US wheat sales continue to lag

First, the good news: Americans won't be paying more for the wheat that goes into their bread and cereal. Unfortunately, neither will China. Or the Soviet Union. Or any other country buying American wheat.

After two years of decline in United States farm exports, the outlook for corn and soybeans is brightening somewhat. For wheat - the country's other major crop - the picture is gloomy.

''The wheat situation won't turn around for at least a year or so,'' says Bradley Karmen, wheat analyst with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). ''(And) it doesn't look good after that.''

The reasons range from the strong US dollar to snow in the Ukraine. But the bottom line is that the United States has too much wheat. And it is going to have problems selling it abroad.

Four years ago, the world was swimming in US farm exports.

American farmers pumped up production and sold a record 164 million metric tons of agricultural products overseas. A year later, they sold less but earned more because of higher prices, setting a record in cash receipts from exports.

Then the problems began. World recession weakened overseas demand. Other countries boosted their exports, encouraged, some say, by President Carter's Soviet grain embargo. Last year, the Chinese stopped buying US grain for seven months because of a flap over US textile imports. From a 59 percent share of the world's wheat and coarse-grain trade in 1979-80, America's share dipped to about 50 percent last year.

This year was supposed to be the one in which the picture brightened. And for corn and soybeans, it has somewhat. In the fiscal year ending September 1984, both crops are expected to show a rise in export revenues, according to USDA forecasts: from $5.8 billion in fiscal 1983 to about $7 billion for corn; from $ 5.9 billion to some $6.5 billion for soybeans.

Actually, the US will be exporting less of both crops, but this is more than offset by sharply higher prices caused by drought or federal crop-reduction programs or both.

On the other hand, neither a drought nor federal acreage-reduction programs had much effect on US wheat, leaving large stocks and depressing prices. Low prices would seem to auger well for selling off America's amber waves of grain abroad, especially with signs of global economic recovery.

Unfortunately, world recovery generally boosts sales of feed grains, rather than wheat. People who are better off tend to replace low-cost cereals with meat and poultry, which require corn and soybean feed, says Robert N. Wisner, economics professor at Iowa State University.

Even more damaging is the strong US dollar, which makes other exporters' grain comparatively cheap.

Australia, meanwhile, is in the midst of harvesting its largest wheat crop; Argentina, its second-largest, according to Mr. Karmen. The biggest remaining question marks are China and the Soviet Union - the two largest importers of US grain.

Despite a decided chill in relations with the US, the Soviets last year signed a long-term agreement to buy a minimum of 9 million metric tons of US grain each year. Less than four months since the agreement went into effect, the Soviets have bought up to or near their minimum. Observers doubt they will buy much more from the US, since wheat from Argentina and Australia is about to hit the market.

There has been some concern that the Soviet winter wheat crop was vulnerable to cold weather because of a lack of snow cover. But according to latest reports , snow is already covering or moving into most of the wheat belt there.

Mainland China, angry over recent US quotas on textile imports, did not buy its minimum quota of US grain last year. Six months ago the impasse was resolved and China said it would make up its purchases this year.

Then last month, the White House announced new standards for textile imports, which may or may not offend the Chinese. Observers doubt the Chinese will act until after the President's visit to China in the spring. Their winter wheat crop, meanwhile, is in good shape, according to a USDA agricultural economist.

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