WASHINGTON, Feb. 4, 2015 – American wheat farmers are preparing to launch new initiatives to enhance wheat quality, production and their markets as well as pump up the political muscle needed for their efforts.

Why? Wheat needs a ton of help to continue as a leading U.S. field crop. For decades, the vastly improved genetics and soaring yields of corn and soybeans have pushed those crops across millions of traditional wheat acres. So despite modest increases in the U.S. average wheat yield -- up 20 percent in the past 20 years -- production has plunged by over 20 percent in the same period as acreage dropped by 30 percent.

“When you look at the acreage . . . corn and soybeans have been going straight up and wheat has been going straight down,” says Dusty Tallman, a Colorado grower and head of the National Wheat Foundation, which sponsored a raft of recent studies all related to getting wheat flourishing in more U.S. fields and served on more U.S. and foreign tables.

What’s more, while Americans are planting fewer acres of wheat, other big producers – especially the European Union, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine -- are ramping up output and driving up export market competition. Americans, meanwhile, are eating less wheat, in large part because of rising dietary fears about gluten, a wheat protein. One of the NWF’s studies, by World Perspectives Inc., says the gluten-free fad is not only depressing wheat sales, but “has sparked consumer interest in alternatives...including amaranth, buckwheat, chia, quinoa, sorghum, millet, flax, rye, spelt and teff, plus pulses such as pea flour.”

So, wheat industry advocates who want increased research, such as for resistance to scab, and advances in wheat nutrition, weighed potential initiatives to advance their commodity at the industry’s winter conference in Washington, D.C., last week.

“We’re just looking broadly now” at how the wheat groups can boost support from government, industry and growers to address needs for research, nutrition education and market development, says Bing Von Bergen, a Montana farmers who chairs the National Association of Wheat Growers’ planning committee. But he and others at the conference said growers will probably start calling for growth-focused initiatives when they meet at the Commodity Classic in late February.

In 22 states, farmers and lawmakers have set up wheat checkoffs. Assessments on wheat sales vary from 15 cents to 20 cents a bushel in most participating states to as low as 1 cent a bushel in others. Still, though 19 states, for example, kick in $5 million a year to support USW, the costs of those export programs keep rising. So growers are already mulling a detailed NWF study, done by Texas A&M analysts, of multiple ways to set up a national checkoff and the range of revenues it would generate. A penny-a-bushel fee, for instance, would add $20 million a year, to wheat checkoff purses, based on harvests of 2.1 billion bushels or so. By comparison, the national soybean checkoff raises up to $105 million annually; by itself, Iowa’s corn checkoff raises $13 million.

Is a nationwide wheat checkoff in the works? Grower groups aren’t proposing it yet, but U.S. Wheat Associates, the growers’ foreign marketing entity, asked its staff to “develop detailed proposals, including a national wheat check-off,” and other ways to ensure robust foreign sales. Prompting that action: Congress has whacked more than $2 million from USDA’s annual support of U.S. Wheat’s export programs in recent years. So, USW spokesman Steve Mercer says U.S. growers must up their ante against the mounting competition for exports. He notes that USW, in its role as an impartial agent in market development, does not raise money from grain industry sources. To retain credibility with U.S. grain customers abroad, he says, “we want to be independent. That’s why we’ve not taken money from the industry.”

In Washington, meanwhile, the growers’ lobbyist group, the National Association of Wheat Growers, is recruiting lawmakers to form a wheat caucus of Senate and House members from wheat growing states to enhance their muscle on Capitol Hill.

Legislation affecting wheat ends up on many committees, so wheat growers want a network of lawmakers to connect on their issues. Gordon Stoner, a Montana grower, notes that no Montanan sits on either the Senate or House agriculture committee, and a wheat caucus would give the Montana delegation a way to influence congressional action affecting wheat.


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