It may bruise pride in Kansas, where wheat is on license plates, but the state’s farmers are no longer America’s undisputed wheat-growing champs.
In Louisiana, planting corn is now nearly as popular as planting cotton.
And out in Idaho, small grains are outshining the state’s famous potatoes.
What’s happening is part of a nationwide shift in what America’s farmers grow. Thanks to a new government policy, farmers now have greater freedom to plant whatever they want - and as spring planting unfolds, they’re happily breaking some old patterns.
“They’re having fun again,” said Cheryl Stubbendieck, a vice president with the Nebraska Farm Bureau. “They’re making management decisions that make sense, not manipulating the (government) programs. There’s always farmer optimism in the spring, but there’s more now because it’s more fun.”
What effect these changes will have on consumer food prices is uncertain, because the change is so new, and because the farmers’ share represents a small percentage of grocery costs. So far there has been little effect, and supporters say greater flexibility might help even out the bumps in supply that can drive up prices.
On Dick Neller’s 3,000 acres in northeast Kansas, he skipped his usual wheat crop. Instead, he’s going with corn, soybeans and alfalfa.
“We’re basically planting the most profitable crops we can,” Neller said, as he zipped back and forth planting soybeans on 60 acres near Gardner.
In the past, Kansas farmers like Neller always planted some wheat - not because it always made economic sense but to protect the farm’s crop ping history, or “base,” for subsidy purposes. Basically, the more years farmers grew a crop, the better the federal subsidy.
Now that system is gone. Farmers still receive slimmed-down crop subsidies, but the government no longer influences what is planted. So this spring, farmers planted what was most profitable, what was best for the soil, or what was new and interesting.
The 1996 Freedom to Farm law, which 99 percent of eligible farmers participate in, no longer rewards mono-agriculture, or growing the same crop year after year. That may mean less wheat in Kansas, less corn in Iowa and less cotton in Mississippi, but that is fine with Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who wrote the law.
“I had always hoped, everyone had always hoped, to find some alternative crops,” Roberts said. “This allows us to do that. I think it’s been a very healthy development.”
In Kansas, for instance, that means more farmers are experimenting with sunflowers, hay, oats, sorghum, soybeans, even a little cotton.
“It’s a little harder to predict what the individual producer is going to do,” Roberts said, “but that’s what we wanted to do, restore the power back to the individual.”
Of course, many factors determine what farmers plant: crop prices, weather, global demand, new farming practices and new products. But analysts give the new law its due for finally allowing the cropping shifts to occur on a large scale.
This all has its limits, of course. With its climate and soil, Pennsylvania will not grow oranges. Kansas’ climate is still well-suited to growing wheat, even though North Dakota sometimes captures the No. 1 spot.
The new way is better for the environment, too, farmers say. When one of Rob Robertson’s Nebraska fields had weed problems, he solved it by switching to wheat, rather than replanting corn and using more weed-killer.
“Before, we said we couldn’t do that because of the farm program,” said Robertson, who farms near Roca, Neb. As many farmers discovered, raising the same crop each year added “disease pressure, weed pressure, and you had to use more and more pesticides,” he said.
Aside from planting decisions, the government’s freer hand has other effects.
Until recently, the federal government maintained large stockpiles of grain, partly to protect against wild swings in food prices. Now the feds are mostly out of the stockpiling business, and grain prices are more volatile - providing both opportunity and danger for food producers.
“We didn’t used to see soybeans run 30 cents (a bushel) in one day,” said Ernie Hroch, manager of the busy Farmers Co-op Elevator in Odell, Neb. “It’s like they’re trading your salary on a day-to-day basis. If they took off 50 cents (an hour) one day, and added it on another day, you can see how nervous you’d get.”
Those ups-and-downs are on open display at the nation’s grain exchanges, like the Kansas City Board of Trade, where wheat contracts are bought and sold.
Not long ago, the Kansas City exchange was regarded as something of a financial backwater, because wheat prices didn’t move much. Now they can dance all day.
“Last year we had a record year, and last month we had a record single day,” said spokeswoman Candice Bowman. “The trading volume has been pretty amazing.”
While farmers seem pleased by freedoms in the new farm law, they also know it hasn’t yet been tested under bad conditions.
For Neller, the Kansas farmer, there will be no Kansas wheat harvest this year.
Because of dry weather, “We weren’t able to plant wheat last fall, and rather than force it, we decided to plant something else,” Neller said. “It didn’t break my heart, because of the price. But under the old program, we probably would have tried to plant it, anyway.”