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Tennessee wheat seeding up; still in 10-year decline
Tennessee Correspondent

TRENTON, Tenn. – Winter wheat seeding may be up over last year in Tennessee, but it’s still far below the number of sown acres of a decade ago.

“With $3 (per bushel) wheat, especially if you’re renting ground, you’re just spinning your wheels,” said Robert Williams of the philosophy of most farmers he knows about planting.

Williams, a University of Tennessee extension area specialist in grain crops, helps conduct county seed trials for wheat, corn and soybeans in his part of the state. He said most of the state’s food wheat crop is grown in its northwestern section, and much of what is grown in middle Tennessee is for straw. Eastern Tennessee, like the same region in Kentucky, is too rocky for many row crops.

In fall 2004, Tennessee growers planted only 240,000 acres of soft red winter wheat, compared to 400,000 in 2003, according to USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). This was a sharper annual decrease than in previous years, but it had good reason: It was simply too wet to plant at the proper time.

Another ongoing problem is stripe rust, a fungus whose spores, Scott VanSickle said, primarily blow from the south. Though states such as Illinois are not exempt from the fungus, Tennessee bears more brunt for its location.

VanSickle is research director for Wheat-Tech, an independent agricultural consultant based in Russellville, Ky. Fortunately, he explained, one can spray for stripe rust in its early stages and it is more easily stopped than head scab. It also infects seed varieties differently; finding out which ones and deciding if those are compatible with a particular farm is part of his job.

“There are a lot of folks in this industry who’re going to sell something to you,” VanSickle said. Wheat-Tech works on individual contract with growers and manufacturers, but said his researchers recommend seed and chemicals based on the needs of farmer clients, not to sell particular products.

Look at a map. Kentucky and Tennessee aren’t so different in layout and topography – where part of one state is rocky, so is the other, and likewise with flatter land.

VanSickle said the variances come in soil type, rainfall and climate, slight though they may be, wheat is sensitive to all these. It may be no surprise that Tennessee has trailed Kentucky in planted and harvested acres for several years.

Attitude plays a role, too. “It’s still a ‘stepchild’ crop, wherever you go,” he said, in Tennessee and other Farm World states (with the exception of Michigan, which has held fairly steady on planted acres while increasing its yield for many years). Of those seven states, only Iowa produces fewer wheat acres than Tennessee.

Williams said some farmers who rent land grow wheat as a winter cash crop at their landlords’ behest. “Guys weren’t wild about wheat, anyway,” he explained of decreased planting in 2004. “They were doing it to keep the landowners happy.”

In other states, wheat has to compete with corn and soybeans because of their higher profitability. In Tennessee, there’s a variety of cash crops – or used to be. Once upon a time, when tobacco and cotton plants were more plentiful and profitable, wheat was planted as their cover.

As acres for both have decreased – tobacco sharply – it stands to reason there is less for wheat to cover.

Numbers edging up
Wheat may be the foundation of civilization, but it has more competition than it did 10,000 years ago.

U.S. farmers are hardly world leaders in production, at only 9 percent – the aggregate of European Union countries produce twice as much, with not many more acres. Numbers, however, are encouraging for the United States.

Three weeks ago, NASS released wheat seeding statistics for autumn 2005.

Tennessee is still 25 percent below what farmers seeded in 2003, but its 300,000 acres is still an encouraging lead over the anemic 2004 season.

Other Farm World states are also recovering from last year. Illinois, Indiana and Ohio all show increases of 15 percent or more; each of the three, in fact, is at its second-highest number of planted acres in six years.

It remains to be seen if Kentucky and Tennessee will improve their number of acres in the next several years, since part of the attraction of higher yields is sowing less land to get the same number of bushels. Too, though market prices are creeping back up over a few years ago, they are not yet at the level to induce mass planting.

Between decreased price supports since 1996, less farmland and silo storage, higher yields and competition from the likes of corn and soybeans, wheat may seem less important these days. But, with rising costs of nitrogen for corn and the soil-health benefits of using it in crop rotation, perhaps it will become viable again.

“I think wheat is still one of the best crops for a farmer to grow,” opined Philip Needham of Opti-Crop in Owensboro, Ky.

(This is the ninth – and final – in a series of articles about winter wheat production.)

This farm news was published in the February 1, 2006 issue of Farm World.