Wheat

SIC 0111

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This industry consists of establishments primarily engaged in the production of wheat or whose sales of wheat account for more than 50 percent of total value of sales for their agricultural production.

Industry Snapshot

Wheat is the third largest field crop (behind corn and soybeans) in the United States in terms of planted acreage and gross farm receipts. In 2009, U.S. farmers harvested 2.22 billion bushels of wheat, down 11 percent from 2008, with an average yield of 44.4 bushels per acre, down 0.5 bushel from 2008. Of 59.1 million acres planted in 2009, 49.8 million acres were harvested, compared to 63.2 million acres planted and 55.7 million acres harvested in 2008. Winter wheat, which makes up the majority of U.S. wheat production, was down by 18 percent (1.52 billion bushels) in 2009 whereas spring wheat production rose by 18 percent (584 million bushels) and Durham wheat production increased by 30 percent (109 million bushels). The total value of U.S. wheat production in 2009 was $10.6 billion.

Kansas and North Dakota are, by far, the country's top wheat-producing states, harvesting 8.8 million and 8.4 million acres of wheat in 2009, respectively. Other top states include Montana (5.3 million acres), Oklahoma (3.5 million acres), South Dakota (3.0 million acres), Colorado (2.5 million acres), and Texas (2.5 million acres). Although wheat prices depend on an enormous range of environmental, political, economic, and technological factors, wheat prices in mid-2010 were predicted at around $4.50 per bushel.

Organization and Structure

Although some wheat is used as livestock feed, the crop is largely used to make flour. Even though historically the United States produces only about 10 percent of the world's wheat, it is commonly one of the top exporters of wheat globally. Due to the importance of U.S. wheat in international trade and the integral role the USDA plays in every sector of the agricultural economy, wheat farmers are more affected by shifts in the political climate than by actual weather conditions in many ways. In 2009-10 and 2010-11, wheat farmers faced a surplus of U.S. wheat stocks, which drove prices down. However, as U.S. farmers began to plant fewer acres of wheat and as global demand grew, industry experts expected prices to rebound in the coming years.

The U.S. wheat industry also was a world leader in research and development, a point underscored by the unparalleled variety of wheat grown by U.S. farmers. The hard red winter (HRW) wheat crop is much larger than other wheat crops; in 2008, about 1 billion bushels were grown commercially. This variety was followed in popularity by soft red winter (SRW; 613 million bushels) and hard red spring wheat (HRS; 511 million bushels). Two other classes of wheat are grown in the United States: white (used for flour in noodles, crackers, and cereals; 219 million bushels) and Durham (used for pasta; 85 million bushels).

Distribution, Production Conditions, and Use
Although wheat is grown in virtually every state, the focal point of the industry is in the central and southern Great Plains region where hard red winter (HRW) wheat is produced. There, in states like Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, and Colorado, the winters are cold and dry, and the summers are hot. Precipitation varies between 13 and 30 inches annually across the region and can fluctuate drastically. Droughts periodically afflict large areas for a succession of years. Farms are generally large and employ extensive rather than intensive methods of crop production. Wheat farmers employ various systems of crop rotation depending on field soil moisture. Most often, farmers alternate a year of wheat with a year of fallow (leaving the fields unplanted) to conserve soil moisture. HRW wheat is sown in late autumn and harvested in the spring. Wheat production is highly mechanized in the region. A farm worker can typically sow 100 acres or combine-harvest 50 acres in a workday. When milled, HRW wheat produces quality baking and bread-making flours.

Another significant area for wheat production is the northern Great Plains where most hard red spring (HRS) wheat is grown in the deep, rich, black or brown grassland soil, and winters are too harsh for HRW wheat production. HRS wheat is usually sown in late April and harvested in August. Typically, 80 percent of the annual 15 to 25 inches of rainfall comes during this short growing season. A great variety of crops are used in rotation with wheat, and summer fallowing is becoming rare except in the driest areas. The climate and soil conditions give HRS wheat a high protein content, strong gluten, and high baking strength. Its flour is excellent for making bread and can support weaker flours when combined with them in breads.

The Pacific Northwest is the third significant U.S. wheat-producing region. Large areas of rolling farmland on the Columbia Plateau in the Columbia River Valley are protected by mountains, and the climate is moderated by the Japanese current. Most of the wheat grown in this region is white-grained, or "white wheat," mostly suited only for pastry and crackers. It is produced in semi-arid zones, which have 10 to 20 inches of rainfall a year and is sown in the autumn to be harvested in the spring. However, because of the varying altitudes, almost all other kinds of wheat, including varieties in the "white" designation, are also cultivated. The region's wheat production, crop rotation, and mechanization methods are similar to those used by farmers in the Great Plains. Combines are often specially designed with self-leveling mechanisms to operate on hillsides because of the different topography of the Columbia Plateau.

