat harvest is like a 100-yard dash,” Queen, general manager of the Halstead-based Farmers Co-op Elevator Co., said of the fast-paced, two-week event.
Yet Kansas wheat harvest often sparks the most attention due to the annual rite’s lengthy tradition, the number of trucks on the road, and the abundance of combines that dot nearly every county section.
But what sometimes goes unnoticed by Kansans is that for three months – from September through November – Queen’s crew, along with countless others across the state, will put in 12-plus-hour days to help bring in Kansas’ autumn bounty.
“Fall harvest is our marathon,” Queen said.
This summer, Kansas farmers reaped more than 334 million bushels of wheat – a blessing after a multi-year drought.
Now elevators across the state are posed to bin a projected 926 million bushels of corn, soybeans and milo this fall, according to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service.
For Farmers Co-op, bushels will be down some from last year’s bumper fall harvest, but Queen added that this year’s harvest is still a big one.
Farmers in his territory are projected to bring in 6.16 million bushels of fall commodities – about a million bushels more than the company’s five-year average.
The first loads of dryland corn rattle across the elevator scales in mid-August. Now farmers are finishing cutting irrigated corn – which Queen said has yielded anywhere between 180 and 220 bushels an acre. Combines are just beginning to roll through fields of soybeans and milo.
Last year, the final loads of the fall trickled in just after Thanksgiving.
Safe in the bin
Kansas farmers have months of sweat equity into their fall crops they planted this past spring.
But growing a good crop is just part of the battle.
For the elevator crew, their job is to make sure farmers’ paychecks are stored safely in the bin.
A steady stream of people, trucks and fall grains move in and out of all four of the cooperative’s locations – Halstead, Mount Hope, Bentley and Patterson.
“Fall is a lot more work than wheat harvest,” Queen said, adding, “We take in three times as much in the fall as we do during wheat harvest.”
To accommodate the growing influx of grain, the cooperative has been in a growth mode for the past several years, which includes building a new Bentley grain facility in 2013 and expanding the Patterson location in 2010.
During harvest, after all, the goal is to get the trucks through in the quickest, most efficient way so the farmer can get back to the field.
“We want to provide service and take care of our producers – get them the products they need in a timely fashion so they can become as profitable as possible,” Queen said.
Queen added six part-time workers to his crew of 27 full-time employees this fall. That includes Brent Dumler, a Wichita man Queen knew from coaching his son’s baseball team. Dumler was looking for a job that could give him more hours.
Dumler said he has found plenty of hours this fall. His days for the past few weeks have been spent unloading trucks into the bunker at Patterson.
“It can be tiring,” Dumler said, but added about the paycheck, “The hours add up.”
Brad Fritzemeier always gets to work early as the Farmers Co-op’s maintenance supervisor. However, during fall harvest – long before any combines start cutting – he arrives a little earlier – 6:45 a.m. – to get everything ready for the truckloads of grain that will come in each day.
On this September evening, Fritzemeier and location manager Ted Anderson monitored harvest activity as a small line of semi trucks dumped corn into the Patterson location’s half-million-bushel ground bunker.
Thanks to the grain elevator, Anderson said, the former town comes to life again during the two harvest seasons. The elevator and a few houses are all that is left of the Harvey County town, whose post office closed in 1927.
“We call him the mayor,” said Queen of Anderson with a laugh.
Plenty of fall left
Just up the road east of Patterson, Keith Jones unloaded a truck filled with corn at the cooperative’s Bentley location. He starts his day around 7 a.m. – and typically doesn’t head home for Hutchinson until after 8 p.m.
Sometimes it is well past dark, the location’s operations manager added.
But as October begins, the workload won’t be quite as long, Jones said. Daylight gets shorter and the majority of the fall harvest – corn – will finish up this week.
Still, Jones admitted with a smile as he dumped his last truck of the evening, sometimes during the busyness of fall harvest “it’s nice to see a rain.”