The Beauty of the Harvest

shadow1That midwestern “painted desert”

In a previous post, I presented one of the world’s imaginary selfies as a painted desert.  It was, of course, an intentional trick, since there aren’t any painted deserts in Kansas. Using the phrase as a metaphor to describe what I’d found simply was an way to temporarily disguise a wonderful and wholly unexpected reality, giving readers a chance to make their own guess about its identity.

If I’d posted a different photo, and called it a Kansas dune, identification would have been easier. On the other hand, even when I started seeing these dunes — or mountains, as some call them — in the south-central part of the state, I had no idea what I was seeing. Piles of red laterite soil came to mind, but there’s little laterite in Kansas, and no evidence of it on the gravel roads threaded through the state. Road construction clearly wasn’t the answer, but I couldn’t come up with an alternative.

harvestmilo3Those wonderful Kansas “dunes” (click any photo to enlarge)

Even though I’d noticed the piles near elevators, my mind refused to the grasp the obvious answer. There was only one solution. I stopped at the next grain elevator, made my way around the building, and found the office that overlooked the large scales where grain-filled trucks pulled in to be weighed. Explaining to the young women working there that I was traveling, and curious, I asked my question: “What are those huge piles sitting outside your building?”

Finally, one stopped laughing long enough to gasp out an answer. “Milo!” she said. “Grain sorghum. The harvest this year was unbelievable. The elevators are full, so we’re having to put it on the ground.”

harvestmilodetailMilo, up close

I understood her answer, but the enormity of what I’d seen still was hard to grasp.  I asked another question. “How much grain is in one of those piles?”

“Well,” she said, “we’ve got about 700,000 bushels in the milo pile, and a million bushels of corn out there.” While I tried to process that, she added that they expected to reach a million bushels of milo before the harvest was finished. “Once we get a million bushels, we might have to start a second pile. There really is a lot of grain coming in.”

That much seemed obvious, even to me, and a little digging into the statistics made clear that “a lot of grain” barely does justice to this year’s harvest. The 2016 corn total in Kansas is projected to be 713 million bushels: up 23 percent from last year’s production. Grain sorghum (or milo), although forecast to be down 8 percent from last year, still is forecast to provide a record yield of 89 bushels per acre: a total of 258 million bushels,

harvestmiloelevatorIt’s feeling a little crowded around here

In these days of remarkable crop yields, it’s hard to imagine that most early Kansas elevators — built of wood and spaced every few miles along the railroad tracks — had storage capacities limited to between 5,000 and 15,000 bushels of grain.  After 1900, concrete silos became more common. Not only were they less susceptible to fire, they also were larger, holding up to 100,000 bushels.  Today’s large storage elevators have capacities ranging from 500,000 to more than 1,500,00 bushels, but the amount of grain being harvested still has outstripped the capacity of elevators to hold it. 

Shipping might seem an obvious answer, but even when large terminals in places like Kansas City have space, local elevators can’t ship corn, beans, and milo until they’ve been sold, and the market is sluggish. Businesses that regularly purchase grain, like flour mills, often have limited storage space at their facilities. Even after substantial purchases, a portion of the grain may have to stay at local elevators until needed. That’s when ground storage provides a temporary, if less than ideal solution.

harvestmiloelevator2A view of a retaining wall and aerating fan

Ground-stored grain always incurs loss due to spoilage. If it can be moved quickly, the loss can be as minimal as one percent. If it remains on the ground for a longer period of time, losses of two to five percent are common, and rain can raise spoilage rates even higher. Covering the grain does help, and the practice has led to many piles around the state looking like low-profile circus tents: their white, protective tarps glistening in the sun.

One of the young women at the elevator suggested that the tarped piles might be last year’s crop, and comments made by Dirk Maier of Kansas State University support that conclusion:

It’s when grain is stored into the following spring and summer that tarp covers are used and provisions need to be made for aeration. Sufficiently dry corn (15% moisture or less) stored in piles only during cooler fall and winter weather does not usually need to be covered and aerated.

Ken Hellevang, a North Dakota State University Extension Service engineer, pointed out in a journal I never imagined I’d read — the Corn and Soybean Digest — that a variety of factors influence the rate of loss in grain piles, including site preparation, storage design, quality of aeration, and weather. The complexity of grain handling is hinted at in some of his suggestions:

* Select a site that has roughly 130′ of turnaround space for trucks dropping off grain
* Run piles north and south to allow the sun to dry the sloping sides
* Build a retaining wall to increase storage capacity
* Remove grain from the center of the pile, to prevent uneven pressure on the retaining wall
* Install an aeration system to cool the grain so its temperature is uniform and equal to the average outdoor temperature in order to minimize mold growth, moisture movement, and insect damage
harvestmiloelevator3A closer view of a retaining wall and fan

The sheer size of the grain piles isn’t meant merely to impress tourists. Maximizing the pile size reduces the ratio of surface grain to total grain volume: minimizing the possibility of weather damage.  And the beautiful, dune-like slopes of the piles are equally intentional. A nice, uniform pile provides what is called “maximum grain surface slope,” a way to avoid hills, valleys, folds, and crevices that collect water.

There’s even a reason that the augers used to add grain to the pile are extended to the very top of the existing grain heap.** Keeping the drop distance from the spout of the auger to the pile at a minimum helps to achieve maximum slope. The maximum angle of repose and pile height occurs when grain rolls down the side of the pile.

harvestmiloelevator4An auger positioned above the top of a milo pile

In the presence of so much grain, one notable absence puzzled me. There weren’t many birds around, and in some places I saw none. One person suggested they come and they go, and I’d seen the grain piles when the birds were otherwise occupied. Another suggestion seemed more likely: that the birds prefer the  fields, where they can find cover as well as food.

And, with a stiff Kansas wind rising every afternoon, I couldn’t help wondering why the grain didn’t blow away. Several reasons were offered: wind flowing up and over a pile rather than through it; the formation of a light crust because of cycles of wetting and drying; and the weight of the grain itself. On the other hand, chaff will blow freely, and its movement is responsible for some of the wonderful patterns found on the surface of the piles.

