Western Kansas Rides Wave of Prosperity

Oil Drill i i

In Kansas, there are 23 times the number of oil wells than Saudi Arabia. Frank Morris for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Frank Morris for NPR
Oil Drill

In Kansas, there are 23 times the number of oil wells than Saudi Arabia.

Frank Morris for NPR

While bad economic trends sweep most of the nation, there's one place where things are booming: western Kansas.

Home values are up, foreclosures and unemployment are down, and gas guzzlers are flying off the lot. Record oil prices, coupled with soaring prices for grain, have sparked a dramatic economic reversal in Kansas, which has 23 times more oil wells than Saudi Arabia.

Until recently, times were tough on the High Plains. Thousands of farms went bust, and whole communities withered.

But now, many Kansans appear to be in a spending mode. Jerry Marmie, whose truck dealerships flank both sides of the highway running through Great Bend, says sales are way up, especially for big, fully loaded pickups.

Marmie says a Dodge half-ton quad cab is one of his best sellers. Quite a few of these trucks are being purchased by small businessmen like the ones at a nearby meeting of the Kansas Independent Oil and Gas Association.

Good Fortune

Most of the men at the meeting look more like farmers or factory workers than oil company executives. There aren't many big oil companies in Kansas.

Dick Schremmer, like many of the Kansas oilmen at the meeting, clung to the business during the tough times.

"If it was any better, I'd have to be twins," says Schremmer, who runs Bear Petroleum, owns oil wells, services other people's wells and sells oil-field supplies.

Some 44,000 oil wells with bobbing pumps that look a little like rusty pterodactyls dipping over for a drink dot the Kansas landscape. A typical well here slurps up just a little over two barrels a day — that's 2,000 times less than the average well in Saudi Arabia.

When oil was $9 a barrel a decade ago, Schremmer says, it cost a lot more to wring it out of these stingy Kansas wells than it was worth on the open market.

"There was no light at the end of the tunnel, so you just hung on and hoped something would happen," Schremmer says.

As oil prices climbed, they pushed up the price of corn, which can be distilled into ethanol. Naturally, farmers planted more corn, driving up the price of other crops. Meanwhile, the falling dollar has supercharged farm exports.

All this has led to unprecedented good fortune for guys like Leo Dorzweiler, a third-generation Kansas farmer with oil in his land. The "average working man" has enjoyed wage boosts over time, Dorzweiler says, but farmers' wages have not similarly increased.

"Now it is just the other way," Dorzweiler says.

'Finally'

Back in Great Bend, mechanics are working in a big, bright new tractor repair shop. You'd never know by looking, but Wally Straub, the owner of the dealership, almost went broke back in the 1980s.

"Agriculture right now is very good. The winds are blowing from a different direction — finally," Straub says.

He says his biggest "problems" these days are finding enough people to hire and keeping up with demand for all of the huge, expensive tractors, combines and farm implements he sells.

"We've got little farmers that never used to be able to dream of buying a new piece of equipment. Everything they bought was old and used. And some of these guys are buying a new piece of equipment again," Straub says. "With the price of grain, they can afford to do it."

Little towns like Great Bend rise and fall with farmers and oilmen. A couple of decades ago, about one-quarter of the houses for sale here were in foreclosure. Some lost half their value.

Now foreclosures are almost nonexistent and home prices are up, while unemployment has sunk to about 3 percent.

Some Still Struggle

Still, many here with no connection to oil or farming continue to toil in low-wage jobs.

Take Rickie Weighous.

"Well, I cut back a lot on groceries; I just buy just what I can afford," she says.

Weighous works in a grocery store. She says she once had land, with crops and oil, but had to sell out when times were tough.

Though not everyone is sharing in the prosperity from oil and agriculture here in western Kansas, it's hard to find anybody who is complaining about the disparity. Most are just thankful that things produced in this patch of fly-over country are, at least for now, in such high demand.

Frank Morris reports from member station KCUR.

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