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Kansas: Wheat, Energy and Our Daily Bread

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted June 21, 2017

On a clear June morning in Kansas, a farmer inspects his hard red winter wheat crop and notes that it has turned from green to a shade of gold. He takes a bite out of a kernel to test for hardness, and then he knows his crop is ready to harvest and turn into flour at the nearby mill. He climbs into his combine and works quickly to cut the stock and separate and crush the grain before the next rain comes.

Download: Kansas, Amber Waves of Grain

Often weighing more than 40,000 pounds, the combine is the most important piece of equipment at a wheat farmer’s disposal. The large, gasoline/diesel-powered machine, manufactured by companies including John Deere and International Harvester, efficiently cuts the wheat and threshes it, separating the kernels of grain and discarding the leftover straw. Like so many aspects of modern life, harvesting the wheat that goes into our daily bread and many other food products is an energy process. Consider:

  • A combine most often is built out of steel, an alloy made from iron ore that typically is created using natural gas-fired smelters.
  • Combines have a turbo-charged diesel or gasoline engine that provides power to the entire machine – propulsion, cutting and threshing.
  • Kansas’ 20,000 wheat farmers rely on natural gas and oil – not only to harvest their crop, but in transporting and milling their wheat into flour for food products as well.

This modern process allows Kansas farmers to produce enough wheat to bake an average of 36 billion loaves of bread every year, which could feed everyone on the planet for two weeks. It’s no wonder that Kansas is known as the “breadbasket of the world.”

Infographic: Energy Keeps Wheat Harvest On Track

Transporting Grains Around the Globe

Harvesting wheat takes long hours, often from early morning into the night. Beyond several helping hands and their combine, wheat farmers also use grain carts, fork lifts and loading trucks – fueled by gasoline, diesel or natural gas – to move the wheat crop around the farm and into storage.

Transportation is another major component of the wheat industry and provides a vital link between farms in Kansas and consumers eager for everything from loaves of bread to pizza and beer. The state relies on both trucks and rail services using diesel fuel to ship wheat to domestic locations or to one of three major ports – the Pacific Northwest, the Mississippi Gulf and the Texas Gulf – where it is exported overseas. In fact, half of the wheat produced in Kansas is sent to various countries around the world.

This long, integrated supply chain allows wheat farmers to provide nearly 19.7 billion pounds of grains every year to mills and other buyers across the country and the world. If you loaded all this wheat on a single train, the cars would stretch from western Kansas to the Atlantic Ocean.

Turning Wheat into Flour

In addition to being one of the United States’ largest wheat growers, Kansas also is the largest flour milling state in the country. At mills across its broad plains, kernels of wheat are ground into this all-purpose product every summer. Arriving at a mill, the harvested kernels first are dried in a grain elevator that, depending on the size of the structure, can hold between 10,000 to 50,000 bushels of wheat.

Elevators use natural gas or propane (from natural gas processing and oil refining) to heat dry the grain and also to help get rid of insects in the mill. These include Kansas State University’s Hall Ross Flour Mill and GSI Grain Systems, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of steel farm towers.

Feeding the World

Most Americans think of harvest as an autumn activity, but for Kansans, it’s the hot summer that brings memories of riding in combines and kicking up dust on a dirt road as they drive truckloads of wheat from the farm to local mills.

Grown across the entire state, Kansas is responsible for producing 40 percent of the United States’ hard red winter wheat, which is the most common grain for making bread and rolls. And nearly 20 percent of all wheat grown in the U.S. is grown in Kansas, making this industry a vital part of the state’s economy.

The Kansas summer wheat harvest contributes more than $3 billion annually to the economy and supports around 30,000 state jobs. And for many small towns in Kansas, it is not only the farmers who benefit from the harvest. The summer also often brings with it a small boost to the local economy through swelling populations as family members and part-time employees come back to the state to help local farmers get the job done.

On average, Kansans harvest 328 million bushels of wheat across 8.5 million acres of farm land every year, and from the harvest to the flour mill to the consumer’s table, natural gas and oil are used to keep this industry running and feeding the world.

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Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.