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Out on the Colorado prairie due north of the town of Byers, Justin Lewton was keeping his eye on a group of clouds forming above the western horizon.
The clock was ticking as he motored across a field of winter wheat in a 20-ton cranberry-red combine harvester. He’d been out since dawn with his crew of six employees. They’d driven back and forth, back and forth across the field of wheat, attempting to cut it in straight, neat rows. But there were four rookies on Lewton’s crew, one only 16 years old. It takes a while to learn to cut crops in uniform rows, so in some there were islands of overlooked wheat, which meant Lewton had to backtrack and cut them himself.
But it wasn’t the imprecise cutting that put Lewton just the tiniest bit on edge as a late July afternoon crept toward early evening. Or the inexperienced farm hands needing his attention. It wasn’t even memories of a June packed with torrential rain and pulverizing hailstones. What kept drawing his eye were the clouds, which for most of the day had been white and puffy. Sometime in the last hour or so, they’d started to gather and now cement-gray rain clouds had taken over. They coalesced into a wall, with breakout clouds that crept across the land, wispy and wraithlike.
“Gonna keep a close eye on those,” said Lewton, 29, a fourth-generation farmer and president of the Colorado Wheat Growers Association. He knew those clouds, knew what they carried, knew their capacity for devastation in a season already upset by insects, drought, politics and weird weather.
Rain, hail and more rain
So far this summer, clouds full of heavy rain and hail the size of baseballs have flattened fields of corn, wheat and melons in some parts of eastern Colorado. Lewton wasn’t hit as hard as some of the other farmers he knows in the region. But he knew it could happen.
So he took action that afternoon, calling his crew of combine and grain-cart drivers off the field as a precaution. He sent the grain trucks out to the highway, because the dirt on the road accessing his fields turns to mud in heavy rain and driving a semi down it is close to impossible. He got the grain out of the combines and into a tarped cart. And then the crew started working their way out. Lewton knew this would take an hour when every second matters. But depending on the severity of the storm, the crew might save the day and still make up time later in another field the family owns, or return to this one.
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A storm ended up arriving on a strong wind that kicked up dirt and shook the corn stalks, but it dropped only a small amount of rain and no hail. Lewton and the crew resumed working later that evening. To other, less cautious farmers — or people who know nothing about farming — their hasty exit under an angry-looking sky might have seemed excessive.
The region where most of Colorado’s wheat comes from experienced devastating drought from June 2019 until this spring. Hot sun with no rain relief cost farmers millions of dollars and cut the state off from lucrative national and international sales. Then, in June, the pendulum swung back harder in the last places where a way of life can’t hide from the weather. Rain fell in sheets, day after day, followed by hail compared to tennis balls, if the tennis balls were full of lead.
Lewton said on land he farms near Fort Morgan, “there were times when the weather service was calling for a half inch and we’d get 2 inches in 45 minutes.” Out in Yuma County, where former state Sen. Greg Brophy farms 250 acres of corn, sorghum and watermelon, “two utterly devastating storms came through at the end of June and on July 8,” he said. Similar storms pounded Kit Carson and Adams counties.
Some of the farmers had their corn, winter wheat and melons wiped out completely. Those who did lost income for the next season’s seeds, land and equipment loan payments, money for employee salaries and living expenses. A strip of corn along U.S. 36 near Bennett looks like a bulldozer drove over it. Brophy’s losses totaled $275,000. A farmer Brophy knows saw his entire corn crop flattened. “Every year, there’s a field or two that gets damaged by a hailstorm,” he said, “but I don’t recall ever seeing back-to-back hailstorms.”
Yet something amazing has also happened thanks to the storms that continue to form over northeastern Colorado. Many say this year’s wheat harvest is the best they’ve seen in years. That means higher yields for the farmers whose wheat survived; more money for the Roggen Farmers Elevator Association, a cooperative of Colorado farmers that stores, ships and brokers wheat to commercial flour mills; and more wheat for Ardent Mills, the largest flour producer in the country with two mills in the Denver area, to make the flour that goes into the bread products eaten by people from Colorado and the rest of the world.
If Lewton’s entire wheat crop on a typical year went into whole wheat bread, he said it would produce 32.4 million loaves. Assuming each loaf will yield 6.5 sandwiches, Lewton’s wheat could produce 211 million.
