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Fewer winter wheat acres may be part of U.S. cycle
Tennessee Correspondent

RIPLEY, Tenn. — For Tennessee, the state’s economy isn’t heavily dependent on winter wheat harvests – fortunate, considering how production has seemingly slipped for the past few years.

“It’s not a really significant market-maker,” explained Samuel “Chuck” Danehower, University of Tennessee extension area farm management specialist from Lauderdale County. “We don’t have someone who just says, ‘I’m a wheat farmer.’ Wheat’s just part of their operation.”

Making up less than 2 percent of the state’s agricultural economy in 2003, wheat in Tennessee is concentrated mostly in the western third of the state, with some midstate counties also producing.

To review data for the past several years, one might think winter wheat production is falling in Tennessee and Farm World’s coverage area – and nationally – but the truth is, it may simply be part of a cycle.

Basic production
The news from the Tennessee Agricultural Statistics Service in June was the 2005 winter wheat harvest would be down 41 percent from last year. In reality, it fell just under 31 percent, from 13.7 million bushels to 9.5 million.

Except for 1991, this was the first year statewide production has dropped below 10 million bushels in two decades. Danehower explained much of the problem was frequent rain last fall during the October-November planting season, preventing seeding.

“I think the mid-South as a whole was down on their acres,” he speculated.

Kentucky fared better, with a yield of 20.4 million bushels, which was down slightly from 2004 production. Then again, not only did the state produce nearly twice as many acres of winter wheat as Tennessee – 300,000 compared to 170,000 – its 68 bushels-per-acre yield was higher than Tennessee’s 56 bushels per acre.

Indeed, except for Iowa (at 15,000), Tennessee had the fewest harvested acres of winter wheat in Farm World’s seven-state area in 2005, as well as the second lowest bushels per acre yield. Here’s how the other states stack up:

•Indiana: 340,000 harvested acres, with a yield of 72 bushels per acre
•Illinois: 600,000 acres, yielding 61 bushels per acre
•Ohio: 830,000 acres, yielding 71 bushels per acre
•Iowa: 15,000 acres, yielding 50 bushels per acre
•Michigan: 640,000 acres, yielding 66 bushels per acre

Except for Michigan, each state’s harvested acreage was down considerably from 2004. Despite a higher per-acre yield over last year, total bushels were down sharply in Illinois as well as in Tennessee; both yield and production in Iowa were noticeably lower this year. Ohio was the only state to actually increase its production over 2004, from 55.2 million bushels to 58.9 million, thanks to a sharp increase in per-acre yield.

National winter wheat production was up slightly from last year’s numbers, just shy of 1.5 billion bushels, to 1.52 billion in 2005. The Farm World states produce only winter wheat varieties, according to USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service data (from which the numbers for this article have been taken).

Historical production
Nationally, the acres planted and harvested with winter wheat varieties are down from 20 years ago, by about 28 percent. This has not been a steady decrease, since there were upward spikes and sharp drops for a few of the years in between.

Despite fewer overall acres, however, total production has held surprisingly steady for the United States during that period of time. In 1986, farmers produced more than 1.519 billion bushels of winter wheat; compare this to a little more than 1.52 billion in 2005. In between, there have been “feast” years (2.023 billion bushels in 1990) and … well, perhaps not “famine” years, but certainly producing less than 1986 (such as 1.141 billion bushels just three years ago).

“It was as if even though we were dropping in acres, the yields were really good,” explained Delton Gerloff, extension agricultural economist at UT-Knoxville.

Per-acre yields have gotten better nationally for winter wheat, breaking 40 bushels per acre in 1990 and dipping below that only five times since. Though 50 bushels per acre seems elusive nationwide, each of Farm World’s states have pushed past it during the last 10 years, if not before 1996.

In fact, only Tennessee has not reached 60 bushels per acre, whereas Indiana, Ohio and Michigan can all boast producing 70 bushels per acre or more in at least one year each during the past decade.

Published in the November 9, 2005 issue of Farm World.