It was a cold day, the kind of cold day when a grain farmer has no business outdoors, but Peter Brewer was out in his greening wheatfields practicing the magic that has made him a semi-legend hereabouts.
Brewer and his buddy, Colin Withers, grow wheat in such prodigious amounts that farmers regularly seek their advice. A small army of imitators is forming across the state in hope of cashing in on their method; the University of Missouri and chemical companies are promoting a campaign for higher yields.
The magic that Brewer performs on a cold winter day is rather simple. At a time most other wheat farmers are idle, Brewer is applying one of his periodic doses of fertilizer. The difference at harvest is a vastly higher yield and more money in the pocket.
The story of their success, with yields triple the average for this part of the country, is newsy enough to make most farm publications. What excites imaginations more is that Brewer and Withers are recent arrivals from England, immigrant farmers still feeling their way on alien turf.
The inspiration for their move was the notion that they could make more money and work less in the United States than on their intensive grain and livestock operations west of London.
Brewer's visits to the United States in the 1970s convinced him that the grass was greener here. "We were working hard and didn't see that we were getting ahead," he said. "The corn and soybean profit margin here inspired us. And then, you think there might be a bit better on the other side . . . . In the 1970s, American farmers had it good. We thought farming here was better than in England."
But by 1982, when Brewer and Withers were able to sell their farms, the U.S. agricultural economy was headed into a tailspin from which it has not recovered. The grass was no longer so green. But the die was cast -- and they left for America in the spring of 1983, bringing their tractors, a combine and a lot of enthusiasm.
A search for the right land in the Midwest brought them to Grundy County in north-central Missouri, where Brewer and Withers bought 300-acre farms a few miles apart. They farm about 1,200 more rented acres as a team.
Their first crop in 1983 was soybeans, which local lore deemed the only crop worth planting for profit. "People said wheat was not a good crop . . . they said beans and corn were where the margin was," Brewer said, "but we realized that people didn't treat wheat as a proper crop. You have to treat it as any other to get the best out of it."
Merely marginal yields with the soybeans, the first they had grown, persuaded them to look more closely at wheat. Their first crop, planted in the fall of 1983, did better than other farmers' and piqued more interest. "We didn't push it too hard," Brewer said, "because people said it wouldn't stand the nitrogen fertilizer. Of course, they were putting it all on at once, whereas in England we space the applications."
Their second crop, planted in the fall of 1984, topped 100 bushels per acre in some fields -- more than triple the 32-bushel average in this area. They used heavy dosages of nitrogen, spaced across the growing season, to achieve their higher output.
The success of that crop convinced Brewer and Withers that their future lay in soft wheat, grown under the intensive English system, rather than corn or soybeans. The income from higher wheat yields more than offsets the high costs of operation. "At the moment, we see no reason to grow beans," Brewer said.
Their wheat recipe is basically the same that British farmers use to regularly outproduce their American counterparts: high-yielding seed varieties, planted as early as possible; fertilizer applied several times during the growing cycle instead of only at planting time, and growth regulators and fungicides when needed to ward off disease.
"People here treat wheat as we did 20 years ago in England," Brewer said. "The chemical and fertilizer companies have put a lot of money into wheat development in England . . . . If I could average 100 bushels an acre year in and year out, I'd be happy. That's a fair thing to average, let's face it."
A question arises. Does a nation awash in surplus wheat need a campaign to triple its output? Brewer's answer is as American as could be.
"One hundred-bushel wheat is not the problem," he said. "The problem is the low price that forces farmers to produce more. Every time they lower the federal loan rate, it acts as a floor and pushes prices down that much more. These low prices don't leave much of a margin, even for us."