Much of the Midwest and the Plains have been battling drought for years. And the current winter wheat crop looks like it will be one of the worst in recent memory, stressing farmers in the heart of the Wheat Belt – from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska.
In Nebraska, a full quarter of the winter wheat crop is rated poor to very poor, and Nebraska farmers are doing comparatively well. More than 40 percent of the wheat acres in Colorado are poor or worse; nearly 60 percent in Kansas and Texas; and an incredible 80 percent in Oklahoma.
Federal regulators Tuesday gave the final go-ahead for two of the country’s largest flour milling companies to merge.
Food giants ConAgra and Cargill said last year they wanted to put their flour mills under one roof in a new company called Ardent Mills. But a chorus of antitrust watchdogs said the deal would further consolidate an already concentrated industry.
The world is growing a lot more wheat, and that’s having an effect on the prices farmers get for their crop in Kansas and other states in America’s wheat belt.
Bumper wheat crops in Canada, Russia and Australia will likely make this year’s haul the largest harvest on record. With all that wheat flooding the market, prices are declining.
“It’s hard not to pay attention when the price is dropping," says Darrell Hanavan, director of the Colorado Wheat Growers Association. He says farmers can expect prices to dip even further, barring a drought on the other side of the globe.
In parts of Kansas, forecasts of biting cold temperatures with lows five or ten degrees below zero has farmers worried about the wheat crop that’s in the ground.
Hard red winter wheat is the most common wheat variety grown in the United States. It’s often used to make bread. Planted in the fall, it lays dormant underground in the winter months. It’s hardy. But bitter cold temperatures for a few consecutive days can lower the temperature of the soil to dangerous levels.
Fall is planting time for wheat across the Great Plains and this year’s crop went into the ground while big changes were underway in the wheat market. Some of the biggest players in the flour milling industry are joining forces to make the country’s largest miller even larger.
Farmers work at the mercy of three big forces that are largely outside their control, the weather, the markets, and the government.
In many parts of the country the first two are doing pretty well these days, but government remains the wild card. Congress can’t seem to pass the farm bill, a huge package of legislation setting food policy for years to come.
Many farmers say they would like to grow genetically engineered wheat to help them feed a hungry world, but it’s not what everyone’s hungry for. And now, with the mysterious appearance of Roundup Ready wheat in a farmer’s field in Oregon a few weeks ago, consumer resistance may grow even stronger.
Most of the corn and soybeans grown in the United States are genetically modified, but GMO wheat has never been approved for farming.