Wheat tour gives glimpse into progress

Published 5:00 pm Friday, June 23, 2023

Grain buyers, mill representatives and other stakeholders got a close look at Virginia’s wheat quality and yield potential for this year’s crop during a spring wheat tour June 1.

Organized by Virginia Farm Bureau Federation in partnership with Virginia Cooperative Extension, this year’s tour participants visited 12 farms in eight counties across the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. The tour helps buyers, end users and others in the wheat business sample test weights, estimate yields and check for signs of disease.

“It gives people an idea of the quality and what type of crop is coming,” said Robert Harper, Virginia Farm Bureau Federation grain manager.

Virginia’s wheat tour is part of a larger annual Mid-Atlantic wheat tour, which visits farms in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. Virginia has been included on the tour since 2016.

Harper noted that overall this area’s wheat crop “has had a lot of weather extremes, and it’s had some normalcy.”

He explained that last fall’s wheat seeding went off without a hitch, with good weather conditions allowing farmers to plant on schedule. But warm, dry conditions in January through March caused the wheat to flower about three weeks earlier than normal, followed by cool, wet conditions during April and May, which slowed progress.

Despite the fluctuating weather, “it’s going to be ready right on time,” Harper said, expecting harvest to begin around Father’s Day. “Yield potential on the Northern Neck is excellent.”

That yield potential is estimated to average 89 bushels per acre this season.

While the yield potential is a boon for wheat producers, the tour revealed some potential quality issues.

“We found a lot of head scab on the tour,” Harper noted. This fungal disease — fusarium head blight — can potentially limit wheat’s end use. If head scab amounts are too high, wheat can’t be sold for flour milling, which garners a higher price than wheat sold for animal feed — ultimately cutting into producers’ bottom lines.

But “we won’t know until they harvest,” he said. “You never know what you’ve got until you cut it.”

Battling disease while managing their crop is just one of the many things wheat growers contend with. High costs for inputs like fertilizer, fungicide and insecticide, combined with low demand for U.S. wheat, is putting a strain on U.S. farmers. Harper explained that wheat prices in 2022 were at an all-time high, causing declines in wheat purchasing. Coming off those record prices, demand is lower internationally for this year’s wheat.

“We have very low (wheat) prices compared to input costs,” Harper explained. “And the world’s largest wheat producer, Russia, had a record crop in 2022. So that brings the price way down.”

Virginia farmers expect to harvest 8.85 million bushels of winter wheat this year, according to the Virginia field office of the National Agricultural Statistics Service. That forecast represents a 13% decrease when compared to the 2022 harvest. Wheat growers seeded 230,000 acres last fall; 145,000 acres will be harvested for grain, the other 85,000 were planted as a cover crop or will be cut for silage or hay.