WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — U.S. farmers are expected to harvest their smallest winter wheat crop in more than a decade amid an ongoing drought that has devastated fields across the nation's breadbasket and a global surplus of the grain that has depressed prices, according to government report released Thursday.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service forecast the size of the nation's 2018 wheat crop at 1.19 billion bushels. If realized, that would be down 6 percent from the previous year.
The last time the nation's farmers harvested such a small wheat crop was in 2002, when U.S. production fell to 1.137 billion bushels, said Marsha Boswell, spokeswoman for the industry group Kansas Wheat.
"It is not a surprise that production is down, the market is not really telling people to plant wheat. There is a surplus of wheat in the world," Boswell said.
Not only are projected U.S. wheat yields down to an average 48 bushels per acre, but the agency is also forecasting that just 24.8 million acres of wheat will be harvested — a record low harvested acreage for the United States, according to the report.
Kansas remained the nation's top winter wheat producer even in a dry year like this one, with the government estimating that state's growers will bring in 270.1 million bushels. That's compared to the 333.6 million bushels harvested last year in Kansas.
The government's estimate for Kansas is a bit more optimistic than the 243.3 million bushels that participants in the Wheat Quality Council's winter wheat tour had predicted earlier this month, although both had estimated average statewide yields of 37 bushels per acre. The difference is because tour participants anticipate Kansas farmers will abandon more acres before harvest.
Lane County grower Vance Ehmke said his farm in west central Kansas — where he grows about 2,500 acres of certified wheat seed — has gotten less than 2 inches of rain since October, far less than the 7 inches that would be normal for that period. His neighbor this week plowed up a half section of wheat that was so poor it would not be worth cutting.
"It is just incredibly dry out there," Ehmke said. "Farmers have a well-deserved reputation for whining, but this time we are not kidding."
Winter wheat is planted in the fall and typically harvested beginning in June in Kansas. Drought conditions have plagued this year's crop, and it remains to be seen whether the state will get enough moisture in the coming weeks to fill out the heads of wheat. Much of the wheat across Kansas is just ankle-high, and crop development is two to three weeks late.
"I have no idea what to expect, but we continue daily to reduce our expectations so whatever we get we wouldn't be disappointed," Ehmke said.
The report noted drought conditions were prevalent across most of Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
Behind Kansas, the second largest winter wheat crop this year is expected to come out of Washington with a forecast production there of 118.8 million bushels of wheat. Colorado production trails third with 83.6 million bushels.