What Happens When The Breadbasket Runs Dry?

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The Washington Post reports on a disturbing trend. America's farmers are significantly reducing the amount of wheat they are planting and turning to more lucrative crops (yes, we seem to be on a farm trend this evening).

"Wheat was king once," said David Braaten, whose Norwegian immigrant grandparents built their Kindred, N.D., farm around wheat a century ago. "Now I just don't want to grow it. It's not a consistent crop."

In the 1980s, more than half the farm's acres were wheat. This year only one in 10 will be, and 40 percent will go to soybeans. Braaten and other farmers are considering investing in a $180 million plant to turn the beans into animal feed and cooking oil, both now in strong demand in China. And to stress his hopes for ethanol, his business card shows a sketch of a fuel pump.

Across the Red River and farther north, in Euclid, Minn., Don Strickler, 63, describes wheat as "a necessary evil." Most years, he explained, farmers lose money on it. Still, it provides conservation benefits and can block diseases in soybeans and sugar beets when rotated with those crops.

Wheat's fall from favor, little noticed when it was cheap, has been long coming. Though still an iconic symbol of American abundance — engraved on currency and praised in song — the nation's amber waves of wheat have been increasingly shoved aside by other crops. The "breadbasket of the world," which had alleviated hunger and famine since World War I, now generally supplies only a quarter of world wheat exports.

U.S. farmers are expected to plant about 64 million acres of wheat this year, down from a high of 88 million in 1981. In Kansas, wheat acreage has declined by a third since the mid-1980s, and nationwide, there is now less wheat in grain bins than at any time since World War II — only about enough to supply the world for four days. This occurs as developing countries with some of the poorest populations are rapidly increasing their wheat imports.

Adding to the problem: seed companies have turned away from improving wheat, concentrating on corn and soybeans. Crop yields are stagnant for wheat. Fewer and fewer acres under cultivation for wheat mean the supply is dropping. Bottom line: prices are not going to fall any time soon, if ever. So says the USDA.

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3 Responses to What Happens When The Breadbasket Runs Dry?

  1. Woodsprite says:

    Wheat’s bonus is that it can be grown on fairly marginal land in drout like conditions.  If soil (and water) conditions permit, it would be bad business for a farmer to keep growing wheat when they could be growing more profitable crops.  If wheat prices increase enough to be profitable due to decreased supply, farmers will start growing it again.   

  2. Sam says:

    You have to admit that "breadbasket of the world" sounds catchier than "corn husk of the world" or "bean pod of the world", but if farmers make more money on corn or soy beans then more power to them.  I don’t subscribe to the notion that farmers have to take a vow of poverty when they start farming.  They should be able to get a good price for what they grow.  Maybe if crop prices continue to stay high we can finally drive a stake into the heart of the US farm subsidy program.  (I always like to look on the bright side.)

  3. David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the – <a href="http://thunderrun.blogspot.com/2008/05/web-reconnaissance-for-05012008.html"> Web Reconnaissance for 05/01/2008 </a> A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day…so check back often.

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