If you look closely at the enlargement of this photo, you can see the chaff flying in the air.

harvestmilo7

Still, as interesting as ground-stored grain may be from a scientific perspective, and as important as it is economically, it’s the beauty I found compelling. Every pile is differently colored and differently patterned: a gallery of agricultural abstraction that I could — and did — enjoy for hours.

harvestmilo5

harvestmilo6

harvestmilo1

harvestmilo2

While not as visually complex as milo, Kansas corn piles more closely resemble sand dunes. Seen again a cerulean sky, their beauty is undeniable.

harvestcorn1
This million bushel pile was constructed a thousand bushels at a time. Fully loaded, a semi carries 50,000 pounds of grain; at 50 pounds per bushel, the math’s not hard.  Milo weighs 50-56 pounds per bushel, so a truck hauling milo may carry fewer bushels, but that’s still a lot of coming and going, filling and emptying. Mechanization helps, but the work is just as intense: particularly when weather threatens, or equipment malfunctions cause delays.

harvestcornpile2

Still, with time and effort, all is safely gathered in, and the sense of satisfaction is palpable.

harvestcornpile1

harvestcorn3

As I crossed the state of Kansas, miles of stubble-filled corn and milo fields stretched to the horizon: reminders of the effort required to build those piles of grain. In the meantime, a phalanx of combines working the soybean fields sent yet another river of grain into waiting trucks, and a dusty haze into the air. With soybean production also forecast to exceed the 2015 harvest by a record 192 million bushels, there still was work to be done.

The lowly soybean provides a different sort of beauty while in the field: golden and glowing in the sunlight that warms and dries it for harvest. But it isn’t the only beauty to be found in those fields.

harvestsoybean

In Osage County, Jeffrey Casten stood next to his combine, gazing across the road at still-uncut fields and grinning. “I’ve never seen a harvest like this,” he said. “The yields are terrific.” When I asked if that wouldn’t mean lower prices, he agreed, then added, “But we still bring in the crop. That’s what we do.”

Outside Cottonwood Falls, a single combine added its dust to the pall draped across the land. North of Garden City, lines of semis waited for their loads, while south of Alma and east of Sublette, in field after field, the lights of late-working farmers shone into the night.

The crops they brought in are beautiful, indeed: but so are they. In this season of gratitude, we’d do well to support their efforts, and give thanks for their results.

havestcombine

** Speaking of heaps, this article on the sorites paradox may be of interest. A heap is a heap, after all, whether it’s corn, or milo, or sand.
Unless other noted, all photos are mine, and can be clicked to enlarge.
As always, comments are welcome.

114 thoughts on “The Beauty of the Harvest

  1. What an interesting sight and story you ran into. I never would have guessed those beautiful photos to be of grain. But it’s also sad, knowing there are parts of the world where people are starving and we apparently have no will or way to ship them our excess grain. Since you said that some of the piles are from last year’s crop, I also have to ask if you know if the farmers out there are still getting subsidized to grow these crops we don’t need and what’s the rational for that, if true.

    You must travel like my husband did. He always took the time to talk to the locals and deep dive into anything that intrigued him along the way. Once time it took us 7 days to drive from MI to GA.

    1. I know so little about the intricacies of agricultural subsidies and other programs that are in place, I shouldn’t comment on them. I delved just far enough to realize how complicated it is. Since it wasn’t really relevant to this post, where I wanted to focus on the beauty of it all, I left it alone.

      One thing I did learn while I was being inquisitive is that much of our grain isn’t moving because of world-wide surpluses. There’s some information about that here. Market forces in other parts of the world certainly are affecting our farmers.

      Beyond that, the same weather conditions that brought some of the most prolific wildflower blooms in years also helped the farmers. As one fellow said, “There are bad years and good years, and then there’s this year.” It’s clear that 2016 really was extraordinary.

      I’m a slow traveler, that’s for sure. I often begin and end a trip with a mad dash of a few hundred miles, but in between? That’s me, over there on that dirt road.

    2. I found some information about Chase County, Kansas, where I spent a good bit of time in Cottonwood Falls and Matfield Green. You can see it here.

      It’s 2012 information, but it shows the number of farms, their average size, the amount of government payments, and so on. It seems that “government payments” can be other than crop subsidies, but I don’t know how to sort that out. Of course, it’s only a snapshot of one county, but since it relates to the area I was roaming for this post, I thought it would do.

      I wasn’t surprised by the relatively small size of the farms, but I was surprised by the relatively small size of goverment payments. Clearly, the folks in Chase County aren’t being paid to grow their crop. I’m not sure what $5,500 would buy a farmer, but if you go cheap, you could get a nice set of combine tires.

    1. I thought about your dog Milo a time or two while I was writing this. On the other hand, I’ve never heard of the drink called Milo. That was a new one, although it seems similar to some powdered drink mixes we have.

      Another name for milo that may be more familiar to you is sorghum. There are several varieities native to Australia (the Wiki says seventeen) and there are many sites like this one that are devoted to Australian sorghum cultivation. It looks like it’s mostly grown as animal feed — though not for Milo!

      1. It is easy to see why the US is the world’s largest producer of agricultural products. Whole mountains of it as shown in your remarkable photos.
        What is equally astonishing is that tiny and densely populated country of Holland is the world’s second largest, having knocked off France a couple of years ago.

        1. You stopped me cold with that one, Gerard. I couldn’t figure out how Holland could come in second. Now, I think I see: it’s export value instead of production totals., It’s really interesting. I found this paragraph:

          “It is important to note the difference between volume production and high-value production. The Netherlands is a tiny country; its presence on the list is due to the high value of flowers and live plants (the Netherlands supply two-thirds of the global total) and vegetables (the Netherlands is a leading supplier of tomatoes and chilies).”

          Two thirds of the gobal total of flower and plant exports is astonishing, and as for chilies and tomatoes: who knew? There are more interesting statistics in the charts here. I had no idea.

