Kansas was given the nickname “Wheat State” for good reason. The state’s wheat history goes back to 1839, which pre-dates their 1861 Statehood. For decades Kansas led the nation in annual wheat production.
But even with a projected 2016 harvest of 393.6 million bushels of wheat, Kansas wheat acres — like wheat acres in every other U.S. state — are on a downward trend.
John Thaemert, former National Association of Wheat Growers president, says low wheat prices and tight agricultural profit margins are pushing farmers toward greater corn and soybean production. While some farmers grow small amounts of wheat, it’s no longer a dominant Kansas crop.
“The invisible hand of capitalism works well,” Thaemert said. “Money goes where it’s treated best. Because of the current low wheat prices and lower returns per acre, demand for wheat acres isn’t as strong as it used to be. Record high global wheat supply has also put pressure on wheat prices.”
While the cycle of supply and demand is likely to paint a better face on U.S. wheat production in the future, it’s not likely that demand for corn acres will give wheat much chance for a significant comeback in the near future.
“Corn hybrids have been genetically enhanced over the last 20 years so corn production is much more efficient now, producing more bushels per acre and bringing farmers increased revenue per acre,” Thaemert said. “I’d like to think that if wheat varieties were genetically modified and those GMO varieties were accepted worldwide, wheat production would probably be more profitable.”
Foreign wheat markets, which are key to U.S. wheat sales, are not currently open to GMO crops. Thaemert noted that U.S. farmers must respect that stance on GMO foods, even though the 20-year U.S. history of using genetically modified corn and soybeans has not posed any problem.
“If a GMO wheat trait for celiac disease or gluten intolerance was available, that might result in broader consumer acceptance of a GMO wheat variety,” Thaemert said. “Our wheat market would also benefit from development of uses for wheat other than human consumption. Currently, some wheat is used in livestock feed, but human consumption has always been the primary market for wheat.”
Over time, development of industrial uses for corn and soybeans — such as ethanol, oil, sweeteners and plastic products — have helped stabilize corn prices and absorb annual corn supplies. Researchers are working on potential uses for wheat outside the food industry, but there are no current products that significantly impact wheat supplies.
“If researchers don’t identify industrial uses for wheat and there’s no development of GMO wheat varieties, I would expect wheat production to continue to decline,” Thaemert says. “Some farmers use wheat to add diversity to their crop rotation, but it’s used more as a cleanup for weeds and an aid for breaking up pest and disease cycles. Farmers who once raised wheat as a primary crop have greatly scaled back their wheat acres.”
Gluten intolerance trends are currently having a negative impact on wheat sales and prices, too. That trend is likely to impact wheat production well into the future.
“It may be a fad,” Thaemert said. “I believe bread is still a good food. It’s been the staff of life for thousands of years. I expect wheat will always be a staple in the world diet, like rice is a staple in the diets of people in Asia. But the profit for wheat acres will have to increase to cause farmers to give it more acres in their rotation.”
Oats was once a major U.S. crop when it was a major equine feed and captured a significant segment of the edible grain market. On today’s farms, oats rarely finds a place in crop rotation plans.
“There is ongoing research in both the public and private sector to increase wheat yield and improve consumption traits,” Thaemert said. “However, there’s very little research being done in the way of genetic enhancements for wheat. I believe it would take that type of change in wheat varieties to really put wheat in the game again.
“Wheat is the staff of life and an important part of the global diet,” he added. “I believe that will continue, but wheat production trends will depend on how profitable it is for producers.”