As drought expands, winter wheat growers lose hope

Source: Tiffany Stecker, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The continued intensity and expansion of the drought across the central United States are beginning to ravage the hard winter wheat crop, as farmers hope for the best given the poor circumstances.

Kansas, one of the biggest hard winter wheat producers in the country alongside Texas and Oklahoma, is seeing its second-worst November for wheat in 28 years, said Bill Spiegel, a spokesman for Kansas Wheat. “Obviously, there’s nothing we can do,” said Spiegel. “The wheat crop is in tough shape.”

Farmers in Kansas are seeing minimal growth of secondary roots, which help the plant survive through winter. Weeks ago, farmers were hoping for some rain before the crop becomes dormant in the winter months, and later is harvested in the spring or summer.

In Texas, the stalks are stunted and their green color may soon turn yellow, said Steelee Fischbacher, a spokeswoman for the Texas Wheat Producers Board and Association. In Oklahoma, some insurance claims have already been filed, said Tim Bartram, executive director of the state’s wheat growers association.

This year’s devastating drought has both intensified and expanded after two months of retreating, according to last week’s U.S. Drought Monitor (Greenwire, Nov. 21).

The drought has worsened through the south-central United States, the Southeast and the Mississippi Delta, said Eric Luebehusen, a meteorologist with the Agriculture Department and author of last week’s Drought Monitor.

“Basically, from Southern California east to the Four Corners, to Kansas, to Texas,” said Luebehusen. “The southern Great Plains are deteriorating the most rapidly.”

The latest crop bulletin from USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service noted that 60 percent of hard winter wheat in South Dakota was rated poor to very poor. In Oklahoma, 40 percent was rated poor to very poor. In Texas, a quarter of the crop is in bad condition. In Colorado, which is not a major wheat-growing state, the number jumps to 82 percent. This could be the worst winter wheat season in the country since 1995, said Luebehusen.

Groundwater reserves depleted

Groundwater reserves are in dire need of a recharge after a long, dry summer, especially in the Southeast, added Luebehusen. The continued dryness is depleting irrigation storage.

“We’re kind of holding our breath,” he said. “It’s still early for a whole lot of deterioration.”

Nearly two years ago, a drought in the Great Plains also threatened winter wheat, but a few well-timed rains were just enough to ensure a good crop (ClimateWire, April 19).

This year, growers may not be so lucky. In the worst case, farmers here can still rely on crop insurance, said Spiegel. But there is still a small window to avert the complete loss.

“We’ve seen situations like this before, and farmers will still harvest a crop in June,” he said.

And for consumers, chances are it won’t affect bread prices.

“I don’t think we’re ever going to have a shortage of wheat,” he said. “Having enough wheat to feed Americans is not going to be a problem.”