It’s shortly before 7 am, and we arrived at the first stop of the day. The sun is peeking through the clouds, it’s 63 degrees outside and the smell of morning dew is in the air. The only sounds you hear are the closing of the doors to the van and the birds far off into the distance. The four of us walk through the field, through the rows to different parts with yardsticks and a pen in hand.
“What did you get for row width?” asks Michelle.
“I got 8 inches,” I answer back, and the others agree.
Our first stop is a wheat field just outside the town of Starkweather, North Dakota. A small town with an estimated population of 117 in Ramsey County in the north-central portion of the state. It’s the third and last day of the 2019 Wheat Quality Council spring and durum wheat tour in North Dakota. We agreed to meet at 6:15 in front of the hotel and depart on our assigned route to scout fields and measure the estimated yield and condition of the wheat crop. Today our van would make 10 stops. We are one of 13 other cars each assigned a color route departing from Devils Lake and ending in Fargo, North Dakota for the final tally and wrap-up.
The previous two days would take me from Fargo south through parts of Minnesota, then west on highway 11 through towns such as Lidgerwood, Oakes, lunch in Ellendale and overnight in Mandan. A total of 315 miles and stopping in 11 wheat fields taking measurements. The second day was north on Highway 83 to Minot and east on highway 2 through Rugby, the geographic center of North America and ending in Devils Lake, for 12 stops and 228 miles.
“We were on the purple route with 12 stops. Our average yield was 34 bushels per acre with a high of 43.5 and a low of 23.8,” states Michelle to the crowd gathered in the meeting room of the motel.
Each evening all the cars would give their recap of what they found, exciting stops on their routes and the overall yield for their route. Some groups reported driving along the Enchanted Highway, a stretch of highway in western North Dakota that has several large metal sculptures. Others stopped at decommissioned nuclear warhead silos or some that were not with soldiers in Humvees and 50-caliber guns on the backs. Everybody mentioned the good and not so good places that they ate lunch.
How we measure the fields
Prior to leaving for the first day, there was an orientation where we were given a yardstick, a booklet with information on the procedure for taking samples and a formula devised by NDSU Extension. Each individual usually walks about 40 to 50 yards into the field. Depending on your preference, you measure the width of the planted rows first or the number of heads in three feet of row. I started with a row width by placing the yardstick halfway down the stalks and seeing the distance between the middle of each stalk. Rows are usually planted in 7, 8 or 10 inches apart. On your yardstick, you note the width. Then I place the yardstick on the ground in the row and count the number of wheat heads in that 3-foot section and again note that on the yardstick. From there, you select 4 random heads and count the spikelets from different parts of the plant not counting the very bottom or top one. If there is a disease, you note that along with the development of the kernels.
“What did you get, Charles?” someone will ask.
“I got 85 and 10,” would be something I answered back with 85 being the number of heads and 10 the number of spikelets.
The assigned person takes an average of everybody and does the calculation based on these three factors. At the end of the day, we will take a calculated average based on the number of stops and note the high and low yields for the day.
To give context, a bushel of wheat yield weighs 60 pounds. One 60-pound bushel of wheat produces about 42 pounds of white flour (more for whole wheat since it uses the kernel), or 60 to 73 loaves of bread depending on size, or 42 pounds of pasta. The calculated yield for the entire tour was 43.1 bushels per acre. North Dakota ranks number one for production of spring and durum wheat and harvested 6.31 million bushels of wheat (about 49 bushels per acre). This year was lower due to wet weather and planting conditions, along with many fields not being planted or growing other crops.
In early Spring there is also a hard winter wheat tour in Kansas, as well as tours by various organizations for other crops. This year’s tour had 61 people participate from government organizations, flour mills and others in the industry, international organizations, and three journalists, like me, tweeting the results.
There is something so tranquil about standing in a wheat field with the gentle breeze blowing and watching the waves of grain move in the wind that made this worth it. It was an exhausting three days of getting to bed late to file a story and getting up early to have a couple of cups of coffee to function. I ate some great food and stayed at some so-so motels. However, it was a great learning experience writing the story, seeing firsthand how it is done, and talking with farmers over supper. I met some great people, and I hope to write about them in the future.