Business & economy, In the community, Special Reports

Ukraine war triggered short term, local wheat acreage boost

VALE – A perfect storm of conditions, including a major war, helped induce a boost in the total number of wheat acres in Malheur County over a five-year period.

Recent agriculture census data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that between 2017 and 2022 the amount of wheat grown locally climbed by more than 3,000 acres. Total wheat acres in 2022 stood at 24,448 acres. The total value of the wheat crop in 2022 for the county was $19 million.

The census is a snapshot of nine agriculture benchmarks measured in the county. The statistics cover everything from the average size of a farm to the amount of federal support payments funneled to farmers in the county and provide insight into the state of the local industry. The data is used by the federal government to determine subsidies issued each year to farmers.

According to two local wheat farmers, the growth in acreage was prompted by several factors, including the war in Ukraine, that for a short time boosted the price of the crop.

Used mainly as a rotational crop, wheat prices jumped in in 2022 after Russia invaded Ukraine, said farmer Dana Tuckness. Tuckness is also an Oregon Wheat Foundation board member.

“Wheat was very high for a couple of years,” he said.

Tuckness estimated in 2022 the price of wheat hovered around $12 a bushel because the war limited Ukrainian exports.

Now, wheat prices are at about $7 a bushel.

“I would guess it (wheat acres) was a temporary increase and now that the price is down the acres will probably follow,” he said.

Other factors also potentially played a role in the increase in wheat acres.

“Wheat uses very little water. We’ve had some dry years and any increase in acres could also be because of that,” said Tuckness.

The crop also requires less fertilizer, said Tuckness.

Farmer Kevin Corn, who is the president of the Malheur County Wheat Growers Association, said he was not surprised to see and expansion of the crop between 2017 and 2022.

He said the front-end costs on a wheat crop are less than other commodities.

“Planting wheat doesn’t cost as much money compared to the rising costs of labor,” he said.

Corn farms more than 1,500 acres in the county, including about 600 acres of wheat.

Wheat doesn’t afford potentially high profits possible with other high-value commodities like onions.

“You hope to break even. But it is definitely a great rotational crop and it needs less water and is good for cleaning up weeds,” he said.

Corn said he can usually cut water to his wheat crop between June 20 and July 1. That means he can shift water to other crops.

He said wheat can be planted in areas where irrigation is difficult.

Corn, who employs 11 people, said this year he planted 250 acres of onions.

“That will take 80 percent of my labor. Wheat costs half the price to grow as corn,” he said.

Wheat also isn’t as risky in terms of price and yields as other high-value crops.

Wheat has two growing seasons. Winter wheat, which makes up to 80% of all U.S. production, is planted in the fall and harvested in the summer. Spring wheat is planted in the spring and harvested in late summer or early autumn.

Wheat is measured in bushels. A bushel of wheat is about 60 pounds.

Tuckness said Malheur County farmers mostly produce winter wheat.

“Spring wheat doesn’t usually yield that much,” he said.

Corn and Tuckness said wheat is usually harvested and then shipped by truck to the Port of Morrow. From there wheat goes to Portland and then is exported overseas. Japan, Korea, the Philippines and Indonesia and sometimes China are the biggest consumers of Northwest wheat, said Tuckness.

“Last year China bought more but you don’t know what they will do from year to year,” he said.

The local market for wheat, powered by the expansion of cattle feedlots and other facilities such as the Argi Beef grain mill in Nyssa, is also growing.

Corn said he sells wheat to Agri Beef Company and Tuckness said as more feedlots begin to operate the local market will expand.

Tuckness said Russia is a big wheat competitor.

“Their quality used to be poor, but now Russia has been growing quality wheat and they grow a lot of it,” he said.

He said Argentina is also becoming a force in the wheat market as it is exporting more genetically-altered, drought-resistant wheat.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

HOW TO SUBSCRIBE – The Malheur Enterprise delivers quality local journalism – fair and accurate. You can read it any hour, any day with a digital subscription. Read it on your phone, your Tablet, your home computer. Click subscribe – $7.50 a month.