U.S. wheat planting falls amid glut to 98-year low
Profit these days is in chickpeas and lentils, farmers say.
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.
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.