But stakeholders all along the Colorado wheat chain, from farmers to brokers to commodities experts, told The Sun that regardless of rain, hail, drought, bugs or “macro events,” like the COVID-19 pandemic or war in Ukraine, the reality of farming remains uphill battle to stay profitable — or in some cases afloat — in Colorado.
It’s something farmers say Coloradans should know about as they bite into their next slice of whole wheat ciabatta. Even if, as Lewton says, “farmers don’t want to be thanked. They just want to do their jobs.”
LEFT: A combine harvester unloads red winter wheat into a grain cart in a field south of Fort Morgan on July 28. One grain cart can hold about 1,000 bushels of wheat, roughly equivalent to 72,000 loaves of bread. RIGHT: Justin Lewton drives a combine harvester. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
ABOVE: A combine harvester unloads red winter wheat into a grain cart in a field south of Fort Morgan on July 28. One grain cart can hold about 1,000 bushels of wheat, roughly equivalent to 72,000 loaves of bread. BELOW: Justin Lewton drives a combine harvester. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
How a grain of wheat grows and gets sold
The main thing Keith DeVoe wants people to know is that “the farming industry isn’t in some conspiracy to ruin your food.”
DeVoe is the CEO of the Roggen Farmers Association Elevator, described on his LinkedIn profile as an agricultural cooperative that is half owner of Commerce City Grain, with the flour company Ardent Mills, and does about $90 million in annual sales. The four grain elevators in northeastern Colorado associated with the co-op are where farmers bring their wheat, corn, soybeans, sorghum and other crops to be weighed, inspected for quality, priced and sold. The co-op also stores some of the different grains to be sold later, based on what a farmer bets will happen in the market.
DeVoe calls the agriculture industry a “high-volume, low-margin business” that must survive because it feeds the world. He also believes the industry is overregulated by the government, and that “anytime you bring on more regulations, or some special new energy program, you’re adding cost to a business that’s working on 1.5% or 2% margins.”
As he talked, semis loaded with wheat kernels pulled up to a machine that extracted samples from the front and the back of each trailer. Then two young women weighed the wheat, ran it through an analyzer and wrote down a number.
“Nine-point-three,” said one of the women, reporting the wheat’s quality score, based on factors like protein and moisture content.
“That’s all right,” said DeVoe, adding that 10.5 is this year’s average.
The Department of Agriculture says there are eight different types of wheat, but it would be overkill to list every one for this story. The important thing to know is that Colorado farmers deal in winter wheat and spring wheat. Winter wheat is planted in late fall, starts putting down roots and holding soil down over the winter, can grow quickly if there are good spring rains and can grow relatively well without irrigation in as little as 2 inches of annual rain in some parts of the plains, said DeVoe.
Still, despite wheat’s hardiness, all sorts of calamities can conspire to degrade its quality.
It’s not just hail and buckets of rain. For Lewton, it was a sawfly infestation that originated in Canada and made its way down through Montana and into Colorado in the 2010s. The flies burrow into the stalks of the wheat and lay eggs. When these hatch, the bugs chew through the stalks’ pithy centers, girdling them from the inside out. When they’re done, the stalk has lost some of its strength. It lays over and the combines struggle to scoop it up. Some of the grains in the wheat heads survive, but Lewton said this year, in crops hit hard by the flies, he lost 30% of his yield.
Heavy rains are the second-biggest scourge of wheat farmers, first, because rain is “the largest compaction factor of soil anywhere,” Lewton said. “Think about how much force is coming down and landing on the ground. It compacts the dirt on top of the row and even if the seeds germinate, the plants can’t make it up through the crust.”
Excessive rain at planting time means trouble getting into muddy fields with heavy equipment. And too much rain during seed germination can cause poor soil aeration resulting in seed diseases, lackluster germination rates and weak plants.
Heavy rains also trample standing wheat.