  2. Wow and Wow again! Remember I told you there were some good paintings in there? Triple the suggestion. My fingers itch to grab a brush again. I had never heard of milo though we traveled through Kansas as a kid. Perhaps there was never a crop this large. The color gradations are amazing. If you had gone nowhere else, this experience was worth your whole trip. Good job as usual Linda.

    1. I do remember, Kayti, and I also remember thinking to myself, “Just wait until she sees the full photos.” I’m not surprised at all that you found them appealing. The echoes of the Southwestern palette you love are there, along with the abstract patterns.

      The first corn and sky photo reminds me not only of a dune, but also of the Sahara from the air. When I flew over it, I was astonished by the clean demarcation: sand here, water there. There’s some of that same sense in the photo.

      I don’t remember milo from my Iowa childhood, either. Corn, soybeans, wheat, yes — but I think the first time I saw milo was after I moved to Texas. From what I’ve gleaned from my reading, milo has become a more frequently planted crop. What all the reasons are, I don’t know, but it certainly is pretty in the field.

      When I stopped to check on a family cemetery I first visited three years ago, things had gone the other way. The single grave used to be surrounded by milo. Now, it’s soybeans.

      I’m with Cheri. Paint away! I can send you a much larger, higher quality print if you like.

      1. I may be able to get something right from the computer Linda though I appreciate the offer. It may be a possibility . The colors are mesmerizing.
        I don’t remember the single grave, it sounds lonely. Why was it there? There is a stone baby crib marker in our family cemetery plot, but I found out there is no baby in it. At the time the plots were not designated, so that baby is “somewhere” unmarked today. I have tried for years to get something to grow in the crib, but it never lasts through the hot summers.

        1. Just let me know which one(s) you’d like, and I’ll send you the higher resolution/larger photos. I agree that the colors are mesmerizing. I mentioned to Yvonne, below, that I really was blessed to have a strong wind rise and blow away all of the smoke, dust, and haze. That blue sky didn’t hurt a thing.

          I never wrote about the single grave after my last trip. There wasn’t really any reason, except that I got distracted, and the photos ended up lingering in my files. I’m glad I let things sit, because there was a “rest of the story” to be discovered when I went back. It really isn’t sad at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

          Not only that, the grave also was the site of another very interesting story: just slightly embarassing, pretty funny in retrospect, and generally quite heartening. You’ll see!

          1. I thought I had a photo of a crib, too, but I can’t find it just now. The children’s graves always are so touching. There’s a section of infant graves in one of Galveston’s cemeteries that shows the deaths all in the same year. I’ve always thought it must have been smallpox, or measles — perhaps influenza — that went through the community.

    1. Even though I grew up in farm country and gained some rudimentary knowledge (like: don’t ever volunteer to detassle corn!) one of the best parts of this trip was having the time to talk to so many people involved with agriculture. I learned a lot, especially about advances in equipment and farming practices.

      I wasn’t always happy with the amount of dust in the air, but the same dry weather that led to the dust allowed the harvest to just keep rolling — and, it allowed me to get to a few places that would have been impossible had the roads been muddy and slick. I was grateful for that.

  3. What a surprise: after some of the pink dunes I saw in the Southwest, I took the subjects of your photographs to be real dunes. It’s good that you’ve done a story revealing the truth of what they are.

    1. I was sure you would have seen dunes on your trip. That you mentioned pink makes me think you made it to Utah, where there are beautiful pink dunes near the Arizona border. I still think Utah may be the most striking (and perhaps even the prettiest) place I’ve lived. There’s no end to the exploring that can be done. A month in that state alone wouldn’t be hard to fill.

      1. Right you are. One of the places was Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in Utah not far north of the Arizona border.

        I agree with you about Utah. In the mid-90s I flew to California and the plane passed over Utah. I was so enchanted with what I saw, even from 30,000 feet, that I resolved to go back for a closer look. That happened a couple of years later. One accomplishment of the current trip was to hit the one national park in Utah we hadn’t managed to squeeze in on the first visit: Zion.

        1. Quite apart from the wonderful dunes and rocks and mesas, there also are the Wasatch mountains. When I lived there, I used to hike up the canyons to the alpine meadows: places like the Albion basin. I didn’t know one thing about wildflowers then, but the cold lakes and the fragrant meadows were glorious. I’d be more than happy to make a return trip to those mountains.

        2. I found a site that explains the color variation in the grains.

          According to the article, “Today, [hybridized] sorghum grain color is described as white, yellow, cream, hetero-yellow, hetero-white, bronze, orange, dark-red, reddish-brown, white-brown, lemon yellow, chalky-white, intensified red, pearly-white, etc.”

          So, there’s history in the piles. Each color represents a different hybrid chosen by a particular farmer and grown in a particular field. But it’s the random unloading of grain onto the pile that creates the beautiful patterns. I don’t know if it’s an example of chaos theory, but it’s utterly cool.

    1. You’re welcome. Planning for trips is enjoyable, and useful, but there always are surprises that surpass our expectations. If someone had said, “Hey! You’re going to really enjoy the piles of grain,” I would have thought them crazy. But, I really enjoyed the piles of grain.

      Thanks so much for stopping by, and commenting. I’m glad you enjoyed the story.

  4. Beautiful photos and a wonderful post! There are still alot of fields of milo to harvest!! It’s seldom all harvested before pheasant and quail season, which opened last weekend. Too bad the prices are so low!

    1. I wondered when pheasant season opened. I saw some while I was up there, and it reminded me of this time of year, when my dad and his friends would head out to the cornfields to hunt. We didn’t eat a lot of game birds, but he had to have that one hunt per year — and of course I loved the tail feathers.

      I meant to tell you that I didn’t realize until you said something on your blog (or maybe in a comment here) that the place down in Cassoday has a grill — and catfish on Friday. The next time I’m there, it’s on my list, too. Who knows? Maybe we can have lunch together!

