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Decades of Decline in Nation's Wheat Acres Have U.S. Leaders Taking Action

Tom Dorsey
Salina Journal

FromKansas Agland:

For decades, the nation's breadbasket has been sowing fewer and fewer acres to wheat.

That's evident on Paul Penner's Marion County farm - where he once planted 75 percent of his fields to wheat. These days, wheat has dropped to a third of his crop production.

The reason is simple, Penner says. Farmers see more profitability in crops like corn and soybeans.

But now state and federal officials are saying enough is enough.

"We want to make wheat competitive with other crops," said Penner, the recent past chairman of the National Association of Wheat Growers -- the group leading the effort. 

Penner added, "We need a viable wheat industry in this nation in order to remain a major exporter and provider of the world's bread."

Taking action

In Kansas, wheat acreage has dropped by 33 percent since 1981, according to the Kansas Agricultural Statistics Service. But the scene is the same across the nation as well, with acreage declining by 39 percent -- largely losing ground to corn and soybeans.

The National Wheat Foundation and and the National Association of Wheat Growers announced earlier this month a joint effort to develop a comprehensive business plan to revitalize the U.S. wheat industry.

The National Wheat Action Plan will be a collaborative effort developed with input from key stakeholders across the industry. This effort will serve as a catalyst to increase public and private research, as well as improve wheat productivity and farmer profitability.

The goal, said Penner, is to halt the decline in wheat acreage and potentially reverse it.

Penner added that "wheat needs to increase its yield capabilities by 20 bushels an acre to be competitive."

Penner said other countries are gaining momentum in wheat exports, including Canada, Russia and Ukraine.

"We want to be known as a steady, consistent supplier for good quality wheat, he said.

Moreover, he said, "we want to have dialogue across the entire food chain."

Stakeholders includes everyone from farmers and researchers to private research and the milling and baking industry, Penner said. He noted millers want a highly nutritious quality wheat and the plan includes developing more products for wheat.

The plan at present is a work in progress -- and it should be complete by fall 2016. Wheat leaders already are shaping it, however. Penner said biotechnology investment is part of the discussion. At present, unlike corn and soybeans, wheat is a non-genetically modified crop.

Daniel Heady with Kansas Wheat said corn and soybeans have had far more technological gains than wheat in the past 20 years. There has been a drop in profitability of wheat compared to other crops.

"It is a way to try to tap into the potential of wheat," Heady said. "If you look at other crops like corn and soybeans, wheat doesn't have the same private sector investment."

Needed genetic improvements for wheat are many, but Penner said a few things that wheat research could benefit is creating more drought-tolerant and disease-resistant varieties, as well as developing nitrogen-fixing strains.

"We are taking about traits that will actually increase the yield for farmers," Penner said.

The greater popularity of corn and soybeans isn’t the only reason U.S. farmers are planting less wheat, according to the national organization.

Some Oklahoma farmers, for instance, as well as the southern border of Kansas, are diversifying by planting more winter canola and less winter wheat, historically their dominant crop.

Issue already at forefront in Kansas

Yet, while the national group is tackling the decline and working to feed 9 billion people in the next 25 to 30 years, Kansas has already been stepping up to the plate, working to establish investment and future for the crop that Kansas farmers have grown since the 1870s. 

In 2013, the Kansas Wheat Commission unveiled the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center, funded largely through the Kansas wheat checkoff. At the site in Manhattan, researchers are working to get improved wheat varieties into the hands of farmers faster. The center -- along with offices for Kansas Wheat and a handful of for-profit research companies, including Heartland plant Innovations -- includes 15,000 square feet of research laboratories and 10,000 square feet of greenhouses.

Meanwhile, the wheat commission, Kansas Wheat Alliance and the Kansas Crop Improvement Association are currently taking applicants for research projects that will help farmers profitability, said Randy Fritzemeier, a Stafford County farmer who sits on the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers board.

Each year, he said, Kansas Wheat provides nearly $2 million in funding for research projects, such as wheat breeding, wheat quality, disease screening and insect research.

Fritzemeier said research dollars already have funded important projects, including one on celiac-safe wheat. Applications for the next round of funding are due Nov. 30.

To view the Wheat Action Plan,go here.