Ray Wetzel is planting winter wheat like many other Kansas farmers, but unlike most of them, he’s sitting atop a 70-year-old machine and smelling the dirt as he moves along.
Planting wheat with a 1953 planter makes perfect sense to this central Kansas farmer. He loves his old machines and wonders why smaller farmers go into debt and toss away useful equipment.
"Dad didn’t buy it until 1957," Wetzel said with a sparkle in his eye. "I remember the day he brought it home."
Since he was young, Wetzel, who grew up and still resides in Offerle, treasured the past. He rebuilt his great-grandfather’s 1915 tractor and placed a century-old coffee grinder on his kitchen wall.
His ancestors came to the prairie from Germany, either directly or by way of Pennsylvania. They homesteaded in 1870, lived in a mud hut, planted trees and grew wheat.
In 1919, Wetzel’s grandfather built the home in which he and his wife now live. They used horses and mules to dig out the basement. A few years ago, when Wetzel was refurbishing, he came across a horseshoe.
Along with old tractors, including the one his grandfather bought brand new in 1930, Wetzel refurbishes cars. He and his father spent months working on his great-grandfather’s 1915 Dodge.
Wetzel, a fourth-generation farmer, enjoys drilling wheat in the fall. His machine has hand levers that are not hydraulic. Unlike many farmers around him, Wetzel works in the open air as opposed to an air-conditioned cabin and lots of computerized equipment. He uses his eyes to determine where to drill. Every four hours, he must stop and re-grease. His 100 acres will probably take him about four days to plant.
"This year, I’m kind of slow getting going," he said. "I just work at my own pace."
Winter wheat production
Wetzel is right on time with planting. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, during the past 20 years, about half of the Kansas wheat crop has been planted before Oct. 4.
In the USDA’s Oct. 5 report, 56% of winter wheat is planted. This is 41% ahead of last year, as well as the five-year average. Almost one-third of the wheat has emerged. This is ahead of the one-fifth that had emerged last year at this time.
However, nationwide, the USDA said, this year’s winter wheat production is down 19% from last year; it is estimated at 281 million bushels. In addition, both the area harvested for grain and the planted acreage are also down from 2019.
Focusing on the farm and each other
Wetzel and his wife, Louise, used to volunteer at Fort Larned, but ever since a tornado landed on their home a year and a half ago, the couple decided to focus on the farm.
Now retired, they both love to travel, visit museums and work on their land.
"We’ve worked hard all our lives, sometimes two jobs," Louise said. "We’re at a point in our lives where we want to enjoy life and enjoy each other."
This year, she started a pumpkin patch, the proceeds will benefit a charity in Dodge City. She’s hoping to buy the facility a bed. Her prize pumpkin weighed in at 128 pounds.
"It’s always been my dream to have a pumpkin patch," she said. "I love pumpkins because they’re like snowflakes. Each one has their own personality."
Ray Wetzel refurbished a 1910 windmill that powers a water pump in the couple’s front yard near their garden. The windmill was manufactured in his wife’s home state of Wisconsin. When she was young, Louise’s parents owned a dairy farm.
The couple tries to stay self-sufficient, raising their own food and baking their own bread. They also raise chickens.
"One thing we have is perseverance," Louise said. "As long as we’re together, we can weather any storm."