Rick Siemer admits that wheat isn’t the easiest sell these days.
The president of Siemer Milling in Teutopolis, Illinois, has seen the recent data showing the fewest number of planted wheat acres in U.S. history. On top of that, this year’s harvest was the lowest since 2002.
Nationwide, wheat producers this year are on track to plant the fewest acres since the U.S. Agriculture Department began keeping records in 1919.
But Siemer and other producers in Illinois see some hope for soft red winter wheat, commonly used in specialty flours. Yields have reached record highs the last two years and total production has also increased.
“It’s one thing to acknowledge that acreage in wheat has declined, but it’s not nearly as negative a picture,” Siemer told the Effingham, Illinois Daily News. “I certainly think for individual producers…we are trying to encourage and promote the best practices.”
Overall, Illinois had a total production of nearly 45 million bushels of wheat in 2014. The next year that dropped off to 33.8 million bushels. Since then, the crop has regained some of its stature. This year, Illinois produced 36.2 million bushels.
“There are a lot fewer acres of wheat in my county than there used to be,” said Dave Kermicle, a farmer from the Olney area in southeastern Illinois who has routinely sold all of his wheat to Siemer Milling. “There’s been a lot of trouble in wheat production — pests and diseases like head scab, wet weather in the spring and you have to throw the low prices in there.”
Total wheat production in the U.S. last year surpassed 2.3 billion bushels, according to the USDA. That made wheat growth a $9 billion enterprise for the nation’s farmers.
Soil differences play a part in whether farmers plant wheat or instead opt to just plant corn and soybeans.
“It’s harder to grow,” said Brian Rincker, a farmer from the central Illinois town of Strasburg who is also on the Illinois Wheat Association Board. “Most people are dropping wheat from their rotation. The gross income from wheat can’t compete with the gross income from corn or soybeans.”
Siemer also attributes corn and soy’s favorability over wheat to the availability of genetically modified breeds.
“Genetically modified corn gets better yields and is more resistant to pests,” said Siemer. “There’s nothing like a GM wheat and we have major export customers for wheat, like Japan, that want nothing to do with genetically modified. So it’s never taken off.”
According to the USDA, genetic improvements for wheat have been slow since the grain has a complex genetic makeup and the return on such investment is lower than that of corn and soy. As a result, there is no commercially grown genetically modified wheat in the United States.
But the milling company president said that a different technique, genetic editing, is on the rise and could help boost wheat back to its glory days.
“Genetic editing looks like it may really take the breeding world by storm and be much easier to use and productive than even genetic modification,” said Siemer. “It’s advancing very rapidly.”
It’s this ongoing research into wheat that many feel is why the winter crop has enjoyed its best yields.
Both last year and this year, Illinois averaged 74 bushels per acre, the highest ever recorded. A similar trend has occurred nationwide as well.
“We’re very encouraged with the last two years even though total acres are down,” said Siemer. “The last two years have brought the best yields and quality that I can ever remember.”
“The research and trials that are going on are boosting our yields tremendously,” added Rincker.
Stewart writes for the Effingham, Illinois Daily News.