“But I’d rather have it wet than be in a drought any day,” Lewton said. “Having a crop get pummeled by hail is like watching a loved one have a heart attack. It’s ugly and painful but over quickly and you’re glad they didn’t suffer. You’re both able to move forward. But with a crop in drought, you watch something you love die a little bit every day and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
LEFT:Alex Sauer and Lewton walk toward a grain cart they’ll cover with a tarp to protect the wheat inside from rain on July 28. RIGHT: A bird of prey soars above a wheat field. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
ABOVE: Alex Sauer and Lewton walk toward a grain cart they’ll cover with a tarp to protect the wheat inside from rain on July 28. BELOW: A bird of prey soars above a wheat field. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
With three of the past four years being the driest on record, Lewton still managed to harvest 30 bushels of wheat per acre, per year on a 10-year rolling average. But it wasn’t the 45 bushels per acre he normally grew and that amounted to an average annual loss of just over $1 million in revenue. The family farm survived, “partly because we’ve amortized our cost over more acres,” he said.
Lewton Farms owns and operates 35,000 acres of land from north of Bennett to Fort Morgan to north and east of Byers. Until April, he and many other owners of the estimated 39,800 farms in Colorado that contribute $47 billion to the state’s economy annually thought they were in for another financially draining year, because the drought was forecast to continue.
So like many of the wheat farmers trying to survive another year of burning sun, blow-dryer-like winds and endless heat, Lewton destroyed 30% of his wheat crop to conserve water. Then the storms came and he lost half of two wheat fields to hail damage. “The next worst were between 20% and 25%. And if you go straight south from there, it’s gotten so that anytime a cloud pops up, a little bit of hail falls on the crops and they get more dinged up.”
Adding insult to injury, Lewton said, all of this is happening in an industry facing increasing obstacles from government policies.
Some farmers to Congress: Stop over-regulating our industry
Lewton said it, DeVoe said it, and Jeffrey McPike, a commodities expert, hinted at it.
They all believe that farmers will suffer from increased farming regulations and the government’s push toward green energy.
Riding in his combine, in between helping to direct his other drivers by radio, Lewton explained how he thinks the government is over-regulating farmers.
It seems to be a never-ending battle to do good enough.
— Justin Lewton, a fourth-generation farmer and president
of the Colorado Wheat Growers Association
“If you have higher priced inputs and still are growing the same crop or have crop failure, you’ve just increased your expenses without increasing your income,” he said. Two of the inputs he listed are the price of fuel and Senate Bill 87, also known as the Agricultural Workers’ Rights bill, which Gov. Jared Polis signed into law in June 2021, giving wage-and-hour protections along with other things to agricultural workers.
Addressing fuel first, Lewton said farmers are getting hit with high gas prices by a new administration that is “extremely negative on oil and gas production.” And he doesn’t expect it to get better, he added, “because if you’re an oil company, and you hear your government is going to get rid of fossil fuel usage in the next five to 10 years, why would you invest in new oil and gas wells, and if you’re a bank, why would you lend money for it?”
Then he moved on to Senate Bill 87.
“That has affected us as employers in the ability to continue providing jobs for those that work for us,” he said.
According to the bill’s sponsors, it was created to give agricultural workers more rights while protecting them from employer retaliation, allowing them to organize and join labor unions, and granting them meal breaks, health protections and the ability to engage in collective bargaining.”
Many of the requirements of the bill are directed specifically at addressing abuses migrant workers have faced in Colorado, such as prohibiting the use of short-handled tools. But Lewton said they bleed over into affecting people like him, who pay their workers fairly .
“The bill was pushed by labor unions out of Chicago and Detroit,” he said. “They wanted 40-hour work weeks. People could no longer pay salaries. And they wanted time-and-a-half overtime.”
Having a crop get pummeled by hail is like watching a loved one have a heart attack. It’s ugly and painful but over quickly and you’re glad they didn’t suffer.
— Justin Lewton, a fourth-generation farmer and president of the Colorado Wheat Growers Associationthey’re relevant
Using the working arrangement of his own employees, he showed how the bill flies in the face of how he treats them.
“I have six full-time, year-round employees and 11 more that work the harvest. They all get paid $45 an hour or more and the full-time ones get full health insurance and other ancillary benefits,” he said.
“And yet we’re told that we’re not paying our employees enough, that we’re abusing them. And with the full-time ones, that’s working 2,300 hours a year, so they can take five weeks off and still only be working 10 hours a day, five days a week. It’s stuff like that that just gets draining. I’m tired even thinking about it. It seems to be a never-ending battle to do good enough.”
