By Karl Plume
(Reuters) – North Dakota farmer Dwight Grotberg wanted to plant more wheat this spring to take advantage of soaring prices since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reduced grain exports and left the world is running out of millions of tons of wheat.
Heavy rains prevented Grotberg from planting as much wheat as he wanted and is hampering farmers across the state, America’s top producer of spring wheat.
Instead of increasing supply, North Dakota expected to plant wheat on the smallest share of its farmland ever recorded, according to government data.
The United States is the world’s fourth-largest wheat exporter and problems are hitting production at a time when the world can no longer afford to lose more staple grains amid a global food crisis.
Chicago Board of Trade benchmark wheat prices jumped 50% to more than $13.60 a bushel after the Russian invasion in February halted shipments of nearly a third of global wheat exports, and not much has gone well for wheat since then.
Deteriorating crop prospects in China and parts of Europe, followed by an export ban by major producer India, have tightened stocks and heightened global food supply concerns.
The United Nations has warned that the impact of war on grains, oils, fuel and fertilizers could plunge millions into starvation and take years to resolve.
Washington has called on US farmers to plant more winter wheat this fall, and the government has said it will allow planting on some environmentally sensitive land starting this fall. But drought and expensive agricultural inputs could limit production gains, cereal analysts say.
There are two crops of wheat in the United States: spring wheat planted now and winter wheat planted in the fall which will soon be harvested. Both are in trouble.
The problems with spring wheat planting faced by farmers like Grotberg come after drought hit the winter wheat crop in Kansas, the fastest-growing state.
The potential winter wheat crop in the United States has fallen by more than 25% due to severe drought. Kansas farmers could leave thousands of acres of wheat in the fields this year, instead of paying to harvest drought-scorched grain.
In North Dakota, too much water is the problem. A historic blizzard in April left the state’s vast pothole-strewn fields under more than 3 feet (1 m) of snow in some areas, triggering flooding as the deluge melted.
Grotberg has only been able to sow about 500 acres (200 hectares) of wheat so far – just a quarter of the land he intended to sow – due to wet conditions.
Seeds sown in soggy soils can struggle to emerge or rise unevenly, while heavy farm machinery can tear up fields that are too muddy, compact soils or become lodged in mud.
Now the Grotberg planting window closes quickly.
Wheat planted too late in the spring is likely to produce less grain or be exposed to frost before the crop is fully ripe.
“We’re stuck… Normally we finish planting wheat at this time,” Grotberg said.
SLOWEST SPRING PLANTINGS SINCE 1996
Soggy spring weather has all but ensured that the breadbasket of the northern plains of the United States will not produce a bumper crop this year.
U.S. farmers had planted just 49% of their planned spring wheat acreage as of May 22, matching 2014 for the slowest pace since 1996, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.
In North Dakota, which produces about half of U.S. spring wheat, growers planted just 27% of their crop, the second-slowest pace in four decades.
“Some farmers haven’t turned the wheel yet,” said North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring. “If North Dakota is unable to secure a substantial amount, it will only wreak more havoc on the global market.”
Ditch the raked winter wheat
On the southern plains of the United States, winter wheat growers have received very little rain and are worried about the size of their crop – or whether shrunken plants will just need to be plowed.
A private group visiting wheat fields in Kansas in mid-May predicted its crop would decline 28% this year and more fields than normal may not be harvested due to drought damage.
About 6% of the state’s planted acres would be abandoned, according to the latest USDA estimates. But given the drought damage, Kansas State University wheat agronomist Romulo Lollato thinks the dropout rate would be higher.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if 8%, 9%, 10%” of planted acres are abandoned this year, Lollato said.
In neighboring Colorado, dropout could exceed 30%, Colorado Wheat executive director Brad Erker told tour participants.
“Wheat yields are affected by weather in May, and we had a very dry May,” said Kansas farmer Vance Ehmke. “The trend is not our friend.”
DISAPPEARING ACRES OF WHEAT
Wheat production in the United States is down longer term, with farmers favoring the production of corn and soybeans, which are more lucrative due to demand from biofuel producers. Seed Science has also increased their yields by 30% or more since 2000, exceeding just 6% for wheat.
Demand for biofuels is expected to continue to erode wheat acreage as two new soybean processing plants are set to open in eastern North Dakota, including one by Archer-Daniels-Midland Company that will supply Marathon Petroleum Corporation of soybean oil for renewable diesel fuel.
As the planting window in the northern plains shrinks, North Dakota farmers are weighing options that include switching to soybeans, which can be planted later in the spring than wheat, or filing insurance claims for prevented plantations.
“It becomes quite tempting to file these claims,” Grotberg said. “Once in June, you might be lucky to get half a harvest. And with such high costs, it’s hard to digest.”
(Reporting by Karl Plume in Chicago. Additional reporting by Julie Ingwersen in Manhattan, Kansas. Editing by PJ Huffstutter and Marguerita Choy)