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.
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.”