Some call farming a gamble.
You can't predict the weather. You can't predict the markets. But every year, farmers roll the dice.
They can only hope for a payout.
Kansas farmers have more than nine months of sweat and labor in this year's wheat crop, The Hutchinson News reported. Now combines are rolling across much of the nation's breadbasket, an annual June rite that is steeped in tradition and history.
For thousands of Kansas farm families, wheat harvest is a way of life.
Here's a look a three Kansas families who are helping bring in the state's 315 million bushels of wheat this year.
It's nearly noon. Zakre Johnson already has been in the combine for three hours, turning circles.
And there is plenty of hours of sunlight left in the day.
Not that there is any other place this 17-year-old farm kid wants to be.
He looked across the field of wheat they were cutting near the farm community of Lewis in Edwards County. His entire family was in the field. This is what loves and looks forward to, he said - his family working together to bring in the harvest.
It's tradition, he said. "It's in your blood, I guess."
"Harvest has always been my favorite time of year," he said as he circled his combine alongside one driven by his brother, 13-year-old Zane.
Then, he added with the wisdom of a veteran farmer, "Harvest is when you finally get to figure out what all your hard work is worth."
They call themselves the DAZZLE family farm, said his father, Doug.
The acronym represents the entire family: Doug and his wife, Lisa, along with children Alexis, 21, who is away at college, Zakre, Zane and little brother Ezekeil, age 9.
Lisa and Ezekeil work to fix most of the meals. About noon, they sat on the tailgate of the pickup with a cooler of pop and water and a bag of sandwiches. Meanwhile, Zane is just 24 hours into his first combine driving experience.
"He's doing fine," said Doug.
There's also Doug's father, 79-year-old Curtis, who on this day was not far away driving the tractor through a shaved wheat field.
Five or six generations of Johnsons have farmed the land, said Doug. Curtis moved away for a while, working as a pharmaceutical rep in Colorado. Each summer, he'd bring Doug back to the farm where they helped with wheat harvest.
In the mid-1970s, Curtis decided to come back to Edwards County and farm full-time. Doug soon realized the farming tradition ran through his veins, too.
In 1982, Doug Johnson was on K-State's first football team to make a bowl appearance. He had one year of eligibility left when he decided he'd rather be farming.
Zakre has that same passion. He rode on the tractor in his car seat as a baby. He recalled his first harvest job - driving a grain cart during fall harvest at age 7 or 8. By 13, he was driving a combine. For years, their wheat fields were custom harvested, but Zakre would spend hours with the crew, riding in the combine.
The family started harvesting their own wheat five or six years ago, Zakre said.
This past school year, Zakre lobbied his parents to allow him to quit conventional school at Macksville, instead taking online classes so he could help full time on the farm.
He plans to do the same thing for his senior year, he said.
"Family aspect is the big part of it," Zakre said of his love of harvest and the farm. "I couldn't go anywhere or farm anywhere else if I couldn't have dad and grandpa with me. I think we all have the same love and passion that our fathers before us did."
Reggie Stegman joked a bit as he drove a Gleaner combine through a Ford County wheat field.
The Spearville custom harvester said he has considered calling it quits, but then added with a chuckle, "No one would hire me. I'm too darn dumb to do anything else."
At age 56, this is the only life he's ever known. His grandfather, George M. Stegman, used to help with custom harvest during the steam engine threshing days. His dad, Gene, started the business in 1950 with his grandfather.
For a few years, they just cut around the area. In 1955, Gene Stegman bought a Model A Gleaner without a cab and took it down to Oklahoma.
The family business has continued for 65 years.
Stegman said his mother wasn't keen on making the trip. Stegman, however, starting going in the summers at age 9. By 13, he was full time on his father's harvest crew.
He never left.
"We've been cutting for the same family in Oklahoma since 1956," he said, adding the grandson now operates the farm.
That's the first stop. He and a crew of five employees make their way from Oklahoma to Spearville and St. Francis before heading to the last stop - Chadron, Nebraska.
On this day, Stegman is cutting poor wheat, which was hit by drought and disease like stripe rust. The yield monitor in combine's cab showed the field not making much more than 7 bushels an acre.
Across the road, however, is a better field waiting for his combines. It could make 60 bushels an acre, he said.
His wife, Theresa, doesn't like making the trip, he said, and his kids are all grown. His harvest family consists of longtime friend and employee Dale Hines of Spearville, along with a couple of teenagers and a few others from the area wanting a seasonal job.
Spearville High School student Clinton Stein said his dad could probably use the help on their own farm. But last year, he learned that Stegman needed a grain cart driver. So Clinton took the job until school started. He decided to work for Stegman again this year, living in motels along the way.
"They're a good crew," Stegman said.
Derek Hubbard told the story with excitement as he cut his first crop of wheat as a Kansas farmer.
"This is kind of like our maiden voyage," the 33-year-old said with a grin on a warm June evening, driving the combine in a large field of wheat near Coldwater.
Serendipity happened just two years ago - on Derek and Kelly Hubbard's wedding day.
Derek said he always wanted to farm. His ancestors were involved in production agriculture. He grew up around it, watching his father, David, manage an operation for Comanche County farmer and rancher Ernest Oller.
However, the start-up costs to get into farming made such a notion impossible.
He took a job in Ashland at a veterinary clinic. His wife is a teacher.
Oller died in 2012. On July 13, 2013, after Derek and Kelly's wedding had ended, Oller's children put a bug in his ear.
They weren't interested in farming the land themselves. And they didn't want to see the farm split up. Would he and his dad want to take over the operation?
"They wanted to give us the opportunity," Derek said.
It was a big decision. But a friend reminded his father such offers are rare and the opportunity would most likely never happen again.
"That was eye opening," Derek said.
The family formed Double D Ranch for David and Derek. They are obtaining the operation over time.
"They've been really good to us," David said of Oller's children.
Father and son started taking over the operation a year ago, David said. The family has wheat and milo, along with 300 cows.
In October, they planted their first wheat crop. They watched it emerge from the dry earth, praying for rain. But the winter brought little moisture.
"It was a week from being done," said Derek, adding with so much on the line, it was stressful. But in April, rain came just in time.
On this June evening, Derek drove the combine with his nephew Quincy, 7, riding along. David drove the grain truck, hauling loads of wheat to bins on the farm just a mile down the road.
Derek's wife, Kelly, and his mother, Terri, brought meals to the field throughout the harvest. His sister, Brooke, also helped when needed.
They couldn't wait to get their combine rolling for the first time through a wheat field, Derek said.
"We were pretty anxious to get started," Derek said, adding they were antsy enough they cut a load of wheat that was a little too wet.
After about 10 days of cutting, along with rain and breakdowns, their first wheat harvest ended on a Saturday in June.
"I've done this all my life," said David of farming, but added this is a new adventure at age 59.
"It's exciting - especially when you can work with your son," David said. "My goal is to help set (Derek) up to farm."
Moreover, their first crop of wheat is fairly decent, yielding around 40 bushels an acre. That's a lot better than last year's crop on this land, he said. Stressed by drought, it only averaged about 17 bushels an acre, with some of the acreage zeroed out by crop adjusters.
"God is providing for us," David said. "We can't grow anything unless God provides."
God is providing, said Derek. In July, he and Kelly will have their first child - a boy.--Amy Bickel, The Hutchinson News