After several seasons of battling rising costs and a widespread drought, many custom crop harvesters are calling it quits amid skyrocketing fuel prices.

About 25 to 30 percent of the custom cutters who once followed the nation's ripening crops have left the business in the past three years, said Dave Hermesch, a harvester from Coweta, Okla., and former president of U.S. Custom Harvesters, the industry's trade group.

Surviving harvesters -- many running bigger equipment that can cut more acres faster -- are filling the void as Kansas prepares to take in its 2005 winter wheat crop.

But high prices for the fuel needed to run their combines, trucks and other equipment have put a damper on what many are expecting to be a fair harvest following years of drought across much of the Midwest.

"Fuel cost is a major input to our industry," said Tim Baker, operations manager for Hutchinson-based U.S. Custom Harvesters. "Some guys have been forced to raise their rates, passing [additional costs] along."

Rick Farris, a custom cutter based in Edson, said he just got a $2,000 fuel bill for a single stop he made in Oklahoma where he put gas in the empty tanks of his four combines and four trucks.

Once harvest gets going in full swing, Farris will put 500 to 600 gallons of fuel daily into combines he runs 12 hours a day, he said. And that does not include the fuel for trucks that haul the harvested grain to elevators.

Fuel costs this harvest season are running a third more than a year ago, Farris said.

"We are really caught in the squeeze with these fuel prices," he said.

To cope, Farris has eliminated all the driving he can and even bought an old, used minivan to ferry his crew around so he does not have to run the bigger, gas-guzzling vehicles as much.

High fuel prices also are driving up the costs of everything else cutters have to buy. The high steel prices have already caused steep jumps in the prices of farm equipment and repair parts, he said.

While many cutters are passing some of the additional costs along to farmers with fuel surcharges, the low grain prices make it difficult for farmers to absorb all the increased costs.

"There were quite a few harvesters that quit this year," Hermesch said. "For a lot of them it was a last-minute decision. They decided they did not want to fight high fuel prices."

Hermesch has been custom cutting for farmers for the past 19 years, following the harvest of wheat and other crops from Texas to Montana.

Two years ago, he ran six combines. Last year, he cut back to four machines. This past winter, he sold another combine and plans to run just three this harvest.

"I want this thing to get more fun, or I will quit, too," Hermesch said. "We are barely making a living out here. If we don't have enjoyment, what the heck do we want to do it for?"

Bill Struble cuts winter wheat on his farm near Anthony, Kan. Rising fuel prices have put many custom crop harvesters out of business.