California farmers expand wheat acreage to ‘cash in’ on historic wheat prices

“Cha-ching.” That magical sound from farm cash registers is the goal of California wheat growers hoping to cash in on historic wheat prices through expanded 2008 wheat plantings.

Wheat prices were strong in fall 2007 and have shifted even higher. Recent California central valley hard red winter wheat contract prices were $235 to $245 per ton, hard white wheat at $285 to $315 per ton, and Desert Durum at $340 per ton, according to Seth Hoyt, senior agricultural economist with the California Agricultural Statistics Service, Sacramento, Calif.

“Wheat will be a fun crop to grow in California this year because of higher prices,” said Bonnie Fernandez, executive director of the California Wheat Commission (CWC).

“Wheat acreage is definitely higher in California. To be cautious, I’d say acreage is increasing 10 percent. To be a little less than cautious, acreage may be 15 percent higher.”

Desert Durum wheat plantings in the Imperial Valley could more than double in 2008 to 110,000 acres, compared to 52,500 acres in 2007, Fernandez said. Wheat acreage also increased in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys but not as much.

In 2007, California wheat acreage totaled about 608,000 acres compared to 495,300 acres in 2006. The whopping 23 percent jump was also tied to higher wheat prices.

In the past, California was revered as a two-wheat variety state. However problems with stripe rust encouraged the development of more resistant varieties.

“In 2008, the most popular planted wheat varieties will likely include: hard white – Blanca Fuerte and Blanca Grande; hard red – Joaquin, Expresso, Dash 12, Cal Rojo, and Summit; and Durum – Kronos, Orita, and Platinum,” Fernandez said.

The CWC plans to release the results of its survey on actual acreage by county variety in April.

Annual California wheat planting kicks off in the Sacramento Valley in November, followed by the San Joaquin Valley in December, and wraps up in January in the Imperial Valley. Harvest occurs in the reverse order.

“So far the quality of the 2008 crop looks quite good,” Fernandez said in early January. “Driving around various communities the wheat stands are starting to fill and there’s still quite a bit of wheat being planted.”

Plantings are extending beyond normal planting dates as some growers penciled in an extra 50 to 100 acres to take advantage of higher prices. Meanwhile growers who haven’t grown wheat in crop rotations for 10 to 15 years are coming back into the fold - again encouraged by prices.

“They’re saying I’d hate to miss this year. Maybe if I’m going to rotate with wheat then I’ll rotate a few more acres into it,” Fernandez said.

Even with more disease resistant varieties available, Fernandez encourages growers to practice active management of the 2008 wheat crop.

“If a grower hasn’t grown wheat for years, they need to realize that some disease risks remain,” Fernandez said. “Get out, look at the fields, and walk the fields. If you see something, call your farm advisor or whoever provides disease advice and act quickly. Small amounts of stripe rust can be found one day and left untreated can result in large amounts found just a week later. Early detection is the key.”

Reduced water availability in some California areas is also piquing more wheat interest as farmers shift toward less water-intensive crops.

“In some areas, growers will place water allotments on permanent crops and whatever they have left over might go to a less water-intensive crop like wheat,” Fernandez said.

Some speculation has surfaced that hard white wheat seed might be in short supply for the 2008 season. Fernandez doesn’t think that will happen.

Optimal rains in the Sacramento Valley aided wheat plantings, while rainfall totals at press time were less in the San Joaquin Valley. An approaching weekend storm was expected to drop moisture across much of the state.

For some dryland wheat growers, 2008 planting efforts have fared better than for the 2007 crop. “Some growers are reporting success in getting wheat in the ground while they couldn’t last year due to the lack of moisture,” Fernandez said.

The bottom line — price is the steering wheel that’s driving expanded California wheat acreage.

“With wheat it’s about the price. However, growers in California and across the U.S. have other good grain options (price wise), plus other crops,” Fernandez said. “With wheat, it’s very hard not to plant a crop that’s not difficult to grow in such a high (price) market.”

Most wheat in California is grown in a rotation with other crops. The average California wheat farm acreage is 700 to 800 acres, Fernandez said.

According to the CWC’s 2007 California Wheat Variety Survey, hard red wheat was the predominant class of wheat grown in the state, although the most commonly planted wheat variety, Blanca Grande, is a hard white wheat variety planted mostly in the San Joaquin Valley.

About 24 percent of all non-durum wheat planted was the Blanca Grande variety, followed by the hay/forage red wheat variety PR 1404. The variety Summit was a close third with approximately 79,000 acres planted, according to survey results.

In the Imperial Valley, the Desert Durum varieties Kronos and Orita were the top planted varieties in 2007. Other predominant varieties included the newer varieties Desert King and Havasu.

In the San Joaquin Valley, the durum variety Platinum was the most planted. The introductory variety RSI 64 was the second most planted variety.

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