The eastern United States produces wheat on a much smaller scale than the rest of the country and generally produces inferior wheats of a softer texture with lower protein content. The majority of the wheat in this region, including soft red winter (SRW) in the central and southeastern states and white in New York and Michigan, is grown as part of a complex crop rotation system on farms that specialize in other agricultural products. However, the farming methods used on these smaller farms have often resulted in higher wheat yields than those recorded in the major wheat-producing regions.

Organization and Structure

Wheat farmers are part of a large and increasingly complex agribusiness commodity system. The multileveled structure of the wheat industry includes farm suppliers, storage operators, processors, wholesalers, and retailers, as well as government institutions, futures markets, and trade associations. Despite the continuing movement toward expansion and consolidation, however, the wheat farmer largely continues to be an independent operator. Farmers generally till and harvest their own land and sell goods to the highest bidder at the next level of the wheat system, usually a grain elevator operator or a miller-agent.

Certain support and control structures are necessary to ensure an adequate wheat supply for the consumer market while controlling production levels to secure price levels. One harvest a year for each class of wheat along with year-round consumption causes imbalances between supply and demand that are sometimes immense. Moreover, forecasting supplies can be difficult, because such forecasts must rely on weather conditions, which affect both the quality and quantity of wheat from year to year. In addition, technological advances have resulted in higher yields, which make projections even more indeterminate. Consequently, without price supports, wheat farmers can fall prey to severe price fluctuations, which cause income swings. The economic, social, and political repercussions of such fluctuations demand that the government assume some control of the wheat-growing industry.

Government Programs
The USDA submits a new wheat program every year as an amendment to a larger legislative act; in the early 2000s, this included the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 and the 2002 Farm Act, under which all agricultural activity was regulated. The legislation allowed farmers to establish their base acreage by using historical figures as well as setting a target price for wheat per bushel. For example, the price of wheat was $3.86 per bushel in 2002-03 and $3.92 for 2004-07. The base acreage was used for both direct and countercyclical payments with payment acreage determined by 85 percent of the base area. This payment was then provided on an annual basis, with annual enrollment, and was not dependent upon the crop planted or cropland. Direct payments featured payment yields that corresponded to levels set by the 1996 Farm Act (Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act) as well as the product of the payment rate and payment acres. The payment rate per bushel was established at 52 cents during the five years the 2002 Farm Act was in effect. In cases where the effective price was lower than the target price, countercyclical payments were offered that were comprised of the payment rate, the payment acres, and the countercyclical payment yield.

In 2008, the 2002 Farm Act was replaced by the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act. The 2008 Farm Act, which is effective for five years, differs from the 2002 Farm Bill in numerous areas. The 2008 Farm Act created the Average Crop Revenue Election (ACRE) commodity program, which is an alternative to traditional price supports. An optional program, farmers who sign up for ACRE benefit via payment on a crop-by-crop basis at the state level. Specific to wheat, commodity loan rates for wheat in the new Farm Act increased for the 2010-12 period from $2.75 to $2.93. The act also authorized up to $35 million to establish a hard white wheat (HWW) development program.

An important consideration when making planting decisions is loan rates, which are set by the government and also act as price supports, because they are non-recourse commodity loans in which the government's right to recovery is limited to the crop used as collateral. For example, the loan rate for wheat in 2010 was fixed at $2.93 per bushel. If the market price is close to or below the loan rate, then the wheat farmer simply defaults on it and transfers title of the crop to the government. Rather than taking out an actual loan, farmers can also choose to receive loan deficiency payments (LDPs) if the posted county prices come in under commodity loan rates. This option is also available for silage or grazed-out crops.

Although these price and income support provisions directly influence wheat farmers, there are many other programs under existing agricultural legislation that also profoundly affect a farmer's business. Other types of government assistance include subsidized crop, crop insurance, and disaster payment provisions.

Programs that provide either direct credit or credit guarantees are essential to wheat producers. The Farm Credit System (FCS), which is not a formal government agency even though it is sponsored by the USDA, provides credit and related services to wheat farmers. However, since 1988, the FCS has operated in conjunction with a new entity, the Federal Agricultural Mortgage Corporation ("Farmer Mac"), which establishes underwriting standards for agricultural mortgages, and, to a degree, covers defaults. Finally, the USDA Rural Development's Housing and Community Facilities Programs (HCFP), which was known as the Rural Housing and Community Development Service (RHCDS) and the Farmer's Home Administration (FmHA) until the mid-1990s, is a guarantor of loans made by agricultural lenders. The HCFP also acts as a lender of last resort for family farmers who are unable to obtain credit under reasonable terms.

