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Wheat resurgence draws attention

FARGO, N.D. — A few years ago, Brad Thykeson's two sons wondered about the economic wisdom of planting wheat on their farm near Portland, N.D. But now the crop is looking more attractive to them.

"There's definitely more interest in wheat," both from his sons and many other area farmers, said Thykeson, who, in addition to farming, is director of the North Dakota Farm Service Agency, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Thykeson was among three speakers in a wheat seminar Nov. 27 at the Northern Ag Expo in Fargo, N.D. The others were Neal Fisher, administrator of the North Dakota Wheat Commision, and Dan Wogsland, executive director of the North Dakota Grain Growers Association.

Wheat was once the dominant crop of North Dakota and adjacent areas, so important that it was known as "King Wheat." In recent decades, however, the western and northern push of soybeans and corn has cut into wheat acres, with corn and soybeans often promising greater economic returns — which is why farmers such as Thykeson's sons were hesitant to plant wheat.

"The boys (his sons) said we should get rid of the wheat drill because it's not profitable and it's not worth (a spot in) the rotation," Thykeson said.

"But that's changed, not only in spreading out harvest, but also because soil health has become a buzzword. Wheat does a lot for soil health, and it will help for generations," he said.

The value of spreading out harvest — wheat is harvested much earlier than many other crops, including corn and soybeans — was particularly obvious this fall. Uncooperative weather, including significant snowfall in some areas, has complicated and delayed harvest, especially of soybeans.

Soybeans are close to the ground, so harvesting them in snow is challenging. That could cause some farmers, who struggled to harvest beans this fall, to plant more wheat in 2019.

"Difficulties in (harvesting) the 2018 crop will influence what's planted in 2019," Wogsland said. "We're not going to easily forget 2018."

Fisher said it's too early to predict what will happen in 2019, though it appears wheat acres could increase.

"People are talking about more (wheat acres). It's a long way until spring and a lot could happen. But there are some positives with spring wheat and there are some issues with other crops," Fisher said.

President Donald Trump's trade war has cut sharply into U.S. soybean exports to China, which in turn has harmed U.S. soybean prices and further encouraged farmers to consider planting other crops in 2019.

But the trade war threatens other U.S. ag exports, too, Fisher said.

Wheat already was on the upswing regionally, with North Dakota spring wheat acres rising 20 percent in 2018, he said.

North Dakota's high-quality spring wheat, despite fierce competition from lower-quality wheat raised elsewhere in the world, remains popular worldwide and is gaining sales in the fast-growing Asian markets such as the Philippines, Fisher said.

"We are still the world's value exporter," he said