The forecasts for wheat production this year haven’t been great in the Cornhusker State, where a late harvest is finally rolling around and farmers are expecting their smallest production numbers in 70 years.
Caroline Brauer — a Nebraska native who’s been with the Nebraska Wheat Growers Association for five years — took time this week to discuss with The Fence Post this year’s meager crop, as well as Nebraska’s recent plunge in wheat acres and what’s needed to revive the wheat industry in her state.
Below are portions of that conversation:
Q. The outlook for wheat hasn’t been great this year in Nebraska. How is it looking now, with harvest approaching?
A. Production this year as a whole is down.
Reports from the Department of Agriculture and conversations with our farmers indicate this could be our smallest bushel production since the mid 1940s.
We’re attributing the majority of that to drought.
We didn’t get a whole lot of rain in the fall during planting, and that affected emergence.
In some farmers’ fields, there wasn’t any emergence at all.
In some fields it was spotty, in some fields it was late.
Then we had a pretty dry winter across the parts of the state, and by the time we finally got some moisture, it was too little, too late. Some wheat didn’t have enough growth to handle the extremes.
Then we had late freezes in the spring. Wheat took another hit.
Across the state harvest is behind, ranging from a week to two weeks behind in some areas.
It’s a very late harvest compared to last year, when we had a mild winter, a warm spring and then an extremely early harvest.
Last year, we were done by the Fourth of July.
This year, are we even going to have any combines rolling going into the holiday?
Q. An early harvest last year, more drought, then a late harvest this year. Are these extreme conditions something new to Nebraska wheat growers, and are they taking a toll on farmers?
A. Farmers like to say that wheat is a crop that has nine lives. It’s good at bouncing back.
We see so much of it raised in western Nebraska because its not as water-intensive as corn or soybeans. It’s traditionally handled the limited precipitation in the western part of the state.
In the last two or three years, though, we’ve really pushed the extremes, as we’re seeing that now, with production expected to be low.
Q. Aside from weather, what are the other challenges facing Nebraska’s wheat growers?
A. Our wheat farmers’ biggest issue is the competition from corn and soybeans, and the biotech varieties of those crops that better and better withstand drought and have the larger yields. And with high market prices for those commodities, you’re seeing increased competition for acres.
From 2007 until now, wheat production acres in Nebraska have almost halved.
In 2007, we planted over 2 million acres of wheat.
This year, we planted about 1.4 million acres.
It’s hard for a farmer to say, “I’ll grow wheat and get yields of 50-55 bushels per acre in a good year,” when he could plant corn that yields 100-plus.
The other challenges for wheat growers are similar for all of ag.
How do we do more with less?
How do we raise more wheat with good end-use qualities?
The majority of the wheat that we grow is a food grain — going into breads, cereal and other products that humans more directly consume. It’s not a feed grain.
How can we produce such a crop that can also withstand continued weather extremes?
It’s not only used for food here in the U.S. — wheat is one of the top three grain commodities around the world.
How do we meet that global demand, and how do we do it on fewer acres and with less water?
Going into the future, water is going to be an incredibly important commodity.
Q. What’s the solution to these challenges?
A. More and more, we’re hearing that biotechnology is the answer, to meet demand, and to keep wheat production acres from falling further in Nebraska.
The attitudes of farmers has really opened up in the last five to 10 years toward biotechnology. They’re realizing more and more that it’s a tool that will allow them to raise a safe, consistent food supply.
It’s needed to meet and solve some of these dilemmas — to raise wheat and food that can withstand weather extremes and also diseases.
Q. There’s a lot of consumer concerns when it comes to biotechnology and food production. Is communication between consumers and the agriculture industry only going to become more important when it comes to issues like this?
A. Communication is going to be a huge part of it.
There’s a huge divide that exists today between farmers and consumers. In most cases, at a minimum you see young people now that are two generations removed from the farm — three to four generations even.
That’s been a growing trend for a while, and then all of the sudden, the disconnected consumer wants to know where their food is raise, how it’s raised, and by who.
There’s certainly a need for education for the consumer, to show them what biotech is, tell them that this is how we’ll raise our crop, and here’s proof that these varieties are safe.
Through our organization and farmers meeting with foreign trade delegations and consumers, we’re trying to let them know that we’re not just raising this wheat to feed the U.S. and the world, we’re feeding it to our families, as well.
We’re not going to hurt our own families.
The entire goal is to raise something that’s safe and will help everyone. ❖