A variety of crop insurances are available to farmers to insure some portion of their established yields with government-subsidized premiums. Historically, farmers have not purchased insurance, which cannot cover all of their losses. As a result, disaster payment legislation usually has been passed to cover major droughts or flooding.

Trade and environmental conservation are the last two major areas of government intervention in the wheat-growing industry and serve to illustrate the larger context in which the industry operates. Primarily as a way of protecting U.S. farmland from erosion as well as to control soil salinity and off-farm environmental threats, the USDA's Farm Service Agency (FSA) solicits annual bids for enrollment in its Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which began in 1986 and is subsidized by the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC). If a farmer's bid is accepted, the farmer enters into a 10- to 15-year contract with the government and agrees not to plant on certain acreage without the approval of the Secretary of Agriculture in return for an annual payment.

Associations and Commissions
In July 2006, the Wheat Export Trade Education Committee (WETEC) was dissolved to streamline its processes that were divided between the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and U.S. Wheat Associates (USW). This followed the NAWG's vote against the proposed consolidation of the three associations in October 2005. In particular, the NAWG assumed the WETEC's dealings with congressional hearings. The government plays a significant role in the wheat-growing industry, largely because farmers asked for assistance. Farmers can voice their concerns through several organizations. The NAWG was organized in 1950 as a nonprofit organization to promote the specific interests of wheat farmers. It acts primarily as a lobbying organization, focusing on legislative matters. The group also funds research on improving the quality and yields of U.S. wheat and works in coordination with other wheat industry associations in market promotion.

In addition to the NAWG, there are many wheat associations and commissions at the state level. State associations are involved in state policy, while commissions are non-political bodies that are supported by a fee automatically charged against each bushel of wheat sold in a state, with the county elevator operator usually acting as a collection agency. Commissions also administer research, education, and promotion programs. Because of the success of wheat-price support programs, the National Farmers Organization (NFO), which is a prominent bargainer for other commodities, has not become a major player in the wheat-growing industry.

Farmer Cooperatives
Although the majority of farms are nonintegrated, and the need for farmer cooperatives has diminished with the steady support of the government, such joint venture groups still make up a substantial portion of U.S. wheat farming. In this type of common ownership organization, member farmers pool their crops and store them in their own cooperative-owned elevators. Usually, farmer cooperative commission agents then sell the wheat to farmer cooperative terminal elevators. The attempts by farmer cooperatives to control the marketing and processing channels also have brought about a few farmer cooperative exporters and flour millers.

Background and Development

Wheat was introduced to North America by explorers, traders, settlers, and soldiers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Spanish wheats were cultivated in the Southeast, and British and French wheats were produced in the Northeast. The first permanent American wheat cultures were developed at the Jamestown colony in Virginia and at Plymouth, Massachusetts, in the early 1600s. New York was the largest wheat-producing state until the late nineteenth century. The center of the wheat industry shifted to new territories as progress was made in railway construction and farming mechanization. In the wheat belt of the Midwest, the wheat economy developed into the form that has continued into the early twenty-first century, with railroad and commissions agents and farmer cooperatives who oversaw the industry from production to consumption.

In the first part of the twentieth century, the technological revolution affected every phase of wheat operations, and economies of scale and specialization strategies began to develop. Together with increases in domestic and foreign demand, the industry developed rapidly. However, it was not until after World War II that the government began to intervene and established itself as an important "market" for wheat.

The U.S. wheat farming industry has followed the general agricultural movement of consolidation and reduction. In recent decades, both the number and size of U.S. wheat farms has decreased. Most importantly, the proportion of tenant operators has increased, and that of owner-operators has decreased. Still, even with yields rising almost annually, production leveled off, and supplies have generally been down.

There has been a trend toward less government involvement in the agricultural sector as a whole, and wheat farmers generally viewed this optimistically. A new era of market-dependent farming began in 1996 after Congress passed the "Freedom to Farm" bill, which curtailed government involvement with the goal of gradually reducing farm subsidies over a seven-year period ending in 2002. This bill allowed farmers to sow as many acres as the market dictated without having to rely on government planting stipulations. Nevertheless, the government planned to maintain some control to avoid surplus or shortage crises. Wheat growers were encouraged by the increasing domestic demand for wheat beginning in 1970. In 1993, the per capita level of consumption increased to a record high of 143 pounds. Furthermore, the 1995-96 period brought the industry some of its highest prices ever, averaging $4.55 per bushel from almost 70 million acres with a yield of 35.9 bushels per acre.

