AFTER years of huge crop surpluses, the United States is skating a fine line between food sufficiency and food scarcity. But a bumper crop of winter wheat is easing fears of an all-out strike. On May 10, the US Department of Agriculture was to release its first field estimates of the wheat harvest. These estimates are expected to echo the optimistic projections coming from forecasters, wheat experts, and farmers themselves.
``Look at how broad the leaves are!'' exclaims farmer Doug Wildin, standing at the edge of a winter wheat field behind his house in Hutchinson, Kan. He steps into the sea of foot-high wheat, plucks a fat green stalk, then slices it with a pocket knife to reveal a light green head of grain.
``That's going to be a nice head,'' he says. ``It's some of the best-looking wheat I have ever had.''
Winter wheat is planted in the fall and harvested in the spring and summer. Kansas, the nation's largest wheat-producing state, is about a month away from harvest and has come back strongly from last year's crop-withering drought.
The comparisons are striking. As of May 4, 32 percent of the crop was rated excellent, 52 percent good, and 16 percent fair, according to the state's agricultural statistics agency. Last year at this time, only 1 percent of the wheat crop was rated excellent, 2 percent good, and 8 percent fair, while the rest was poor or very poor.
The annual Wheat Quality Council tour of Kansas two weeks ago forecast that the state would harvest a healthy 425 million bushels this summer.
The wheat outlook elsewhere is not quite so bright as in Kansas.
Flooding in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas has damaged a part of the winter wheat crop. Yields in northern Texas could drop by as much as 20 percent, state agriculture officials told the Associated Press. North Dakota, a big producer of spring wheat, has barely enough moisture for planting.
So far, though, the flooding has affected only a minuscule proportion of the winter wheat crop, says Bill Tierney, a Kansas State University economist. And spring wheat prospects will not become clear until later in the growing season.
The encouraging wheat situation here reflects estimates of another record wheat crop worldwide. India has harvested a good wheat crop. And forecasters say prospects are good in Northern Europe, the Soviet Union, and Canada, which was hit by drought last year.
``It's a return to a more average production level,'' says Richard Downey, chief of market analysis of Canada's National Grains Bureau. The government agency is forecasting that this year's wheat harvest will reach 26.4 million metric tons in Canada and a record 555 million metric tons worldwide.
The major wheat-crop problems are in North Africa and the Middle East, says Ed Allen, a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) economist.
The prospects of a large wheat harvest in the US and elsewhere have eased concerns of a food shortage.
``Some of us are much less worried than we were at the beginning of the year,'' Mr. Allen says. A very dry November and record cold in December did not bode well for the nation's winter wheat - especially since wheat reserves were already so low.
In February, USDA forecast US reserves of 443 million bushels - a perilously low 19.1 percent of this year's estimated use.
``It is low compared to our needs,'' says Ray Daniel, senior vice-president of the food and agriculture department at the WEFA Group. He expects reserves to hit 472 million bushels at the end of this marketing year before climbing to 648 million bushels next year. (The marketing year runs out May 31 and does not include this year's winter wheat harvest.)
Wheat is an important part of humanitarian aid to underdeveloped nations. US food reserves were so low this fiscal year that the US authorized up to 2 million metric tons of wheat be sold or donated as food aid from a special food security wheat reserve. That marks only the second major use of the reserve since it was established in 1980. The first major use was in fiscal 1989.
So, if wheat stocks are so low, why have wheat prices fallen some 40 cents a bushel from last year's drought-induced highs? Part of the reason is the expectation of a large wheat harvest this summer, analysts say. Just as important, the world grain market has changed since the last time fears of a food shortage doubled and tripled commodity prices in the early 1970s. This year's low stocks are the result of two drought years in North America, while the dramatic price rises of the early '70s were due to a surge in imports, analysts say.
``We are not likely to see those kinds of rallies,'' says Professor Tierney of Kansas State. More countries are exporting food than in the '70s, which makes the market broader and less dependent upon grain reserves for food security. ``We are better balanced,'' he says. ``We have restructured the world market.''