      1. That would be great!! OR meet at Keller Wine and Feed or Ad Astra in Cottonwood Falls/Strong City, OR anywhere!!

        Wylie and I were out walking and we came across a spot where some hunters had clean birds, brought home a lot of tail feathers. I also have a collection from my hunting days too. They are such beautiful birds.

  5. I love your photos. That you posted different swirls and designs..and with, as you write “cerulean” blue skies, the oranges and yellows just pop. Any number of those you posted could be enlarged and framed. I hope you do that.

    And just the words “Cottonwood Falls” brought happy memories and a smile to my face.

    If Kayti (the real artist) does not paint one of your pictures, I’d like permission to try.

    But you would need to send me your favorite as an attachment.

    In some ways, these dunes also reminded me of those at the White Sands National Monument.

    https://cheriblocksabraw.com/2010/10/15/white-sands-new-mexico/

    1. I’ve been to the pink dunes in Utah, but I’ve never seen White Sands. Your photos are gorgeous, and the dunes are spectacular. I see you had sunglasses on; I’m not surprised. I imagine the glare could be significant.

      Even if Kayti does want to paint one of the photos, there’s no reason you couldn’t do the same. I’d be happy to send along either an attachment or a photographic print. Your choice. I haven’t learned much, but I have learned to keep my original files. And you should paint one that’s a favorite for you. It’s more fun that way.

      You have happy memories of Cottonwood Falls, Kansas? If so, you probably also know Strong City, just a couple of miles away. It’s home now to a couple of excellent restaurants: Keller’s and Ad Astra. Ad Astra’s become a destination spot for people out of Lawrence and KCMO, despite the significant drives. If you’re ever there, give them a try.

    1. Believe it or not, one of my friends here in Texas has started growing olives, and had the first pressing last year. I’m glad your harvest was good, and that you’ll have much to enjoy in the coming year.

      And thanks for stopping by, and adding a different crop to the discussion.

    1. Actually, there wasn’t any drought in Kansas this year, Lisa. Everyone I talked with mentioned how frequent and perfect the rains had been. Every week or so, another inch or two would fall, and everything profited. Things have begun drying out (hence all the dust in the air from the harvest) but no one I met seemed eager for rain. The crops were ready, and everyone wanted to be able to get into the fields.

      In fact, the whole state of Kansas has been declared drought-free for the first time in six years. It’s a wonderful thing!

        1. Texas has been recovering from drought, too, but I just looked at a drought map from Mississippi, and discovered that most of the state is in moderate to severe drought. If you’ve been getting bulletins from that part of the world, it’s no wonder your first thought was of drought.

          The sunsets weren’t really that impressive. Perhaps there was too much generalized smoke, haze, and dust — or maybe I just wasn’t paying enough attention. The sunrises were great, though, and I enjoyed being up and about for those.

  6. I always wonder what you will offer us next. You never cease to amaze. Those photos are absolutely beautiful. Truly. I did wonder about birds flying over and dropping packages, though. I guess they have a way of fixing that. I can see why you had to stop and ask about those piles. I had to laugh at that because it is so much like you to follow your nose and find out about what you’re curious about. Lucky for your readers. We are the beneficiaries.

    1. Sometimes I wonder what I’ll offer up next, Bella. Right now, the problem isn’t lack of inspiration, but trying to figure out what comes next. This was a rich trip, in terms of experiences. I can’t move off a roughly once a week schedule — I need time to write, and you need time to read — but I am eager to share some other stories. There are a couple of good ones, believe me, and a little self-deprecting humor of the “You did WHAT?” variety.

      I do love following the trail of a good story — or even just following a trail, for all that. Sometimes I set out to find something and fail — but that can be interesting, too. Now that I think about it, failures often are more interesting than success: if occasionally more painful or frustrating.

      I see you’ve done the Christmas clickclickclick for the grands. Now, on to Thanksgiving. I hope it’s wonderful. Just remember to stick to your resolution. When someone gets out of line with their questions, get another piece of pie. Jeanie says that pie fixes everything!

  7. Yes, very beautiful images. I have to admit though, my first thoughts was also similar to Jean R’s comments. There is a cost to the Land, in the production of such abundance – and I’m sure it’s made the chemical companies very happy and richer also.
    Harvest is in full swing in the Mid North area I used to live, and I’m told it’s the fourth year of a good crop. In some ways I miss observing the annual process of grain production, but am very glad to be away from the chemicals! To some degree anyway……
    As to the slow way of travelling, why wouldn’t one take the by-ways and stop and explore along the way? I love the totally unexpected discoveries just waiting to be found.

    1. Not all of the farming in the midwest is on the scale of wheat farms in North and South Dakota, or cattle ranches in Texas. There are many, many family farms that are much smaller, and one of the hallmarks of those farms is an increasing sensitivity to the environmental impacts of farming.

      In fact, I was surprised to see the increase in the number of farm-to-table restaurants, organic farmers, and farmers’ markets as I traveled. Of course, with the season winding down, the markets were either closed or closing. I talked with a man in Strong City who still had some flowers and pumpkins, but most of his crop was finished. Still, he was already planning to expand next year. The town has no grocery store now, and he wants to be able to meet the town’s need for fresh produce.

      One of the things I “knew” but didn’t really appreciate was how complex the whole system is. The farmers are important, but so are the truck drivers, the elevator employees, the railroad workers, the seed suppliers, the equipment dealers… on and on it goes. Watching the economy work takes it right out of the realm of the theoretical.

      I grew up in an era when doing anything slowly, and without any apparent purpose, was called “puttering.” Well, I intend to keep puttering along. You can see the most amazing things.

  8. Really interesting. Of course here in Iowa there is no sorghum to be found, so this was all new to me! I grew up in Peoria, where we had distilleries. I suppose the sorghum was one of the many things we smelled on days when the wind was just right. (By the time I went to college, even Pabst had shut down.)
    “Good whiskey was a hallmark of Peoria’s distilling industry since the 1840s. Business flourished because of a simple fact: this area made more whiskey than anyplace in the country and whiskey made more money than anything else for the U.S. treasury.

