Dust Bowl Broadcast: Harvesting the High Plains

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A Gleaner Baldwin Model A; local resident Jeff Bradshaw as John Kriss.
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Dwight Vance operates the Baldwin Gleaner Model A in the wheatfield as Jay Kriss films.
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Dwight at the wheel of a McCormick-Deering 22-36.
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Jay Kriss filming freshly listed land.
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Dwight at the crank of the McCormick-Deering 22-36.
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An International WD-9, driven by Lyndon Gruggs, pulling a one-way plow.
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Producer Sydney Duvall.

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

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:

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