ABILENE — Much of a promising wheat crop was still in Jack Burwell’s field, ready for harvest but inaccessible.

His combine, with an air-conditioned cab, was a mile away, useless, until some old-fashioned assistance arrived on the farm northwest of Abilene.

“We really want to thank you,” Burwell said Wednesday morning while greeting six people — tornado walkers from the area who volunteered to remove debris from the fields.

Armed with empty feed sacks or buckets, some with floppy straw hats, and one lady — Dottie Letellier, 72, of Chapman — with a whistle loud enough to carry more than a football field in length, the crew began their rescue effort.

“Thank the Lord we can walk, and thank the Lord we have a house to go home to and shower in,” Letellier said. “I’m a farmer’s kid. We do what needs to be done.”

The wheat patch was among many in the path of a May 25 tornado that leveled a number of homes and buildings from north of Solomon in Ottawa County to south of Chapman in eastern Dickinson County.

Eerie remnants of the twister, rated as high as an EF4 by the National Weather Service, were still visible on the rolling hills, with shelter belts enveloping farm fields.

Debris disables equipment

Burwell guessed his 48-acre wheat field would yield 60 bushels to the acre or more. But he wasn’t about to run his combine into an area until pieces of tin and steel siding, insulation, wallboard, nails and screws, wallpaper, lumber from homes and buildings, timber from groves of trees, plastic, and pieces of vehicles and farm machinery were removed.

“I’ve had several sticks go through the combine. It causes a rumble and the plastic kind of zips through,” Burwell said, during a brief orientation.

A log or piece of twisted metal could reduce a combine header or the machine’s intricate innards to scrap, said James Coover, Dickinson County agricultural Extension agent. He has helped with some of the cleanup.

A friend, Dennis McCosh, and Burwell’s wife, Vicki, were in utility vehicles pulling small trailers, combing the field for junk. Jack Burwell drove a tractor hooked to a bigger trailer.

Other Burwell relatives had logged hours in the field prior to Wednesday.

A good deal of airborne debris sucked into the twister, which was on the ground for 26 miles, ended up in wheat weeks before it would be ready to reap. It also landed in creeks, pastures and fields waiting to be planted with spring crops.

Tornadic winds whipped wheat plants, causing them to lay over. Some of the plump heads and stems appeared to be woven by the gales. In some areas, volunteers had to step on the debris to find it.

Traveling field to field

The mass slowed Burwell’s combine to 1.1 mph so it could separate the grain from the garbage. Normal threshing speeds are 3 mph or more.

The task left some in the walking crew overwhelmed but determined to help their fourth farmer in six days finish harvest.

“It’s been nice to see the farmers smile a little bit, but we’re barely even helping. These fields need to be walked right away. It needs to be harvested when it’s ready or the quality goes way down,” said Sonya Anders, who lives south of Chapman.

She is helping organize and lead the cleanup excursions. Crews have ranged from a few to 28. They meet at a designated place at 5:30 every morning and then drive in a convoy to the field, where they search for debris until 11 a.m., when temperatures approaching triple digits are unbearable for the volunteers. Many of them are in their 60s and 70s.

The American Red Cross chapter in Salina has been providing meals, along with the Chapman American Legion Post 240.

Burwell’s field was mid-level in terms of tornado litter. Anders recalled two that were worse.

“There was metal and wood every step, and we went across the fields an arm’s length apart,” Anders said.

Most debris consists of pieces of buildings and farm equipment. One field contained a long, twisted steel beam.

Some items have sentimental value, such as a photo album that was given to the farmer they were serving.

“He knew the family,” Anders said.

Among Wednesday morning’s finds was a baseball card of left-fielder Phil Bradley, who played for the Seattle Mariners in the 1980s.

A desire to help

What started the drive was a desire to help. A vacation Bible school leader and teacher at Lyona United Methodist Church at Woodbine, Anders and her students supplied water, gloves and thick plastic bags following the big storm.

“It was our mission every morning to bring those items. I was really proud of them,” she said.

A call to Chancy Smith, director of Dickinson County Emergency Management, brought another suggestion.

“He said, ‘What I really need you to do is get people to walk the fields.’ I couldn’t ask VBS kids because most of them aren’t taller than the wheat,” Anders said.

After a call to Hollie Tapley, disaster response coordinator of the Great Plains United Methodist Conference in Wichita, the drives were organized. Early response volunteers were sent by the conference to Dickinson County and groups from other organizations joined in.

“I just got the word out through emails and our Facebook page. Red Cross and Catholic Charities got involved,” Tapley said.

The first day, June 15, there were 28 volunteers — Methodists, Catholics, Red Cross volunteers among them — who covered half of a huge field in Dickinson County.

“It was hot as blue blazes but we had a good day,” Tapley said. “Sonya has done a fabulous job to take this and run with it, with so much passion.”

Debris damages tires

Several folks from the Helping Hands For Freedom Walk Across America heard about the effort while attending a Chapman United Methodist Church service and joined in. 

Lumber from the destroyed homes and outbuildings “stuck in the ground like daggers,” Anders said. “We had to dig some of them out.”

Harvest has been more difficult than most for the farmers with fields in the tornado’s path, mostly from blown and damaged tires, said Don Nebelsick, who owns Don’s Tire and Supply in Abilene with his wife, Betty.

“I don’t wish what these guys are going through on anybody. The biggest number of ruined tires and flats were from the tornado, including crews cleaning up,” Nebelsick said. “Repairs during the cleanup and tornado aftermath are pretty much a gratis deal. We want to do our part.”

Combine issues with the debris have made it to CTI, the John Deere dealership in Abilene.

“I haven’t heard of any major wrecks, but I’m sure there has been some stuff taken (into combines) that people had to pull back out,” said Troy Leith, CTI branch manager.

Some fields simply can’t be cleaned up yet.

Some fields abandoned

After the Wednesday morning walk, Burwell figured he’d be able to harvest some of the field.

“Most of it will be abandoned. There’s just too much debris in there to take a chance on running something through the combine,” he said.

A few miles west of the Burwells’ field, retired farmer Harvey Disque, 84, of Salina, was busy cleaning up inside the foundation of a steel shop building. The structure was taken by the twister.

“This used to be my farm,” he said. “Now it’s owned by Mother Nature.”

An upside-down tandem grain truck was in the middle of a neighbor’s wheat field. Behind him were a Great Plains drill, another grain truck and other equipment, all damaged by the May 25 storm. Disque figured there were other twisted and torn items piled in a draw a half-mile to the east.

Debris on his adjacent 80-acre wheat field, and the 120 acres across the road, would pose too big of an obstacle for field walkers.

“They’re gonna get burned off and then pick up the debris,” Disque said. “There’s too much stuff out there.”

Burwell intends to strike a match to his 48-acre field “to get the rest of the debris out of there.”

Because he exceeded his base yield, there will be no insurance payment.

“I did not have any wind or hail insurance,” Burwell said.

Extension agent Coover recommends burning the fields whether they have been walked or not.

“It’s a possibility that a torn-up combine is going to cost more than what these crops are worth, because of the low commodity prices,” he said.

Asked if he planned to rebuild his shop, Disque said, “Not at my age.”

Tim Unruh is a veteran ag reporter for the Salina Journal.