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.

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

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.

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."

Most of the increase in grain production appears to be on larger grain farms, Ms. Alexander says. At the same time, there are a significant number of niche products that are being grown on smaller acreage, economists say.

"There's clearly been a growth in those [niche] markets, and those kinds of opportunity. If you can find the market access, you can get the price for it," Mr. MacDonald says. "The big challenge is finding someone who's going to be a buyer."

And New England appears to be one of the epicenters for artisan, niche bakeries, where much of the demand for locally-grown wheat seems to be coming from consumers. Artisan breadmakers are asking farmers to grow local grains for bread flour. One baker in Northampton, Mass., Jonathan Stevens, even sent out a call to have his customers plant heritage varieties in backyard plots to trial the grain.

"These grains haven't been grown here for a good long time," says Judy Gillan, director of the New England Small Farm Institute in Belchertown, Mass. Ms. Gillan has launched a similar effort to spur commercial grain growing in Massachusetts. She says the state lacks grain processing and storage infrastructure. "We're looking at the challenge of putting this back together again."

"Wheat is a very small player, at least at this point," says Tim Griffin, an agronomist with the University of Maine at Orono. "But I've had phone calls from growers in the last couple of months. You know, with the price of wheat, money talks."

In far northern Maine, where Aroostook County's commercial potato growers routinely rotate barley and oats crops with the region's 57,000 acres of potatoes, the Maine Potato Growers, a co-op of 400 farmers, has been looking for farmers to grow 1,000 to 1,500 acres of wheat for a specialty flour producer in Canada this year.

"We haven't been in the wheat growing business," Noah Winslow, the co-op's grain and potato marketing manager, says. "It's not the easiest thing to grow. But, historically, it has been done. And we're going to try to do it again."

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