This last year saw a number of challenges and victories for U.S. wheat growers, from the fields of the Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest to Capitol Hill. At the 2016 Commodity Classic in New Orleans, the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) discussed some of these accomplishments.
Here's a look at some of the key happenings over the last year, and some hot topics to watch going forward:
Grain Standards Reauthorization Act
One victory for wheat growers in 2015 was the Grain Standards Act Reauthorization Act, notes Brett Blankenship, current NAWG president who farms near Washtucna, Wash.
The Act, sponsored by Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas and approved by Congress in the fall of 2015, reauthorizes and amends provisions of the current U.S. Grain Standards Act. These include stronger language requiring the Federal Grain Inspection Service to provide export inspections in the event of a suspension of services by a delegated state inspection agency – a priority for farm organizations like NAWG after the withdrawal of services at the Port of Vancouver by the Washington State Department of Agriculture in July 2014 and the refusal by FGIS to take over until a lockout of dock workers at the port ended the following month.
"Since I farm in the Pacific Northwest, 85% to 90% of our crop is exported virtually every year," Blankenship says. "So I farm in a very trade-dependent industry in an extraordinarily trade-dependent state."
Equal trade at the Canadian border
There are some ongoing challenges when it comes to trade, and one of those challenges is at the Canadian border, notes current NAWG vice president and Outlook, Mont. farmer Gordon Stoner.
"Right now if I sell wheat into Canada it is automatically graded feed, the lowest possible grade," Stoner says. Under Canada's Varietal Act, wheat in Canada must be an approved variety to receive a grade, and if it isn't, it's automatically graded as feed wheat. "Since the demise of the Canadian Wheat Board, Canadian crop has been able to come into the U.S. It is graded, treated no differently than wheat originated in the US. I raise durum wheat. I raise Canadian varieties, right against the border. But if I take it across the line, it's automatically graded as feed."
Stoner adds NAWG is continuing to work with Canadian and U.S. grain officials to make changes to Canada's Varietal Act in order to allow growers like himself to market wheat across the border.
Title 7 CFR Part 340
A concern for wheat growers and all farmers since it was announced in 2008 is USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's (APHIS's) amendments to Title 7 CFR Part 340 in February 2015, which would change the regulation of biotechnology. APHIS announced in February of last year they have withdrawn the proposed rule and a new proposed rule was discussed in November 2015. APHIS is now working on a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) to evaluate alternatives to update its biotechnology regulations.
Stoner notes while the details aren’t yet known, there is concern these changes could affect wheat if tools and technology like seed treatments start to become regulated.
For example, Stoner notes, several organizations have argued for regulating seed treatments containing neonicotinoids – one of the few options for controlling the wireworm, a major wheat pest in his region.
"If I were to lose seed treatments, much of my crop would not get out of the ground. We have a little creature called the wireworm. It comes up in the spring while we're planting and eats the heart out of the seed before it even gets out of the ground. I have no other method of control. The crop protectants that help us manage this pest are at jeopardy as we speak."
National Wheat Action Plan
One of the biggest challenges faced by the wheat industry in recent years is the downward trend in wheat acres in the U.S.
"For decades, wheat has been in a decline in acres. That happened again this fall where the fall planting numbers for wheat came out at the lowest in 50 years, and the second lowest in 100 years. That's a trend we want to reverse," Blankenship says. "When you have less bushels you get less assessments. Less assessments means less research. Less research means less productivity. Less productivity means less acres, and the cycle continues."
In 2015, NAWG launched its National Wheat Action Plan to serve as a catalyst to increase public and private wheat research, and improve wheat productivity and farmer profitability with the goal of reversing this trend. The plan will be completed and announced in the fall of 2016.
National Wheat Yield Contest
Last year, NAWG also announced a new National Wheat Yield Contest as a way to drive innovation and productivity in the wheat industry while identifying top wheat growers in the U.S. Blankenship notes the goal is to help increase wheat acres and improve wheat production, similar to how the NCGA Yield Contest has helped grow corn productivity.
"The hope would be to get farmers focused on productivity. It's been said after ten years the winner of the corn contest ten years prior became the national average," says Blankenship. "The first step is to stop the decline of acres. If we can increase productivity 20%, that will stop the trend."
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