Farmer Russ Higgins' ancestors settled a wide expanse of land south of Morris, Illinois, in 1858. Through the U.S. Civil War and every major event since then, there has been someone from the Higgins family planting and harvesting on the land.
Since the first plow churned up the fertile soil here nearly 160 years ago, one crop that always had a place among the fields was wheat.
“The next crop is going to go in as soon as we take this year’s soybean crop out, hopefully within the next two and half to three weeks,” Higgins told VOA, before hopping on his all-terrain vehicle to head out into his fields.
As he makes his way beyond large rolls of hay and towering corn stalks that are just about ready to harvest, the one thing that is noticeably absent is the wheat. Higgins says the reason for this is because he already has harvested the crop from his fields. It’s now out of season for the harvest and just ahead of the time to plant the new crop for the winter.
But the reason you don’t see it beyond a narrow patch on Higgins property has nothing to do with the time of year.
“When you think about what a farmer actually grows, it’s driven by demand, and that demand also is by the prices that they can receive,” said Higgins, who says that demand is not for wheat.
“I’ve watched Illinois over the last 20 years really concentrate on corn and soybean,” he noted.
What is true for Illinois is also true for Higgins, who now dedicates only a small part of his farm for wheat, which this year provided a modest return on his investment.
“We averaged about 83 bushels this year,” he said. “Truth be told, it’s probably going to be better than corn or soybeans.”
Better or not, Higgins says the climate in northern Illinois is not ideal for large scale growth of wheat, and since there’s less farmers producing it, it’s a cost prohibitive cash crop.
“There’s not a readily available market year round. We have a chance to market wheat within a three-week window once we harvest the crop. If we decide to hang on to the crop beyond that, when it comes time to deliver, we’re going to have the deliver to those terminals that are still accepting wheat, and in cases, the trucking and the mileage to those locations make it not a viable option.”
American farmers are on track to plant the fewest acres of wheat since the U.S. Agriculture Department began keeping records in 1919. Executive Director of the Illinois Wheat Association, Jim Fraley, says a major factor for wheat’s demise in the U.S. is global competition.
“It’s grown in countries that are really underdeveloped but still growing good wheat crops to help feed themselves,” Fraley told VOA from the 2017 Farm Progress Show in Decatur, Illinois. “So the U.S. has entered into the field of play with many different countries. Countries like France, Russia, Germany… countries that can’t grow corn very well, but they have the climate to be able to grow wheat. Even Canada is a great country to produce oat, wheat.”
Fraley also points to another factor — the eating habits and dieting fads of consumers.
“There’s a big gluten-free craze, and that’s probably hurt wheat consumption a little bit,” he explained. “The thing is, we have to pretty much use our wheat domestically. We want to use it locally, and anything else we are trying to sell to other countries. That’s where were running into this world market that’s very competitive and that’s why prices are feeling some pressure right now.”
Here in the U.S., Fraley says past experience with growing wheat also is influencing a farmer’s future decisions about what to plant.
“A lot of them still remember the wheat of 10 and 20 years ago, where test weight was poor, quality was poor, and it just never paid,” Fraley explained. “But the varieties today, and the management techniques we can use in regard to fungicide application and disease management have really improved in the last few years, and it’s making wheat viable and profitable to grow here in Illinois again.”
Profitable or not, farmer Russ Higgins says it isn’t as simple as changing the seeds a farmer plants in the ground.
“For those who have not grown wheat for a number of years, there’s a little bit of a risk with wheat,” said Higgins. “Corn and soybean yields tend to be more consistent, so I think there’s an upside to that.”
If low prices for corn and soybean continue to sink a farmer’s overall profits, however, Higgins says the upside could be a return to wheat. “If the time comes for the prices increase, you might see a return of some of the wheat acres, or if you see more livestock come back in the area.”
But that’s a big “if,” and if there’s one thing a farmer likes less than low prices for the crops he’s growing, it’s uncertainty about the weather and environment, and how they will affect the yield a farmer can depend on when it comes time to harvest.