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The agricultural economies of southern Great Plains states have withered after four years of extreme drought. Farmers in Oklahoma are bracing for one of the worst wheat crops in the state's history. As StateImpact's Joe Wertz tells us, that poor wheat harvest could have national consequences.
JOE WERTZ: Wayne Schmedt adjust's his faded, blue baseball cap and crouches down in a wind-whipped field of stunted wheat.
W. SCHMEDT: We don't have any use for this, so we'll give it to you as a souvenir.
WERTZ: He's pulled up a dusty rain gauge from the dry, cracked earth. The long, plastic cylinder measures how much rain has fallen - it's dusty and bone dry. Rainfall is more than three inches below normal. Wayne's brother and business partner, Fred Schmedt, grins.
F. SCHMEDT: Due to that, and due to the - every kind of forecast that you see, I'm in a fund accumulation mode. I'm not - I'm not looking to spend money on anything - just to, kind of, weather the storm.
WERTZ: Laughter is key to surviving as a farmer - especially one in Great Plains states like Oklahoma. Here, summers are hot and dry. Spring rains often drown fields in flash floods. A late freeze can kill off what's left. Fred Schmedt looks out on his field, then down at his legs, and laughs at how short the wheat stalks are.
SCHMEDT: What would you call that - high shoe-top high? (Laughing) In a normal year - a really good year - it would be thigh-high. So we're looking at plants that are six-to-eight inches tall versus 24-to-30 inches tall.
WERTZ: Wheat is Oklahoma's number one crop. In a good year, the state produces 120 to 140 million bushels. The U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasts this year's crop will be half as big.
JEFF EDWARDS: It's going to be one of our smallest wheat crops ever.
WERTZ: Jeff Edwards is a wheat expert at Oklahoma State University. He says, the economic impact of a bad harvest doesn't end in the field. A bad wheat crop means farmers aren't buying chemicals and equipment. And they're not paying local shops to make repairs - and they're not hiring.
EDWARDS: In the rural Oklahoma, they make most of their money off the wheat that they bring in. Well, if they're not bringing in wheat, they're not making money. It's hard for them to keep people employed.
SCHMEDT: The guy that does our combining comes from South Dakota. He's cut our family's wheat since 1973. He sort of needs a job.
WERTZ: Fred Schmedt isn't sure if he'll still have work for the wheaty (ph), a seasonal worker, also known as a custom cutter, who comes every year to help during the harvest. But he's hopeful. Schmidt plucks off the top of a stunted stock and grinds the kernels into the palm of his hand to see if any seeds have survived. A few miles away, at a grain storage company, you would normally hear trucks coming and going - fertilizer rigs and the whooshing sound of the elevator's giant screw turning as it moves the grain around. But you don't hear any of that.
MIKE CASSIDY: Just quiet as a mouse around here. There's not a sound anywhere except the air conditioner running. There it goes - it just went off. (Laughing) Saves money, that's good.
WERTZ: Mike Cassidy walks me around the grain elevator his grandfather built in 1921. His company employs about 10 people year-round, and he hires another 10 workers during harvest. He is not hiring those seasonal workers this year.
CASSIDY: We're looking at the lowest state wheat crop since 1957. But, I think, for Tilman County, this is probably the worst year in history - period.
WERTZ: While a few farmers will go out of business, others have crop insurance. Cassidy doesn't have that financial lifeline. And while he doesn't think he is going to go under, he's cutting costs, saving money and selling other products, like lumber. One bad sign of the drought's toll is the big, golden hay bales that dot the fields. There shouldn't be so many, so early. It's a sign that many farmers have given up on harvesting wheat. They're in salvage mode - just using the stocks to make hay for cattle. Wheat expert Jeff Edwards says the state might not even have enough hay.
EDWARDS: It 's a big deal for the cattle industry as a whole. The southern Great Plains is the buffer between the cow-calf producer and the feed yard.
WERTZ: Ranchers send calves to Oklahoma to fatten up in pastures during the winter. If there's not enough hay, ranchers will have to make other plans. The uncertainty could push up beef prices, which are already the highest they've been since the 1980s. And wheat prices just hit a one-year high. For NPR News, I'm Joe Wertz in Oklahoma City.
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