NESS CITY Toby Dietz is standing on a little piece of the 580 acres of farmland and pasture he still owns about two miles east of Ness City.
At age 91, he doesn't work the fields any more. He leaves that to his daughters and sons-in-law who plant most of it in wheat along with a little milo. They count on the bushy heads of milo to feed the family's horses and a few head of cattle.
It's hot and it's been dry all summer.
This year's wheat harvest was pitiful. This chunk of the Wheat State produced five, sometimes 15 bushels per acre - way less than the 35 to 45 bushel average. The drought, plus disease and 22-degree temperatures on April 27, caused some farmers to leave their fields uncut, including some that were irrigated.
"I've had some of the older farmers in Ness County say this was the worst wheat crop they'd ever seen," said Dan Carter, grain manager at the D.E. Bondurant Elevator in Ness City.
Factor in the wheat's poor quality, and there's a good chance many Ness County wheat crops didn't cover the cost of the fuel it took to cut it.
Even the weeds are suffering. They explode under a mower's blades.
So how's the milo coming?
"We need rain," Dietz said.
"I can remember one year we had a big snow just about the time the milo was ready," Dietz said. "It got so muddy that our combine would get stuck," he said. Dietz said they waited until midnight, after the ground had frozen, to harvest their crop on the ice-covered fields.
In other words, it could be worse.
When you've been farming in Ness County as long as Dietz, you can recall times when it was drier than, hotter than, wetter than or windier than whatever current conditions are.
In the late 1930s, Dietz and his father, William, were shocking wheat on 160 acres they'd rented from the county.
"All of a sudden, a shadow came across the field and we thought we were under a cloud ... and it turned out to be grasshoppers," he said "They covered the shocks (bundles of wheat), and they were so thick on the stone fence posts you couldn't see the post."
They ate everything in their path.
In the 1960s, Dietz's wheat crops were "hailed out" four different times, total losses.
And a couple of tornadoes have blown across their property.
"You could see them from the house but they didn't do any real damage; I think one blew down a shed," he recalled.
During Dust Bowl days, the Dietz family started a dairy, selling their milk to a cheese factory in Hoisington.
"It was the only way dad was able to keep the farm," he said.
When you wonder what kept Toby Dietz on the farm, you need look no further than his grandparents. Ethnic Germans, they immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1878. They stopped heading westward when they got to Russell County. Their first winter was spent in a small cave they scooped out of the bank along the Saline River.
In 1880, Grandpa Dietz built a house of native rock that's still in use today. That was the year Toby Dietz's father, William, was born, one of 11 children.
The family moved to Ness County by way of Barton County. Today, Toby Dietz lives on the farm his father bought in 1926 at a bankruptcy sale.
Polo and palominos
Palomino quarter horses have long been a love in Dietz's life. In the 1950s, a Texan opened a department store in Ness City. He also organized a polo team, and Dietz found a niche.
"I'd rather play polo than eat," he said in his heavy German accent. He grew up speaking German at home.
The Ness City group played teams from Hays, Gorham and Hooker, Okla. Dietz would use three horses during a match.
"The game moves fast, and there was no way you could play with just one horse," he said.
They used western saddles during local matches but switched to English saddles in tournaments.
When Dietz talks about his first breeding stallion, Rainy Day Toy, he gets a far-away look in his eyes.. "That was the smartest horse I've ever had," he says. He sired about 125 colts.
In 1966, Rainy Day Toy was the Kansas quarter horse of the year. "My son Dean and I took him to pole bending and barrel races in Topeka and Lawrence," he said. "He won both of those races in the adult divisions and Dean won both, riding Toy in the youth division."
Dozens of trophies portraying horses line a bookcase just inside his front door.
Dietz bred horses for 50 years.
Did he do his own doctoring?
"Oh, I shoed them and trimmed their feet, and I castrated some," he said casually.
Was it difficult to gain a former stallion's confidence after castration?
"Oh, they don't see who's doing it," he said.
Dietz spoke fondly of his wife, Esther, who died in 1982. They'd been married 53 years.
After a long hiatus and a hip and knee replacement last year, Dietz was able to get on his palomino, Pal, and ride as Grand Marshall in the Ness County Old Settler's parade.
He still sings on special occasions, and sometimes he's asked to sing at funerals in his native German.
"I don't know if I can do it much more," he said. "My voice is kind of giving out."