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Going on the attack: Wheat growers tackle acreage losses

Enough is enough, says the National Association of Wheat Growers, which is working on a new plan to combat the long decline in U.S. wheat acreage. "Wheat is in trouble." says Brett Blankenship, a wheat farmer from Washtucna, Wash., and president ...

Enough is enough, says the National Association of Wheat Growers, which is working on a new plan to combat the long decline in U.S. wheat acreage.

"Wheat is in trouble." says Brett Blankenship, a wheat farmer from Washtucna, Wash., and president of the National Association of Wheat Growers. "There's been a  20-year decline in productivity and profitability.

"Effort No. 1 is to reverse that troubling trend" and improve wheat acres, yields, profitability and competitiveness, he says.

Details of the effort, known as the "Wheat Action Plan," are still being worked out. But it will enlist all sectors of the wheat industry, beginning with "tech provider companies," he says.

He expects farmers will be surveyed this winter, with the plan formulated in about a year. Once ready, the plan will be implemented over six months and monitored for several years.

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"It took us 20 to 25 years to get here (the big loss of wheat acres)," he says. "We believe the turnaround will take much less time."

He says, "Preliminary studies show a 20 to 25 percent in (wheat) yields will stop the erosion in wheat acres and make wheat competitive in areas where you wouldn't automatically plant corn or soybeans. The good news is, 20 percent is probably achievable with the tools we already have: better management of inputs, better genetic choice with seed, more intensive management."

Even greater yield increases are possible when more and better technology becomes available to wheat farmers -- something the plan will promote, Blankenship says.

The National Association of Wheat Growers began discussing a battle-back plan last winter, eventually deciding to go beyond the association "and include all aspects of the industry to unify the effort to try to reinvigorate wheat," he says.

The association wants the entire industry, including tech companies, state wheat groups, private and public researchers and exporters, to be part of the effort.


Losing ground

While there are ebbs and flows from year to year, planted wheat acreage has declined steadily over the past two decades, with corn and soybeans benefitting at wheat's expense.

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U.S. wheat acreage has dropped from 69 million in 1995 to 55 million in 2015. In the same 20-year period, U.S. planted corn acreage has risen from 79 million to 88 million and U.S. planted soybean acreage from 62 million to 83 million.

Much of the switch from wheat to corn and beans has come in the Upper Midwest, including parts of North Dakota, South Dakota and northwest Minnesota.

Corn and soybeans have enjoyed far more technological gains than wheat in the past 20 years, allowing average corn and soybean yields to rise faster than average wheat yields, Blankenship says.

"The technology train left the station without wheat," he says. "Corn and soy have gone on a successful trajectory and wheat has been flat on its yields and returns to growers."

The greater popularity of corn and soybeans isn't the only reason U.S. farmers are planting less wheat.

Some Oklahoma farmers, for instance, are diversifying by planting more winter canola and less winter wheat, historically their dominant crop. And some Montana farmers are planting more pulse crops and less wheat, which has long been their primary crop.

Blankenship says the "concept of different cropping systems will all be part of (the plan)." And a similar emphasis will be placed on double-cropping wheat and soybeans.

The association is trying "to cast a wide net" to make the plan applicable for the different types of wheat and areas of the wheat in which the crop is grown. "Wheat is very diverse," Blankenship says.

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No time to delay

Efforts to revitalize can't be delayed, Blankenship says.

The wheat industry pays for research though state commissions that oversee checkoff programs. When production falls, there's less money to invest in research, he says.

"We're trying to overcome this challenge while we still have the infrastructure to succeed," he says. "If we wait too much longer, then we may find ourselves going the way of oats. You become a minor crop."

Wheat remains a top crop worldwide, and "we want to restore its prominence in the United States and become a cornerstone of our food security system," Blankenship says.

The entire wheat industry will benefit from increased wheat acres and profitability, he says.

"Wheat should be a good fit for many, many growers, especially with the increase in productivity we seek," he says. "This will ripple through the wheat industry."

Related Topics: WHEATAGRICULTURE
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