    Prior to instituting a national income tax in 1913, about one-third of U.S. revenue was derived from liquor taxes — with the federal district that contained Peoria paying the biggest share.”
    http://www.pjstar.com/article/20150825/LIFESTYLE/150829711

    OTOH, I could be guessing about sorghum’s linkage with Peoria’s alcoholic past. But it makes a fun story. :)

    1. Melanie, your comment tickled me, because one of my first experiences in Arkansas was standing at a motel desk when another guest stopped to ask the clerk, “Where’s the nearest place I can pick up a bottle of wine.” Not missing a beat, the clerk said, “Across the county line. We’re dry here.’

      I was so surprised, but I found that most Arkansas counties and even some in Kansas are dry. Of course, it was only during the last election that an area of Houston called The Heights finally voted to allow alcohol sales — ending a dry tradition that went back to 1912. When The Heights was annexed by Houston, it was part of the agreement that it should remain dry, and it’s continued for all this time.

      It never had occurred to me that sorghum might be a part of whiskey, but I found that it sometimes is. The difference is that it’s not made solely from fermented grain, but includes (or is solely produced from) the molasses-like syrup that results from pressing the canes. It’s a little complicated, but I enjoyed reading this article about Muddy Pond sorghum and the whiskey made from it.

      My suspicion is that the distilleries in Peoria were using a mix of fermented grains for their whiskey, rather than producing a sorghum-only whiskey, but clearly sorghum could have been a part of the process.

      Now, I’m going to be whistling “Whiskey in the Jar” all day, and I thank you for that!

  9. I would have never guessed what was in that photo! what an amazing place! Your description and explanation was fascinating!

    Locally I see only limited grain harvested, and that is hauled by truck from the farm to waiting grain cars on a side rail near town. I never thought grain of any kind would be stored outdoors or in anything close to that volume!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Terry. Every area of the country certainly has its surprises.

      There are grain terminals at Texas ports that receive rail shipments from a variety of states, and load them onto ships for buyers around the world. They’re amazing things: this history of the big Cargill elevator at the Port of Houston is especially interesting. They can load amazing amounts of grain. Using two spouts, the Cargill elevator can load 140,000 bushels per hour. That would make short work of even the biggest Kansas pile — once they got it to the port, of course.

    1. “And that’s what we do” certainly does fit, and I found examples of that low-key, can-do approach all along the way. There are good years, and bad years, and extraordinary years, and life goes on through them all. That lesson from the farm belt’s as nourishing as their grains.

  10. Those huge piles of grain are impressive. I’ve seen many of them in IL and IA but mostly of corn. The milo is really pretty. I have to admit that I didn’t know much about milo and its uses. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commercial_sorghum#Cultivation_and_uses

    Another aspect of the large stockpiles is the shipping of grain barges along the Mississippi near us. High water and low water can seriously impact the movement of barges. There is also the winter weather and freezing of the channels above St. Louis.

    1. That article you linked was interesting, Jim. Melanie mentioned whiskey, but it seems that sorghum beers are the “thing.” I had no idea that brewers have latched on to it to produce gluten-free beers: a nice development for people concerned with gluten in their diets. (I did laugh when I saw “gluten free” tags on orange juice and bananas in the grocery store this week. I suppose if marketers think they see a bandwagon, they’re more than willing to jump on.)

      I may have solved a little mystery, too. When I used to buy standard bird seed mixes, they generally contained at least some maize. Sometimes, it all was eaten. Sometimes, the birds wouldn’t touch it. Look what I found, tucked into the Wiki article: “Some hybrids commonly grown for feed have been developed to deter birds, and therefore contain a high concentration of tannins and phenolic compounds.” That may explain why the birds refused to eat the maize.

      Your mention of the barges reminded me that rivers are the natural complement to railcars. I thought this “soybeans’ journey” piece was especially good. I liked the map. it makes it easy to visualize how important the rivers are.

      1. I agree about the ‘gluten free’ labels. Almost as silly as labeling peanut butter jars with ‘Caution: Contains Peanuts’.

        The article was interesting. The rivers carry huge amounts of grain. I liked the first of the maps that showed the various waterway systems throughout the midwest. Thanks for that.

  11. Those “dunes” are something to see! Can’t say I’ve seen this before. Having been born and raised in corn & bean country, the most impressive waves of grain dunes I’ve seen are corn…and beans. Just as Jim says above.

    1. Even though Texas grows milo, either the crops haven’t been particularly good, or the acreage put into milo is much less. Either way, I’ve never seen anything like this, either. The milo fields always are beautiful, with the rusty red stretching off to the horizon, but whatever they do with the harvested grain, it seems to disappear.

      My suspicion is that much of it is harvested by people who also have cattle, and use it as supplemental feed.

      In any event, I did get to see my autumn colors this year: just in a way I never expected.

    1. I’m a great fan of Kansas, with or without these piles of grain. It’s a state that’s a little subtle, but it certainly does reward close inspection. I saw much more variation in the grasses this year than I did three years ago, for example. That might be partly because I landed there at a time of greater contrast, but I suspect a newly educated eye had something to do with it, too.

      Farmers simply don’t get the credit they deserve. There certainly are problems with some of the subsidy programs, and legitimate concerns about chemical use and so on, but the people I met are aware of the problems, and addressing the concerns. You can’t ask more than that. I suspect if I’d spent three weeks around the feed lots, I would have had other things to write about, but those are other issues, for a another time. Family farms are a different, and more wonderful, critter.

      1. The people who actually live on and work their own farms seem to have a different perspective from absentee owners of thousands of acres, who tend to be the Factory Farmers unconcerned with anything but profit. That is my experience from California farms that members of my family have lovingly worked over the last six decades.

        1. A personal connection does enhance caring and commitment. That’s one reason that helping children (and adults) develop a connection to nature is so important. Without that connection, it’s easy to tune out important concerns.

