Dust Bowl Broadcast: Harvesting the High Plains

Harvesting the High Plains tells the story of man vs. nature in the Dust Bowl years

John Kriss Combine Scene

A Gleaner Baldwin Model A; local resident Jeff Bradshaw as John Kriss.

Photo Courtesy Inspirit Creative

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For nearly a decade, towering dust storms scoured the High Plains destroying crops and lives, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes and farms across Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas. A new PBS documentary, Harvesting the High Plains, tells the tale of two men who overcame the challenges of the Dust Bowl years to carve out one of the nation’s largest wheat-farming operations.

According to Jay Kriss, director and producer, the film debuted at private screenings in Colby and Wichita, Kan., and Gering, Neb., in late 2012, and was scheduled to air on Kansas Public Television in early 2013. Kriss says the film will be aired on other PBS stations around the country later this year; readers should check local listings for broadcast dates and times.

Surviving the Dust Bowl

Inspired by the book Harvesting the High Plains by the late Craig Miner, professor of history at Wichita State University, the documentary presents the story of Ray Garvey, an entrepreneur from Wichita, and John Kriss, his farm manager, who adapted innovative farming techniques during and following the Dust Bowl years to make large-scale farming work under the most adverse conditions.

The documentary was produced by filmmakers Jay Kriss and Sydney Duvall of Inspirit Creative, and narrated by Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs series. Jay (the grandson of John Kriss) and Sydney spent more than two months shooting original film for the documentary. During the summers of 2010 and 2011, the team filmed street scenes with dozens of costumed extras and vintage trucks and automobiles in Colby and Russell, Kan., then spent a week filming vintage tractors, combines and equipment in operation at the Farm And Ranch Museum, Gering, Neb. The documentary also features original still photos and 16 mm film shot in the 1930s by Works Progress Administration photographers and on loan from the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

Working on faith

The “black blizzards” of the 1930s forced hundreds of thousands of families to abandon their homes and farms. But Garvey and John Kriss held on, convinced that the Dust Bowl years would end and the High Plains would again become productive. “Ray Garvey and John Kriss wrote letters to one another almost every day, and Garvey saved every letter and telegram,” Jay Kriss says. “So we had the opportunity to write the script in their actual words.”

 “Here’s what I’m up against,” John Kriss wrote Garvey in March 1935. “One of my men was in the field four hours after the storm hit March 15. He was within 50-60 yards of the shack most of the time. The storm struck so quickly that it was almost fatal to anyone unable to reach shelter of some sort quickly. This boy stood by his tractor and kept his handkerchief wet with water from the radiator to breathe through. There will soon be funds available through the relief administration so everyone can list [use a lister], if the wind lets up a little or we get a little rain so we can see.”

Playing the odds

As the drought and dust storms finally came to an end by the late 1930s, and wheat farming once again became profitable, Garvey and John Kriss expanded their operations. By the 1940s, John Kriss would oversee more than 100,000 acres for G-K Farms in Kansas and another 30,000 acres of his own land in Kansas and eastern Colorado. In the summer of 1947, John Kriss would put 130 Gleaner Baldwin combines to work harvesting a record wheat crop.

“In every farmer there is the knowledge of the odds,” Sydney says. “Farmers are the ultimate gamblers, yet despite those odds farmers persevere. To that extent, those who lived before share the same legacy they do today ... there is great inspiration to those who share the same yoke.” FC 

For more information: Harvesting the High Plains is co-produced with the Kansas PBS flagship station, KPTS, and is partially sponsored by AGCO’s Gleaner Combine division. The film can be ordered directly through Harvesting the Plains.  

To find out more about the movie production in Nebraska, read Farm and Ranch Museum Stars in Film.

Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist and cowboy poet. He grew up on a crop and cattle operation in western Nebraska, and now lives in Missouri. Contact him at 8515 Lakeview Dr., Parkville, MO 64152; email: gschleicher1@kc.rr.com.