Wheat farmers in Washington breathe a small sigh of relief as Wheat prices come in at slightly above the record lows of the past two years—but not high enough. Many of our farmers are unable to break even financially for a third year, due to factors such as increasing competition on the global market and issue of quality related to climate. Agricultural research is vital to keep our protect our state’s farmers and our sustainable food supply.
In some years, low prices are exacerbated by an increase in an issue known as “falling numbers.” This refers to higher levels of a particular enzyme that reduces the quality of wheat for types of baking and cooking. Falling numbers occurs due to climate issues, specifically high daytime temperatures followed by sharp temperature drops at night. For the past two years, falling numbers have hit Washington wheat growers hard. Thankfully, falling numbers occurred far less frequently in 2017.
Wheat Quality and The Global Market
While farmers have seen higher yields this year and falling numbers didn’t prove to be as devastating, prices remain low. According to Michelle Hennings, the executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, to break even, wheat farmers need to earn $6 a bushel. Recently, farmers have seen returns less than $5 a bushel.
In recent years, falling numbers have driven prices even lower, making our wheat less competitive on the global market, costing U.S. wheat growers between $30 and $130 million in 2016. Despite low prices, high yields disqualify farmers from receiving crop insurance despite the huge financial losses. Farming below the break-even point, lack of crop insurance inhibits farmers’ ability to insure future crops. With year after year of financial losses, more farmers are choosing to not grow wheat.
As a result, the number of Washington acres in wheat production is declining and we’re losing a significant contribution to our state’s economy. Nationally, wheat acres have fallen by more than 30% since the peak in 1981, declining by 13% just in the last year. The U.S. exports 46% of our wheat. Losing share in the global market due to quality issues is an unnecessary blow to our farmers and the economy that could be resolved through research.
Research is Vital for a Sustainable Food Supply
Research to produce a product of the highest quality has become increasingly important to keep our agricultural goods competitive in an increasingly crowded global market. Falling numbers didn’t hit as hard this year, but that doesn’t mean next year’s climate won’t cause problems. Research to create new and stronger breeds of wheat could overcome these challenges in the future.
Research takes funding. Initially, budget cuts proposed by the current administration would have closed 17 agricultural research facilities across the country. Keeping our agricultural labs open is vital to protecting the food supply and keeping our agricultural industry competitive in the global market.
In the heart of Washington State’s Palouse region, at Washington State University, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Western Wheat Quality Lab undertakes the challenge of breeding the next generation of high-quality wheat.
Please voice your support for funding to improve all sectors of U.S. agriculture and protect our sustainable food supply.