U.S. wheat plant­ing falls amid glut to 98-year low

Profit these days is in chick­peas and lentils, farm­ers say.

Austin American-Statesman - - BUSINESS - By David Pitt

An odd thing has hap­pened in wheat coun­try a lot of farm­ers aren’t plant­ing wheat.

Thanks to a global grain glut that has caused prices and prof­its to plunge, farm­ers planted the fewest acres of wheat this year since the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture be­gan keep­ing records nearly a cen­tury ago.

In­stead of plant­ing the crop that gave the wheat belt its iden­tity, many farm­ers are opt­ing for crops that might be less iconic but are sud­denly in de­mand, such as chick­peas and lentils, used in hum­mus and healthy snacks.

“Peo­ple have gone crazy with chick­peas. It’s un­be­liev­able how many acres there are,” said Kirk Hansen, who farms 350 acres south of Spokane, Wash., where wheat’s reign as the king crop has been chal­lenged.

Amer­i­can farm­ers still plant wheat over a vast land­scape that stretches from the south­ern Plains of Ok­la­homa and Texas north through Kansas, Ne­braska and the Dako­tas as well as dry re­gions of Wash­ing­ton and Ore­gon. But this year’s crop of 45.7 mil­lion acres is the small­est since 1919.

Har­vested wheat acres are down 15 per­cent in North Dakota, 11 per­cent in Mon­tana and 23 per­cent in Ne­braska.

Fewer farm­ers planted wheat after a 2016 crop that was the least prof­itable in at least 30 years, said grain mar­ket analyst Todd Hult­man, of Ne­braska-based agri­cul­ture mar­ket data provider DTN.

Many farm­ers took no­tice of a surg­ing de­mand for crops driven by con­sumer pur­chases of healthy high-pro­tein food.

“The world wants more pro­tein and wheat is not the high-pro­tein choice and so that’s where your use of those other things come into play and are do­ing bet­ter,” Hult­man said. “Up north around North Dakota you will see more al­ter­na­tive things like sun­flow­ers, lentils and chick­peas.”

How long the new trend will con­tinue is un­known. While some farm­ers will likely switch back to wheat when prof­itabil­ity re­turns, oth­ers may keep plant­ing the al­ter­na­tives be­cause de­mand is ex­pected to re­main strong, keep­ing prices at at­trac­tive lev­els.

Ac­cord­ing to the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture, acres planted in chick­peas, also known as gar­banzo beans, are at 603,000 this year, up nearly 86 per­cent from last year.

The USDA says lentils reached a U.S. record high 1.02 mil­lion acres planted this year.

A farmer in south­west North Dakota, for ex­am­ple, could ex­pect to earn $105 an acre on small chick­peas and around $89 an acre plant­ing lentils this year, ac­cord­ing to data com­piled by North Dakota State Univer­sity. The same farmer would lose $21 an acre on win­ter wheat and $4 an acre on spring wheat.

Wheat prof­itabil­ity has fallen pre­cip­i­tously.

In Illi­nois, wheat fell from more than $7.13 a bushel in 2012 to $4.30 this year, while for the same pe­riod land costs rose 10 per­cent.

USA DRY PEA & LEN­TIL COUN­CIL 2005 / AP

Wash­ing­ton state farmer Roy Kopf har­vests chick­peas east of Pull­man. U.S. farm­ers planted 86 per­cent more chick­peas this year than last, and scaled back wheat plant­ing to its low­est level in nearly a cen­tury.

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