Since 1995, high wheat production in the United States and globally, along with a weak demand, drove down prices in the late 1990s. As a result of the high yields in 1998, wheat prices failed to break $3.00 per bushel for the first time since 1990. At this time, U.S. wheat supplies were at their highest level since 1987. In the fall of 1998, the USDA announced wheat donation programs to needy countries in an effort to curb the excess stock.

The estimated cash value of wheat supplies in 1998 was $6.9 billion, down from $8.6 billion in 1997. The lower value of wheat was primarily due to the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996, which is commonly called the Farm Bill. Since the bill allowed greater flexibility for farmers to respond to market price and demand changes, the USDA estimated that farmers planted the lowest wheat acreage in more than 10 years in 1998. Wheat farmers' stocks from previous crops were high, which resulted in a lower planting. Despite a lower value, wheat was still the third largest cash crop in the United States during the late 1990s.

Lower acreage and yields were projected by the USDA to reduce the U.S. wheat output in 1999 to the lowest level since 1973. Producers were encouraged to switch to other crops or leave more land fallow because of lower returns on their crops. Globally, wheat production was expected to be down, as major wheat exporters' supplies were large.

Amid slack demand, U.S. supplies of wheat dropped in the early years of the first decade of the 2000s. According to USDA projections, production levels fell from approximately 2.2 billion bushels in the 2000-01 season to 2 billion bushels in the 2001-02 season. Over the same time, total wheat supplies, including stock of wheat already on hand and imports, fell from 3.4 billion bushels to 2.9 billion bushels, respectively. Bad weather reduced overall wheat yields in 2001-02. After record yields of 43.2 bushels per acre in 1998-99, yields decreased to 42 bushels from 1999 to 2000, and 40.2 bushels from 2001 to 2002. As supply levels decreased, the season-average farm price (SAFP) for wheat was projected to rise from $2.62 per bushel in the 2000-01 season to $2.78 in the 2001-02 season. These numbers rose to around $3.40 for the following three years but jumped up to $4.27 in the 2006-07 season. The jump in price was partly attributed to the drought experienced in the Southern and Central Plains.

A major agricultural industry development took place when the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 was signed. Also known as the 2002 Farm Act, this legislation gave wheat farmers, along with feed grain, upland cotton, rice, and oilseed farmers, access to marketing loans, as well as both direct and countercyclical payments, according to the USDA. Signed on May 13, 2002, this legislation was effective for a period of six years. It replaced the 1996 "Freedom to Farm" legislation that intended to decrease farmers' dependence on government assistance. The 2002 Farm Act was replaced by the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, which was passed by an override of a presidential veto in May of that year. According to a June 2008 CQ Today article, "In addition to reauthorizing crop subsidies, the new farm law tightens income eligibility limits for payments, boosts funding for food stamps, expands conservation programs, and offers new incentives for alternative energy."

From 2003 to 2005, the planted acres of winter wheat steadily fell from 45.4 million acres to 40.4 million acres. These numbers remained stagnant in 2006 with 40.6 million acres planted and 31.1 million acres harvested. However, by 2007, there was a significant increase to 45.1 million acres of winter wheat planted and 37.6 million acres harvested. Kansas led the country in production with about $1.3 billion in value of production over Washington's $516.8 million. Of these, 31.9 million acres were hard red winter wheat, 8.3 million acres were soft red winter wheat, and 3.9 million acres were white wheat. Durum wheat acres were estimated at 2.2 million acres planted in 2007, which represented a rise from 2006 levels of nearly 1.9 million acres. In 2007, other varieties of spring wheat fell to 13.1 million acres planted and 12.7 million harvested, which was a sharp decrease from 2006 totals of 14.9 million acres planted and 13.9 million harvested. The total value for 2006 was $5.4 billion in winter wheat, $240 million in durum, and $2.1 billion in other spring wheat. By the end of 2006, there were 1.31 billion bushels of stored wheat, down 8 percent from 2005 levels, with off-farm stocks at 911 million bushels, down 1 percent from the previous year.

Land grant universities, such as Texas A&M and Kansas State University, perform a great deal of research that has been very successful in developing stronger strains of wheat and more effective chemical fertilizers. Yields are expected to continue to rise as a result of this work. Increasingly, however, concerns for the environment are pushing researchers away from sheer yield growth projects. Instead, researchers have been working to develop ways to maintain farmers' profitable yields while lessening their dependence on chemicals. In addition, droughts and sun-scorched farms have led to international nonprofit research efforts for enhancing the productivity, profitability, and sustainability of wheat and corn and for developing a wheat hybrid that is more heat resistant. Theoretically, such a wheat hybrid would alleviate some of the capriciousness involved in growing wheat. In general, research into genetically improving wheat has been tempered by the genetic complexities of wheat as well as the low profitability for commercial seed companies. In 2004, the acceptance of such bioengineered wheat remained uncertain, as proven when agricultural chemical company Monsanto bowed to commercial and consumer resistance due to potential export losses and safety concerns, respectively.

