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U.S. wheat acreage rises – even in New England

Under the radar for 50 years, it stages a comeback in the region, due to rising demand.

By Peter SmithCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 13, 2008

Trials: Field manager Arnie Voehringer (r.) is testing wheat varieties at a state research farm in Belchertown, Mass.

Peter Smith

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No one would mistake the thin, rocky soil of New England for America's breadbasket. There's been no recorded tally of wheat here since 1946, according to federal records.

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But under the radar, farmers in Maine, Vermont, and Massachusetts have been growing small quantities of wheat for years. Now, lured by high prices and growing consumer demand for breads made with local flours, they're expanding.

"It's nice to finally to get a fair return for what you're doing," says Jack Lazor, a dairy farmer in Westfield, Vt., who doubled his organic wheat acreage this year to 30 acres.

The expansion of small acreages here reflects a much larger nationwide shift back to wheat. After reaching a low of 57.2 million acres in 2005, farmers are expected to plant 63.8 million this year – an 11.5 percent increase. The extra boost in production should allow the United States to sell more of its grain abroad. US wheat exports are expected to jump 30 percent this year.

"There had been a shift away from wheat in the long term," says Jim MacDonald, farm productivity specialist at the US Agriculture Department in Washington, D.C. "But with the prices, I think a lot more people have turned that around in the last couple of years."

The relative surge in prices has not created a flood of newly minted wheat farmers – at least not yet. One reason for the restraint: The increase in production has brought prices down. Wheat prices have fallen by nearly a quarter since a high of $24 a bushel in late February.

Another obstacle: Higher costs are eating into higher profits.

"A lot of those high [wheat] prices are getting bid away by increasing costs and [increasing] land values," says Corinne Alexander, a grain marketing expert and an assistant professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. "Farmers are going to have to be talking about managing margins. We're in a time of massive opportunity and a time of massive uncertainty, where farmers can make a lot of money or they could lose the farm."

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