LEFT: Members of the Lewton family and other farm hands enjoy a meal prepared by Barb Lewton, July 28, near Gould Ranch Cattle Company in Fort Morgan. RIGHT: Amber Snyder, Stewart Montgomery and other farm hands serve themselves the pasta dinner. A typical harvest season of hard winter wheat starts around the Fourth of July and lasts two weeks. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
ABOVE: Members of the Lewton family and other farm hands enjoy a meal prepared by Barb Lewton, July 28, near Gould Ranch Cattle Company in Fort Morgan. BELOW: Amber Snyder, Stewart Montgomery and other farm hands serve themselves the pasta dinner. A typical harvest season of hard winter wheat starts around the Fourth of July and lasts two weeks. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)
But promoters of the bill say it wasn’t aimed at Lewton’s threshers or combine mechanics, the high-salaried white folks. Senate Bill 87 was created for migrant workers who “labor in extreme conditions” and “for 85 years have been excluded from basic rights afforded to other workers,” Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Democrat from Wheat Ridge, told The Sun.
Danielson, who spearheaded the legislation, said she spent years cataloging stories of farmworker abuse before crafting a bill that passed on mostly party lines with many amendments.
Few disagree that the bill helps protect the 4,000 to 5,000 documented migrant workers in Colorado, including approximately 2,400 seasonal workers, according to Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act information.
But Sen. Mark Hillman, a Republican from Burlington who farms 1,600 acres of wheat in multiple locations near the Kansas border, said he understands Lewton’s concerns. Hillman said Danielson wrote the bill as “one-size fits all” without factoring in different circumstances for different farmers.
“First of all, good farmworkers are becoming increasingly hard to get,” he said. “Then you’re putting them on a combine that costs $350,000 to $500,000. It’s well worth it for you to take care of them and their family when they’re on that equipment. And the reason you can give them so much time off is because sometimes, particularly in winter, there’s not that much going on. But we know at harvest you can cut wheat from 9 a.m. until midnight. You have to. So this idea that there has to be any kind of cap on the hours farmworkers work is absurd. Sometimes you’re putting in 60 to 70 hours a week to get stuff done. That’s how farming works.”
Hillman added, “My point in that respect is Lewton is right on the money that that bill was written in a way that was supposed to protect migrant workers, but in a way that only applies to migrant workers. It doesn’t work for the farmer who employs the same people all year long.”
The punitive nature of green energy, according to some in the ag industry
Just after noon on July 26, DeVoe stood outside the co-op’s grain elevator in Weld County.
Truck drivers pulled onto a scale with trailers full of freshly threshed wheat. It was hot — 90-plus degrees — and the air was humid. DeVoe was talking about the “national narrative” around global climate change and how in his opinion it spells trouble for farmers.
“It’s constantly climate change. Everyone’s talking climate change,” he said. “But I don’t buy into climate change. The climate change is gonna do its thing. Humans are gonna have the ability to react to it. So it’s not catastrophic in my mind.”
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture contributes 10% of the world’s greenhouse gases, making it the fifth highest contributor after transportation (28%), electricity production (25%), industry (23%), and commercial/residential use (13%).
In 2021, the Biden Administration announced it was looking to steer farm aid from the USDA’s Commodity Credit Corporation to encourage carbon emissions reductions on farms.
The administration wove funding for this and other farming-related investments into the Inflation Reduction Act signed into law last August. According to the Environmental Defense Fund, this came via four methods. It pledged to direct roughly $20 billion toward agricultural conservation programs and nearly $14 billion toward clean energy for rural America. It said the funds could be used for aggregating and analyzing existing data or conducting new research to improve measurement, reporting and verification of climate reduction actions on farms. And it extended funding for conservation programs authorized by the 2018 Farm Bill, legislation agreed upon every five years that sets agricultural subsidies and authorizes the rural development programs managed by USDA.
But DeVoe and others say climate-related policy changes will have negative impacts not only on the farmers, farm workers, inspectors, brokers and sellers of America’s agriculture industry, but parts of the world that rely on America’s food production.
World’s greenhouse gas contribution
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:
• Agriculture: 10%
• Transportation: 28%
• Electricity: 25%
• Industry: 23%
• Commercial and residential use: 13%
“The politicians who are currently writing legislation believe that we could stop climate change by doing everything the true believers want us to,” he said. “I know the climate changes but you’re also not going to convince me that we’re in a situation right now that is worse than what went on in the 1930s. My parents told me the 1950s were probably worse, but we were better farmers so we preserved our crops. It’s exponentially better now, because of minimized plowing or no plowing at all. But if we have to start doing things like transitioning our farm equipment to green energy,” a possibility that’s been discussed but in no way implemented by the Biden administration, it will be a game-changer for farmers, he said.