  12. The photos are incredible and stunning. Who knew that maize and milo are stored outdoors in piles that simulate tall hills. That was quite an experience to see all of that. I often drive out to the country when milo and corn (maize) are being harvested. I love to see the grain dumped into the big semi trucks. But I have to be down wind from all that dust and keep the windows rolled up with the ac on. The grains give off lots of dust and mold spores and that’s why many folks with allergies become ill during harvest time. It also affects pets.

    1. I certainly did sneeze my way through Kansas, Yvonne. The amount of dust in the air could make the hills look like they were fogged in. Part of the reason these photos came out as well as they did is that the wind finally started blowing ahead of a front, and cleared out the skies. I do have a photo of Jeff Casten filling up one of his trucks with grain from the combine, and that plume of dust you mentioned is visible.

      It’s fun to watch a harvest — and to take part, too. I had the chance to tow an auger wagon many years ago, and it was quite an experience. The size and complexity of much of the newer equipment is impressive — a far cry from the tractors and wagons of even 50 years ago.

    1. It seems that a wide swath of the country, from north to south, has had excellent harvests. Kansas went through six years of drought, so the turn-around is welcome.

      Have you bumped into any hundred-year-old recipes that include instructions for home processing of the grain? I’m sure most towns had mills nearby, but home mills were around, and apparently still are being sold — updated and improved, of course.

  13. Beautiful photos, and I love the colors of the grain piles against the sky. Most people are so removed from farming these days that they have no idea where their food comes from, or how it’s produced. Nor the pros and cons of the different methodologies. Farm & ranch raised here, farmers are the heart of this country. Thanks for a great post.

    1. It’s true, Brig. Despite what virtual reality enthusiasts would have us believe, we still live in a physical world, and every attempt to detach us from it has unhappy consequences. Not understanding the intricacies — or the importance — of food production is just one.

      On the other hand, I was surprised and amused to discover that there’s virtual farming going on through farming Simulators Galore. As the description says, “In Farming Simulator, you take on the role of a modern farmer with hundreds of acres of agricultural freedom. You have access to the world’s latest equipment and vehicles, and choose from a plethora of different crops to yield and livestock to raise in a big open-world environment.” The video in the link is amazing.

      Somehow, the thought that a farming simulation game has gained popularity makes me happy.

    1. The colors are bright and bold, aren’t they? Even though the trees hadn’t taken on autumn colors, the grain made up for it. I hope you had some beauty on your recent trip — apart from that beautiful boy, of course!

  14. My, your remarkable post made my jaw drop!!! Who would have thought that those vibrant deserts are heaps of grain! Brilliant photos and story! Hats off to you Linda!

    1. Thanks, rethy. A harvest like this has positives and negatives — especially when the price is down — but after some hard years, most people seemed to be a combination of amazed, happy, and tired. I hope when it’s all gathered in, everyone profits.

  15. Wow. I had no idea about any of this. I supposed all the corn and grain that is harvested was stored and went somewhere and that there was probably a lot of it — but really? Holy Maloley! The milo piles dazzle me with their colors and strata. I suspect I would have stopped to ask about them too — and they would say and I’d be on my way. What I really and truly love about you is that you don’t let it go at a comment or simple explanation — that ever-curious mind of yours reaches and reaches till you know. Hat’s off, Linda! Oh, someone already said that. So bravo and cheers!

    1. The more I think about it, Jeanie, the more amused I am. All the way through Arkansas and Missouri, I was fussing about so much fog and rain, and the absence of fall color. By the time I got to rural Kansas, that absence of color was remedied in the best and most amazing way possible: with piles of grain on the ground.

      Now I have even more questions: particularly about harvest totals, and where the grain will end up. There are huge grain terminals at the Ports of Houston and Galveston that fill bulk carriers with corn, soy, and milo for overseas shipment. I’m fairly sure it’s not possible to watch a ship being loaded, but on the other hand: you never ask, you never know.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed this, Jeanie. Sometimes, things do come together in just the right way!

  16. We’ve been seeing what we thought were huge piles of corn when we’ve driven to northern Minnesota this fall, but a million bushels–the imagination staggers. What a sad waste!

    1. A waste? I can’t even conceive of using that term for it. Abundance, yes. Much of that already has been purchsed or will be: by flour mills, feed lots, and so on that have their own limited storage space, and take spaced shipments.

      The combination of perfect growing conditions and a decline in world markets has left more on the ground than usual (much more, actually) but if I had to make a choice between abundance and scarcity, I’ll take the abundance. No one can predict next year’s crop, after all.

      1. Thanks for that. I had thought, when I saw the vast piles, that since there apparently wasn’t room to store it properly, it had just been left out in the elements because there was nowhere to put it. I’m relieved!

        1. This is one of those situations where another entire post could be devoted to the process of ground-storing grain — though I’ll pass on that. What is certain is that they don’t just dump it. The ground has to be prepared in a particular way: for example, crowning the earth in the center to aid draining. Elevators sometimes have specially designed concrete pads, but farmers without pads have to use 6 ml plastic, or some other approved method to prevent moisture from leaching up into the grain.

          Another problem for individual farmers is that you can’t just fill up an empty building. I certainly didn’t know that lateral pressure on the walls could bring down a building, but it can. Bins are designed to withstand those pressures — but getting a new bin can take time, particularly since there aren’t always enough skilled workers to make the darned things. Can you imagine having an extra few hundred thousand bushels, and your bins are on backorder? Yikes!

          Anyway, it’s fascinating. Back in the day, I never could figure out why anyone would need to be able to calculate the volume of a cone. Welcome to applied mathmatics!

  17. I’ll just join in the chorus. Incredible. Absolutely incredible.
    Didn’t know what “milo” meant until now. Soybeans we’ve got in NYS, but I’ve never seen sorghum being grown, and had to look up “sorghum syrup” when it was mentioned in “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

    My favorite crop, from a purely visual standard, has always been oats – it’s a good-looking field that shifts from silver-green to a nice tawny color by harvest. But these milo dunes are amazing.

    Congratulations on a really excellent article.

    1. The names of the grains have confused me in the past. I’ll spare you all of my confusions, except to say that I finally figured out, after a couple of trips to Louisiana, that sorghum and cane aren’t the same, and the syrups produced from them are quite different.

