Once the foundation of the Minnesota economy, wheat has been surpassed by other crops that are easier to grow and more profitable.
WOLVERTON, Minn. – Jay Nord surveyed his wheat field from the seat of a combine as he mowed down this year’s crop.
The impressive machine is a new Case IH with 60 percent more horsepower than his old combine and the ability to harvest one-third more grain with each pass.
Of course, if he grew only wheat, he wouldn’t be driving it.
The big money to reinvest in new equipment for Nord’s Red River Valley farm comes from his soybean and cornfields. Wheat makes up a shrinking percentage of his production — and it’s a similar story at farms throughout the state.
Once the lifeblood of Minneapolis, the nation’s onetime flour milling capital, wheat’s presence has been fading. Minnesota’s wheat acreage in 2012 was 60 percent less than it was during the grain’s heyday in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“King wheat,” as it was known in Minnesota long ago, simply isn’t as good an investment as corn and soybeans. Prices for those crops have been robust in recent years. Both are easier to grow than wheat, partly because of genetic engineering, and they tend to bring better yields.
“When I was in high school, wheat was a big deal,” said Nord, 55. He recalls hoping for early August harvests: “We wanted to get it out of the way before football practice started.”
While there’s still plenty of wheat worldwide, the decline in traditional growing regions has repercussions for the supply chain.
Wheat flour millers may find themselves farther from the source of their grain, upping transportation costs. The decline of wheat acreage in Minnesota and North Dakota has also hurt the port of Duluth-Superior, where wheat was historically the main agricultural export.
The Upper Midwest and Montana are the nation’s hub for hard red spring wheat, known for high quality and high protein content. It’s a mainstay in bread. North Dakota is No. 1 in U.S. hard red spring production; Minnesota ranks third, with acreage concentrated in the state’s northwest.
But the decline in wheat acreage in the Red River Valley — and in the United States generally — roughly parallels the rise of genetically modified soybeans and corn, which were commercialized in the mid- to late 1990s. Even before that, corn yields had been growing faster than those of other main grains as seed companies invested loads of money into new corn hybrids.
With the advent of the GMO technology, or “genetically modified organism,” the corn borer and rootworm became easier to fight. Weed killing in soybean and cornfields became simpler — saving labor and production costs, many farmers say. And corn, courtesy of seed technology advances, is hardier these days in northern climates.
Nord, who is president of the Minnesota Wheat Growers Association, said that since he started planting corn 15 years ago, his corn yield — as measured in bushels per acre — has increased about 30 percent, while his wheat yield has risen only 5 percent. “That’s why we need GMO in wheat.”
But GMO technology has been forbidden so far for commercial use in wheat. While many farmers want GMO to make wheat a more competitive crop, opposition remains fierce.
This spring’s discovery of a rogue patch of GMO wheat in Oregon offers a prime example. None of it got into the food supply. But the discovery sent wheat markets into a tizzy, with Japan and South Korea announcing they would temporarily halt purchases of a strain of wheat known as soft white.
GMO corn is in everything from breakfast cereal to salty snacks. GMO soybean oil is a staple in salad dressings and mayonnaise. To GMO detractors, they’re “Frankenfood.” To most consumers, they’re processed foods. But wheat is often seen differently. It’s bread, the staff of life.
“The connection between the field and consumption is much shorter and very direct,” said Frayne Olson, crop economist and marketing specialist at North Dakota State University.