The three men in coveralls at the big round table in Jesse's Cafe were asked if they were farmers, and after a burst of laughter, W.B. Betts said "We're planters."
Last year many of the farmers in this West Texas Panhandle community havested no wheat for the lack of rain. And this year many of the puny green sprouts of winter wheat are not even up to the standard of last year's failed crop.
Adrian has had virtually no rain since October.
The fields are dry and the waterholes are low. Soil and crops lay exposed to teh tremendous winds which have flown across the plains, one week for the past four weeks, parching the wheat, burying it in loose soil or sweeping both soil and crops away. The winds reached 100 m.p.h. two weeks ago. "Old-timey, '30s blows," Bob Gruhlkey called them.
Whether these men become farmers again this year, harvesting as well as planting, only the caprice of weather will decide. The right change of weather, the good rain could change it all.
For some the water is here, hundreds of feet below thesurface, to be pumped over the earth to make it green. Irrigation has given them a crop, but with depressed wheat prices - the nation has a 1 billion surplus of wheat - the current market won't even come close to covering the rising costs of powering irrigation pumps.
And that explains the presence of the fourth man at the big table in Jesse's, Terry Creitz. For 13 years he was a farmer. Since February, he and his wife, Peggy, have owned Jesse's. They sold out to buy the restaurant. They couldn't stand to lose any more money.
The farmers in the area, about 40 miles west of Amarillo, are sliders on a long chute of low prices, high costs and drought.
They are family farmers able to absorb losses only so long as they can get credit; credit extended against their equipment, their potential crops and their land.
For dry land farmers like Gruhlkey, the drought is everything. He figures he needs to get $25 an acre for his wheat just to cover his costs. At current prices, that is about 10 1/2 bushels of wheat to the acre.
But the drought is not the only talk at the big round table at Jesse's, soon to be renamed Peggy's. It is as much of the high cost of producing a bushel of wheat and the low price a man can sell it for.
Irrigation farmers figure $200 an acre as the break-even point, which would require an impossible yeild of over 80 bushels an acre.
W.B. Betts, who has 100 acres of irrigated wheat, said that up to 1975 he paid $245 to $250 a month to run his irrigation motors on natural gas. "Now it's $700," he said, "and I run them nine months a year."
It takes $4 a bushel to break even on his irrigated wheat, he said, "but at $2.42 you're going to go in the hole." That was the going market price for wheat in Adrian last week.
Betts noted too that diesel fuel is up from 15 cents a gallon in 1972-73 to 45 cents a gallon, and farm prices have been falling.
Terry Creitz had rented 960 acres of irrigated wheat land. Preparing the land and getting his seed in last year would have cost $59 to $60 an acre, Creitz said, with another $40 an acre to harvest it later on. He could count on 50 bushels an acre, two-thirds for him to keep, one-third to the landlords, and even "at $2.50 a bushel it won't figure out. My banker told me last October not to plant."
So now he is co-owner of a restaurant. He is not the only one to get out. The consensus here is that there are some 10 to 12 farm sales a week advertised in the Sunday paper.
Meanwhile, Gruhlkey survives on bank loans, tax provisions, disaster payments and hope. Hope that the rains will come, that prices will rise.
"It looks pitiful right now," said R. M. Gruhlkey, 70, as he looked at a 50-acre tract of stubblehigh wheat. "We need a good rain." He is retired, is a brother of Bob Gruhlkey and is father of Dale Gruhlkey, 72, who farms 2,000 acres - 1,750 planted in non-irrigated winter wheat.
Normally, they would get up to 14 bushels of wheat to the acre; last year it was, as Dale Gruhlkey put it, "zero". If there's a good rain in April or May he could get a break-even 10 bushels, maybe less. "Boy, you just never know how much you're going to get. Weather plays such a big factor."
The father pointed out drifts of soil and sand along a waist-high barbed wire fence around the 50 acres of wheat. His son, he said, is just going to graze it out, let his 65 head of catle feed on it till it's gone - not even try to get a crop from it. Already they have "chiseled" it, that is, tilled up part of the land in long swaths, roughing the surface in hopes of keeping the land from blowing away.
The U.S. Agriculture Department's Soil Conservation Service says taht more than 900,000 acres of cropland in 66 Texas counties have been so tilled, and late on Saturday afternoon, under a blue and cloudless, dry and breezy Texas sky, Bob Gruhlkey was raising that total.
High in the cab of his green John Deere, Bob Gruhlkey lowered a yellow bar with five bits on it to the earth behind his tractor and began moving out across a 324-acre parcel. The five chisel points left wakes of brown earth a yard apart as he drove diagonally across the long rows of short blades of winter wheat.
Gruhlkey says you can work lover the land this way once and not lose much crop, if you eventually get any, but a second time "will take half." If you go over it a third time, he says, you might as well plow it under. He has a quarter-section (160 acres) that he has chiseled twice.
Because of the billion-bushel surplus, the drought produces a long series of individual economic disasters for the Great Plains people in communities like Adrian, rather than inordinate price rises.
But the Agriculture Department does warn that dry conditions in the Midwest and West not only hamper current growth but raise "many questions about the availability of water for crop irrigation and the adequacy of subsoil moisture to support crop growth next summer."
Since October the entire high plains of the Texas Panhandle has had less than half the normal precipitation of 4 inches. But that has fallen irregularly over the Panhandle, and Adrian has had even less.
How prolonged and expensive the drought is will determine whether there will be a rise in wheat prices, Agriculture says.
"Since weather and soil moisture conditions currently indicate that above-average rainfall will be required to bring about average crop yields," the department says, "below-average yeilds must be considered as a difinite possibility this year."
With the drought, the high cost of raising and the low cost of selling a bushel of wheat, why do these farmers bother?
A farmer is a gambler, and whatever the conditions are today he is betting there'll be a better market later. R.M. Gruhlkey still has 10,000 bushels of wheat in storage from the last crop before his retirement, 1975. Wheat was selling for around $4 then, and has been going down almost ever since. He has been hoping the price would go up.
Betts notes that many farmers (not R.M. Gruhlkey) have more money borrowed against their stored wheat than it is currently worth.
"Them guys in Las Vegas are pikers compared to farmers," says Bob Gruhlkey.
And his nephew, Dale, six years out of college, two years into his own farming life, standing in the cattle feed pen with a post hole shovel, looks at the ground then raises his eyes and explains the gambler: "I'd rather have something at $2.40 than nothing at $4."