Wheat acres shrinking in U.S.

Last week, the World Food Prize Found?ation, founded by the late Norman Borlaug, awarded its latest World Food Prize to a wheat breeder and researcher, Sanjaya Rajaram. He is honored for his research that led to a large increase in world wheat production by more than 200 million tons, building on the successes of the Green Revolution.

This year marked the 100th year of Borlaug?s birth. Rajaram succeeded Borlaug in leading the wheat breeding program at CIMMYT, the international maize and wheat breeding center that began from a pilot program sponsored by the Mexican government and the Rockefeller Founda?tion.

Why is this an important, newsworthy item? Wheat is a staple food for people world?wide, accounting for 20 percent of the world?s caloric intake.

Adding to that level of strategic importance, wheat grown by American farmers is in high demand all over the world. However, production of wheat in America is on the decline, for reasons other than its value in the world marketplace.

Farmers are planting fewer acres of wheat because other crops have greater potential for profit. The reason is that research?the engine that is the driving force for yield increases?is lagging far behind other programs that are boosting profitability gains in other grain crops.

The combined public and private wheat-breeding programs represent no more than $30-40 million annually, and it pales in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars invested by private entities in corn and soybeans.

Beneficial traits such as disease resistance, pest resistance, drought tolerance and heat resistance in other crops are causing the pendulum to swing in their favor when farmers are looking for more profitable sources of revenue.

Need more proof? Since 1996, total wheat acres harvested were around 60.9 million acres, nationwide. This year, total acres harvested were 46.5 million acres.

In that same timeframe, harvested corn acres went from around 72.5 million acres to 83.1 million acres. The actual yield rose from around 127.1 bushels per acre in 1996 to an estimated 174.2 bushels per acre in 2014.

Soybean crops expanded from 63.3 million acres in 1996 to 83.4 million acres in 2014. Bean yields, though only rising from 37.6 bushels per acre to 47.1, still have risen at a faster rate than wheat.

Comparatively, wheat yields have risen from 36.3 bushels per acre in 1996 to only 43.2 bushels per acre in 2014. These numbers are based on NASS/USDA crop reports.

The greatest growth in corn and soybean acres has come at the expense of wheat in areas that were once considered unsuitable for crops like corn and beans.

Located near Plentywood, Mont., in the extreme northeast corner of the state, not far from the Canadian border, a wheat farmer began growing 80-day corn, primarily as a test project to see if it were feasible. That was two years ago. As this column is written, he is harvesting 80 to 90 bushels per acre, and this is coming off of the poorest land he owns.

An early freeze in Sep?tember prevented the crop from maximizing its full potential. This farmer was somewhat disappointed that he was only getting 90 bushel corn, figuring he should easily double his 55 bushel average for wheat.

Today, biotech companies such as Syngenta and Monsanto are moving into Canada, pushing the envelope for corn even further than thought possible only a few years ago. Seventy-day corn is now being grown well north of our border with Canada, and the prospect of more wheat acres moving to corn is even greater than before.

The point of this discussion is that farmers are choosing to plant crops other than wheat if the opportunity for greater profit exists. That?s a no-brainer.

In my travels around the country, millers and bakers are unanimous in one area of concern. They are worried that in the next decade, and perhaps sooner, they will be forced to look outside of this country to source sufficient supplies of high quality wheat.

For them, a further decline in acreage indicates less investment in research by farmers, land grant universities and private companies, which is the means for maintaining and improving the quality of their end product.

They produce bread, pasta, cake mixes and other products that have distinct requirements in order to create a high-quality food product. And though they resist the idea that outsourcing for their needs, it is something they are increasingly concerned about.

Arguably, farmers have heard this concern before, especially when grain prices rise like they have since 2007. However, reliable numbers that are based on actual historical planted acres and production supports their concerns.

Farmers are hearing the message loud and clear. The National Wheat Foundation, a solely owned entity of the National Association of Wheat Growers, has commissioned two research papers and a number of white papers that will provide much detail regarding the wheat industry?s challenges and opportunities.

At their fall board meeting in early November in Albuquerque, N.M., these papers will be the focal point of intense discussion as to the strategies for bringing profitability back into the production of wheat.