“I don’t know if it’s coming, but as a farmer you have to be concerned about hearing that by 2030 or ‘35, some states will no longer allow the sale of new vehicles with combustion engines. With that in mind, there is a growing market for used farming equipment. In 2020, a salesman told me, ‘If you want to get rid of your old tractor, I have a list of people who will buy it.’ People are buying tractors before a certain age because they’re not all run by chips and because farmers will need them when everything turns to battery powered.”
Nonetheless, the government, higher education and the companies that depend most on farmers to gross their billions have kept farmers top of mind.
Between 1995 and 2021, Lewton Farms received $616,049 in federal subsidies. And many farmers are making good money from conservation reserve payments. Their crops have minimum price supports in surplus years, and their water is deeply subsidized. Programs are in the works that could incentivize Colorado farmers using regenerative practices. In 2021, Colorado State University established a center that develops and implements soil-based solutions to climate change. And Ardent Mills, the flour company that buys the bulk of Colorado farmers’ wheat, counts a drought-tolerant variety developed by CSU, as one of its prime ingredients.
DeVoe maintains that the farming industry “gets very concerned about being mandated to make changes on something we’re really efficient at. Our country is rich. We’re not gonna starve. But in other countries where they live on $2 a day, if you drive up the price of commodities over climate change, they’re gonna starve. And when they’re angry, the war they’re gonna produce will be a whole lot worse than climate change.”
More rain and a later season mean a better wheat harvest
Opinions and experiences vary across the spectrum of any industry or demographic.
And not everyone growing this year’s wheat felt the same about the weather.
DeVoe said the 18 to 20 inches of recorded rain in parts of northeastern Colorado were “good. It took us out of a drought.”
As for the hail, he said, “If it affected you personally, then it could have been catastrophic,” but the low-pressure system sitting over the Great Lakes that created an upslope from Amarillo, Texas, to the Canadian border this spring and summer has helped Colorado.
Yes, it was destructive — to the strip along U.S. 36, for instance. Yes, it created big pools of standing water in certain fields — terrible for plowing. But “in the aggregate, the water easily overcomes what the hail did,” DeVoe added. “You’re so limited on water here that if a storm comes through and leaves water, then a strip of hail isn’t impactful.”
Nor did all of the farmers hit by hail call it catastrophic.
“Some people buy insurance that covers anywhere from 50% of the value of a crop up to 100% with 70% being the most common,” Brophy said. “In my case, the melons and sorghum had no insurance coverage at all. I did have good coverage on my corn, so I’m not out the full $275,000.”
McPike said Colorado, the 10th largest wheat producer in the country in 2022, with an average yield of 69 million bushels per year, “is still trading at a high relative level, due to the war risk in the Black Sea, the concerns over U.S. corn and wheat production, and other macro issues.”
That’s good, given “six months ago, if you would have even premised that Colorado would have a major wheat crop, you would have been right up there with the loony tunes in tinfoil hats,” he added. “But it started to rain at the end of April and it didn’t really stop when it normally gets dry in July. And that was just remarkable, because fields you thought were totally written off became fields with 50 bushels an acre.”
The story of wheat in the U.S. gets overshadowed “with us growing a lot more soybeans in Kansas and Nebraska than we ever had because of seed varieties we’ve improved,” he added.
And, ironically, climate change has helped farmers sell corn.
“We’ve incentivized corn production due to mandated policies to use a certain amount of biodiesel in certain states,” he said.
For the farmers in northeastern Colorado, though, wheat is a pretty stable commodity, because Ardent Mills, in partnership with Cargill, Conagra and CHS, is the United States’ largest flour producer, with some of it sold under the Hungarian High Altitude label and with mills in Brighton and Commerce City.
The Commerce City mill can produce 1.8 million pounds of flour a day, with 75% of sales going to Colorado buyers.
The wheat it grinds into flour comes primarily from Colorado farmers.
After years of worry, a whole lot of them are feeling better.