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Big money in corn
Then there are corn prices. Corn acreage nationally has accelerated in the past seven years as corn prices have risen sharply, the result of greater demand by the U.S. biofuel industry and rapidly developing foreign countries. Soybean prices have largely tracked corn.
“We have a huge advantage in corn, a huge advantage in soybeans, so we’re going to switch over from wheat,” said Paul Aasness, who’s farmed for more than 50 years near Fergus Falls.
He’s semiretired but still tends 450 acres, and this year was his first without wheat. His youngest son, who farms 3,000 acres, had long asked him why he even bothered with it.
Aasness and other farmers note that wheat is falling behind partly because of a relative lack of research. Aasness said the University of Minnesota and other public universities have done a “yeoman’s job” in wheat research, but seed and breeding companies’ research is focused on GMO crops.
There’s a financial incentive behind that. Farmers must buy GMO corn and GMO soybean seeds every year; they can’t just use seed from last year’s crop, as they can with wheat.
“That has enabled the private companies to put a lot of dollars into research,” Aasness said.
Indeed, the North American Millers’ Association, which represents wheat and corn millers, estimates that annual spending on corn breeding outpaces that on wheat breeding 10-to-1.
Still, some private research money is going to wheat, including from GMO giant Monsanto, known for its ubiquitous Roundup Ready herbicide and seed technology. The St. Louis-based company tested Roundup Ready wheat in several states during the late 1990s and the first half of the 2000s, but pulled the plug in 2005 because of opposition from big grain buyers.
Monsanto waded back into wheat in 2009 with the purchase of a Montana-based wheat seed firm. Last fall, Monsanto and NDSU announced a partnership to better their respective wheat breeding programs.
Improving wheat genetics is on tap, including breeding more drought-resistant wheat and wheat that uses nitrogen — a key nutrient — more efficiently, said NDSU’s Olson. “We are starting to talk about GM wheat — but not with Roundup,” he said.
A long tradition
Jay Nord’s family has been farming in the Red River Valley since 1887. His great-grandfather ran a “bonanza farm,” a large tract that used the newest technology to grow wheat for booming Midwest flour mills.
Corn long ago displaced wheat as Minnesota’s top crop, but wheat was still No. 1 in the valley until relatively recently.
Wheat and barley made up half of the Nord family farm’s acreage in the mid-1990s. Nowadays, barley is gone and wheat comprises only about 15 percent of the 4,300 acres Jay and his brother Carl Nord farm in Wilkin County. Soybeans, Minnesota’s No. 2 crop since the late 1970s, accounts for half of their production; corn, 35 percent.
Their experience is mirrored in the valley: For six counties abutting the Red River, wheat acreage in 2012 was 50 percent less than in 1992, and soybeans had displaced wheat as the biggest crop, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. Soybean acreage has quadrupled since 1992, and corn acres have more than tripled in just the last 10 years. “There’s corn all the way up to the [Canadian] border,” Jay Nord said, “on both sides of the river.”
Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003