      One of the things that kept nagging at me when I looked at the photos were all those colors. I finally went looking, and discovered a wonderful page that explains how the variety came to be. It says:

      “With the development of grain sorghum, hybrids in an even broader range of colors became possible as parents of different seed colors were crossed to make hybrids. Today, sorghum grain color is described as white, yellow, cream, hetero-yellow, hetero-white, bronze, orange, dark-red, reddish-brown, white-brown, lemon yellow, chalky-white, intensified red, pearly-white, etc. ”

      No wonder there are such beautiful patterns in those heaps.

      We’ve got a native grass here called inland sea oats. It’s not cultivated as a crop, but it makes that same lovely color change, and it’s a beautiful, graceful plant.

  18. A fair amount of sorghum is grown in my neck of the flatlands, and some soybeans as well.

    We have entered the tawny time of year. The frost the other night turned some of the oak trees this gorgeous, intense, oxblood red, and others an equally intense brown ocher. It is the time of year of two of my favorite colors, oxblood red, and russet. A blog friend in Devon publishes pictures of the bracken-covered hills which in summer are a lush green but at this time of year are this wonderful rich russet. It is the time of year when hereabouts, the pastures are tow-headed with grass.

    1. I really do like those dark autumn colors you highlighted. We’ve not seen any of them here yet, although the cypress finally are starting to turn rusty. I suspect it’s going to be one of those turn-brown-and-drop years, even though we’ve had decent rains. We’ll see.

      I forgot to mention to you that I saw a sign for the playa lake wildlife management area near Clarendon when I was scooting home. I remembered your explanation of them: particularly the wealth of birds that come there. The Panhandle’s another part of Texas that has far more to offer than you’d think at first glance.

      The bluestems on the Kansas prairies were turning, too. The color is so striking, especially at sunrise or sunset: just as yours are, I’m sure.

  19. Fascinating post, though I must say that I wish that the fields produced something more than sorghum. The photos remind me of the craft of layering colored sand in glass bottles–beautiful!

    1. I’m curious about your preference for something other than sorghum. It seems to be such a versatile plant, used for ethanol production, cattle feeding, flours, and other food products. It requires much less water, too: nearly a third less. I wonder if that might have contributed to more acres being planted with it during Kansas’s extended drought.

      I agree about the resemblance to sand layering. When I first saw the piles, I remembered a little rubber-corked vial I brought home from Hibbing, Minnesota as a souvenir when I was a kid. It showed all the layers of soil at the iron mines. The colors were similar, and it was beautiful, too.

  20. Some wonderful abstract images, Linda. The colours and the way they flow create images unlike anything I’ve seen before. Take in isolation one might start to think of Namibian Desert or Canyonlands. I wonder how many photographers have discovered the potential of these grain piles.

    I was interested to read the spoilage data – spoilage must be one of the risks of this type of storage and with climate change making forecasting harder, there is risk that can become harder to quantify. Do Tornados happen in Kansas?

    1. I was surprised how few grain pile photos I found online. Many were clearly concerned only with size. There must be professional photographers who’ve taken advantage of the sight, but of course everything was just right for these photos: the mix of grains, the clear sky, and so on. A day later, everything might have looked quite different.

      On the other hand, once I was home, I bumped into Debra Farmer’s blog while looking for information on a different Kansas sight. Lo and behold, she lives in the part of Kansas I’d been traveling, and had posted photos of grain piles on her blog. After chatting back and forth, it became clear that we were roaming the same territory at roughly the same time, and had photographed the same grain piles. It’s one of the best blogging stories ever.

      Ground storage has been going on for a long time. Here’s a photo of grain piles near Dodge City, Kansas in 1957. The techniques for this kind of storage have been refined, and although spoilage does occur, it can be minimized. As one elevator employee said, “Even if we lost ten percent in a pile, it beats not bringing in the harvest.”

      And, yes: Kansas has tornadoes. Nearly every town I passed through has had the experience. In fact, I’ll be writing about one of those towns, where just stopping for lunch ended up being a journey into a remarkable past.

    1. It was fun, Otto. I’ve lived around fields of sorghum for many years now, but never have seen a sight like this. The experience certainly proves your point about worthy subjects being all around us, if only we take the time to look.

      Beyond that, once I was home and looking at the photos on the computer, it amused me no end to realize I’d found my autumn color. It just wasn’t on the trees.

    1. Poor WordPress has been up to all sorts of mischief. I’m glad you discovered the glitch. I’m glad you enjoyed the photos, too. I was raised in the midwest, and never could have imagined these piles of grain. Corn piles, yes — but not so large, and certainly not so vibrantly colored as these.

      We have wonderful weather for this Thanksgiving — I hope you enjoy the day, however you celebrate.

    1. It’s possible that neonicotinoid-treated seed is used by grain sorghum growers, although the references I found suggested that other approaches often are employed: “trap rows” of early-planted sorghum or other crops, for example. I don’t know much at all about which post-emergent herbicides or insecticides are used. In fact, the sum of my knowledge is about zero, and only what I could read online. A quick skim did suggest that the issues are being discussed, though: both pro and con.

      I have learned that varieties of sorghum have been developed specifically to repel birds, which are listed as a primary pest in many places. Certain varieties are high in tannins and phenolic compounds, which birds find less tasty. In the past, I’ve noticed that some bird seed I’ve purchased for my feeders is entirely consumed, except for the red milo. I never could understand it, but I suspect that “bird-proofed” seed may be the answer. That certainly could explain the lack of birds around the piles. They’re at a different, tastier buffet.

  21. Thanks, Linda, for the lesson. When I was on my bike journey, the huge grain elevators served as major land marks. It can take a long time between when you first spot them in the distance and then reach them on a bike— especially if there is a head wind. Ethanol has created an ever increasing demand for corn. I remember reading about a farmer plowing up his front yard not too long ago so that he could plant more! –Curt

    1. Those grain elevators are wonderful landmarks, even for those of us who travel by car. I didn’t realize until this trip that the reason they’re so evenly spaced across the countryside is a result of the requirements of early rail transport. Since I know I’d love to return to the Kansas area in spring, I’m thinking that combining that trip with a search for old grain elevators and old schools would be fun.

