Spring wheat is making a bit of a comeback in Minnesota.
Farmers in the state planted and harvested just over 1.6 million acres of hard red wheat in 2018, a 40 percent increase over 2017 and the largest spring wheat crop since 2008.
Most wheat in Minnesota is north of a line between Fargo and Park Rapids, but farmers farther south are getting more interested in wheat, said Jochum Wiersma, a University of Minnesota extension professor in Crookston. He expects the acreage of hard red wheat to grow again in 2019.
“Probably not 40 percent, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” Wiersma said. “Farmers have been calling me with questions about wheat production that haven’t had wheat for a couple of years or a decade or more.”
Once the lifeblood of Minneapolis, the nation’s former flour milling capital, wheat’s presence had faded in recent years. “King wheat” was increasingly crowded out as corn and soybean prices boomed in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
But thanks to improved seed and favorable weather, wheat farmers have gotten better yields in recent years and enjoyed a bumper crop in 2017. Meanwhile, prices for corn and soybeans were low, prompting more to switch to the small grain that covered more than 3 million acres in Minnesota in the early 1980s.
Planting wheat, which is harvested earlier in the season than corn and soybeans, helps farmers spread out their workload. Prices for corn and soybeans remain low ahead of 2019 planting. Farmers also are holding on to large stockpiles of soybeans waiting for prices to rise while the trade war with China, the largest buyer of U.S.-grown soybeans by far, continues.
“The futures markets, with some of the things going on in the soybean and corn market, don’t look good,” Wiersma said. “People are looking for alternatives, and wheat looks competitive.”
Still, corn and soybeans remain the dominant crops in Minnesota — with nearly 8 million acres of each planted in 2018. The 40 percent increase in wheat planted in 2018 was up from a historic low, and wheat advocates in Minnesota are skeptical that 2019 will bring another major increase.
“Even an uptick is kind of small peanuts compared to other crops,” said Lauren Proulx, a research coordinator with the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers in Red Lake Falls. “Of course we’re hoping that people want to grow wheat and see it as important in their farm. As for a big jump in acres, I’m cautious.”
Farmers generally set their crop rotations well in advance, and corn and soybeans are easier to grow. Futures prices later this winter will determine a lot about what is planted in Minnesota.
“I would err on the side of not believing people are just going to jump ship on a crop,” Proulx said. “If their crop plan is to plant soybeans next year, it’s going to be hard to switch that.”