Harvesting the High Plains

John Kriss and the Business of Wheat Farming, 1920-1950

Craig Miner

The semiarid plains of western Kansas and eastern Colorado are hardly the setting for an agricultural empire, but it was here that former field hand John Kriss managed G-K Farms for Wichita entrepreneur Ray Garvey. Their enterprise became one of the largest wheat operations on the plains and yielded Kriss a one million bushel crop.

Harvesting the High Plains is the rags-to-riches story of how Kriss applied hard work and common sense to make large-scale farming work under the most adverse conditions. Drawing on correspondence between Kriss and Garvey, it tells how the two men had to make innumerable decisions about the purchase of expensive machinery and of ever larger tracts of land, and how Kriss kept detailed records of crops and rainfall to manage the land carefully, farming thousands of acres in an environmentally sensitive way and retaining a viable operation even during the Dust Bowl years.

“Miner has made a solid contribution to the historical literature on high plains agriculture.

—Agricultural History

“Miner has written both a fascinating biography and an informative regional history.

—Economic Geography
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In chronicling the story of Kriss's success, historian Craig Miner provides a bold counterpoint to the argument that large, technology-based farming is inherently bad or that only small farmers can be conscientious stewards of the land. He sets his narrative in the context of local and agricultural history-as well as the Kriss family's own story-in order to document the transition to mechanized, specialized farming on the plains. He addresses philosophical and historical questions about the relation between agriculture and nature in a semiarid region, showing that G-K Farms managed to strike a remarkable balance between profit and ecology. He also suggests that G-K may even have done its region more economic good than small farms simply by staying in business during bad times.

The Kriss family still works the land, and although their operation is huge, it still depends on traditional family farming values and approaches. Harvesting the High Plains provides keen insights into their special approach to large-scale farming and gives a human face to the faceless statistics of other agricultural studies.

About the Author

Craig Miner is Willard W. Garvey Distinguished Professor of Business History at Wichita State University. Among his books are West of Wichita: Settling the High Plains of Kansas, 1865-1890; Wichita: The Early Years, 1865-1880; and (with William E. Unrau) The End of Indian Kansas: A Study of Cultural Revolution, 1854–1874 .