Winter wheat growers optimistic heading into harvest

farmAs some Virginia grain farmers wait for good spring weather to plant their crops, winter wheat growers are just a few weeks from harvesting theirs.

“Virginia wheat isn’t harvested until late May through June,” noted Robert Harper, grain marketing manager for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation. “The harvest window for top quality wheat is razor-thin in order to reduce disease problems and yield losses.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s April 9 crop report estimates 82 percent of Virginia’s wheat crop is in good or excellent condition, and topsoil moisture levels are adequate for 88 percent of the state. Normally that’s good news for wheat farmers, but Harper says no one is celebrating yet. If the wheat isn’t harvested at the peak of maturity, it won’t be good enough to sell to local flour mills or to receive top dollar on commodity markets.

“Raising wheat takes an enormous amount of skill and knowledge of agronomic science,” he said. “The good growers are really good at raising wheat. But right up until harvest time, bad weather can trump all that hard work.”

Virginia farmers raise soft red winter wheat, which is usually milled for crackers and cookies instead of bread. Prices for that type of wheat have been rising in early April, partly because the forecast for the Midwest’s hard red winter wheat is not favorable. Typically the prices for the two types of wheat follow each other on commodity markets, Harper explained.

The USDA drought monitor shows wheat growers in North Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska have been suffering from severe drought since last fall.

Normally one farmer’s misfortune can be a marketing opportunity for another grower. But Harper says Virginia wheat growers are being very cautious selling their wheat this spring. It’s not uncommon for growers to commit only about 10 percent of their crop for sale to flour mills before harvest, even when prices are good.

“It’s very hard to forward contract wheat because the quality of the wheat can change very quickly and so close to harvest time,” Harper clarified. “Typically you wait until harvest, cut your wheat, learn your quality for various markets and then you sell.”

Wheat requires a complicated mixture of inputs and lots of attention, Harper said, and many grain growers in Virginia and the nation have been reducing the amount of wheat acreage they grow. But if wheat prices improve, most producers would gladly expand production.

“We’re at about a 100-year low in the U.S. for winter wheat, 47.3 million acres. That’s the second smallest crop since 1919. In Virginia we expect to harvest 230,000 acres of wheat this spring,” he said.

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