      I was surprised to learn that sorghum’s used in biofuel, too. Not only that, it requires less water: I’ve read a full third. I suspect that’s a part of why the crop is so large this year. Over the past six years, Kansas experienced some drought, and a crop that required less water would have made sense. Once the rains returned? Well, see above for the result.

      1. Interesting information on sorghum, Linda. Thanks. I saw a few historic elevators on our recent trip, and several old schools. My favorites are the one room school houses. Can you imagine going first through 8th grade in the same school? –Curt

        1. Well, I was in kindergarten through 6th grade in the same school, so why not? On the other hand, each year we did have a different room. A one-room school’s a different proposition. On the other, other hand, there’s a lot to be said for some of the teaching techniques that were used in those schools, like the recitation bench. There are some real beauties in Kansas that I’ll be showing.

          1. I was in rooms that shared 2nd and 3rd grades and then 4th and 5th grades, Linda. So I had a bit of the ‘small’ school myself. And there were still one room schools in the area. Looking forward the your ‘beauties.’ –Curt

  22. Northwest Iowa is also experiencing bumper crops. So, there’s no shortage of producers gazing at their smart phones, watching commodity prices fluctuate all over the place and wondering when will be a good time to sell. It’s a gamble for the people who don’t sell their grains in futures in an effort to get a good average price.

    I’ll often hear a producer bemoan a sale after he hears the price goes up. I’ll also hear a producer delight in the price gotten after the markets take a dive. It’s not quite kosher to exult in a good sale; it’s much more kosher to moan about poor timing.

    1. The technology’s changed, but the anxiety’s not new. I well remember people huddled around the radio, listening to Herb Plambeck on WHO and getting the market reports. Me? I was more interested in the Sons of the Pioneers.

      I laughed at your comment about not bragging about a good sale. That’s just so typical. I don’t know if everyone had my experience, but I laugh every time I hear Garrison Keillor mention Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery. If I had to describe the midwestern attitude with one phrase, it would be, “Oh, it’s nothing.” Keillor’s changed over the years, but his early material was spot on.

  23. We “deep Midwesterners” have quite a foundation in all things agricultural. Wife Janine is just finishing up a stint as director of the local arts council here, and we have a steady stream of artists who are almost always amused at some aspect of life in corn/bean/cattle/hog country. I’ll never forget one artist who felt he had awakened in alien territory when his wake-up radio broadcast was the market report. I don’t think he ever quite got over the thought of the market on “pork bellies” being shouted over the airwaves.

    1. I laughed at your poor artist all afternoon. Culture shock is culture shock, no matter where it appears. I have a couple more city-gal-meets-country stories that are pretty good, and that would probably make your artist friend feel better. In the meantime, I’ve written up one you might get a kick out of. It even made me laugh when I re-read it.

  24. Such lovely photographs. From time to time, when I was young, you would see piles of barley, but not nearly as pretty! All the same, it’s a shame that a glut of grain means low prices. Your comment regarding the grain elevators brought to mind the many once seen upon the prairies. They have mostly disappeared, but remain here and there (bought by communities) as reminders of a different time. A RC church in Saskatoon had as a tabernacle, one in the shape of a elevator, which must have been so very meaningful for congregants.

    1. Do you happen to know if the Saskatoon church was Ukrainian? One of the great surprises and great delights of my visits to Manitoba and Saskatchewan was the Ukrainian presence. It’s such a rich culture. In any event, I love the grain elevator tabernacle. Elevating the elevator had to have brought a giggle or two.

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen barley growing. On this trip, I saw my first commercial fields of sunflowers. It’s strange that I’ve never seen them before, but there you are. They weren’t very pretty, since the season’s nearly done and the plants were busy making seed, but that’s what they’re meant to do.

      In Iowa, we had elevators, but it’s the silos I remember. It was such a shock when I found out that the blue Harvestors are being taken down. When those big blue silos showed up, they were quite the thing. Not only that, they looked beautiful against white snow!

    1. Thanks so much, Nan. I have fun learning new things, and I hope to make it fun for you, too. I’ll say this — farming always has been complicated, hard work, but I think it’s getting more complicated by the day. One thing’s for sure — farmers need a little understanding!

    1. Soybeans are in the Fabaceae, or pea family, so their pods resemble those of familiar wildflowers, like partridge pea. They’re larger and hairier, but quite attractive. Apparently there’s more of a market for soybeans, since I didn’t see any of those piled around.

    1. I really was blessed on this trip. It started out a little rough (a dying laptop, that fog, the hounds of hell on my tail) but by the time it was over, I couldn’t believe how many stories I’d collected. I guess I’ll just keep telling them, one by one..

      There have been what I suspect are trip related after-effects here in the household. Last Saturday, Dixie Rose jumped up into my lap and sat there purring for five minutes. Sixteen years I’ve waited for such a thing to happen! Maybe that three week absence affected her more than I thought. In any event, it’s proof that even an old cat can tease an old owner.

  25. Being a Kansas girl, albeit extreme southeastern Kansas, this made for fascinating reading. What compelling beauty in those photos! We tried growing a little sorghum here on the home place last summer, but were too busy building to water it. Gives us a bar to aim high for. ;)

    1. I’ve come to love Kansas. I’ve always traveled “through,” but it’s been great fun traveling “to.” There still are some Kansas posts to come, based in my wonderful, three week trip: Monument Rocks, Teter Rock, Pawnee Rock, and Point of Rocks. And then there’s October in Osage County, the wonderful recovery of a tornado-stricken town, and a faceplant on a pile of Kansas flint. Who needs a Carnival Cruise to have fun?

      It’s really so nice to have you back — and I’m glad you appreciated those grain piles. I certainly did learn a good bit about agriculture while I was wandering around them.

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