The 2007 Census of Agriculture, which is updated every five years by the U.S. Census Bureau, reported an estimated 159,527 wheat farms, down from 169,528 in 2002. The number of acres harvested shrank from about 62 million to 46 million, as did the number of bushels produced, from 2.5 billion bushels in 2002 to 1.6 billion bushels in 2007. Historically, wheat farms have been small, but by the late years of the first decade of the 2000s, 60 percent of wheat farms were 500 acres or more in size.

In 2008, five states together accounted for almost half the wheat produced in the United States and half the revenues earned from wheat. Kansas remained the top producer, with 356,000 million bushels, followed by North Dakota (311,200 million bushels), South Dakota (172,540 million bushels), Oklahoma (166,500 million bushels), and Montana (164,730 million bushels). Annual wheat production values averaged $7.3 billion from 2004 to 2006, but in 2007 they increased significantly, mostly due to rising prices. After reported production values of $13.2 billion in 2007, U.S. wheat production rose again in 2008 to $16.6 billion. Production also increased from 2.0 billion bushels in 2007 to 2.5 billion bushels in 2008.

Although genetically modified wheat was not being commercially produced anywhere in the world as of 2009, in May of that year, organizations representing the wheat industry in the United States (including NAWG and USW), Canada, and Australia announced in Truth About Trade and Technology that they would "work toward the goal of synchronized commercialization of biotech traits in the wheat crop.". In a publicly released statement, the groups noted the importance of wheat to the food supply and the problem of declining acres in all three countries, due partly to competition from crops, such as corn and soybeans, that have the advantages of biotech traits. The group also commented on the slow growth trend of wheat yields compared to other crops and the lack of investment in wheat research worldwide. Some consumer groups, especially in the United States and Australia, were opposed to genetically engineered crops, and, as stated by Ross Korves in Truth about Trade and Technology, "Consumers will decide if biotech wheat will succeed." Korves went on to say, however, that "The U.S. wheat industry has decided that current technology will not keep them competitive short term or long term" and that "the price for progress will be paid by wheat growers through increased productivity from new biotech seeds."

Current Conditions

In the 2010-11 season, U.S. wheat production totaled 2.04 billion bushels, or 8.27 percent of the world's total production. Of that total, the United States exported 900 million bushels, accounting for 19 percent of all the world's exports. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Trade Department, U.S. ending stocks totaled 997 million bushels. U.S. wheat growers planted 53.8 million acres during the 2010-11 season, a four-year low, and down from 59.1 million acres in 2009-10. Yield (bushels per acre) was also down slightly from 44.4 bushels in 2009-10 to 43.4 in 2010-11. Prices declined substantially during the 2009-10 season and were expected to remain low during the 2010-11 season. Wheat averaged $6.78 per bushel during 2008-09 and just $4.90 per bushel in 2009-10. Prices were anticipated between $4.10 and $5.10 for 2010-11. The Kansas City Board of Trade price was $4.40 in March 2010.

HRW prices, which reached significantly high prices of $9.93 per bushel in March 2008, were $4.49 per bushel in March 2010. HRS prices, which peaked at $11.20 per bushel in February 2008, dropped to $5.06 per bushel in March 2010. SRW prices, also reaching highs in March 2008 ($9.70 per bushel), were $4.14 per bushel in March 2010. White and Durham experienced similar declines from significant highs in 2008 ($10.20 and $15.40 per bushel, respectively) to $4.52 and $4.57 per bushel in March 2010.

The supply-induced shock to prices in 2007-08 led to the decline in prices over the following years. However, by 2010, these lower prices, along with increased global demand, gave some indication of change in the wheat industry. In addition, fewer acres of wheat were being planted each year. "We know U.S. producers are planting less wheat on average every year," U.S. Wheat Associates Vice President of Overseas Operations Vince Peterson told Southwest Farm Press. "Crops like corn and soybeans offer more income, but that trend exists everywhere wheat is grown, not just in the United States." Peterson predicted that within a few years, demand would exceed production, which would drive prices upward.

America and the World

According to a 2010 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the global market for wheat continued to grow during 2010-11 while overall production declined for the fifth consecutive year. The report also predicted that the United States would hold its top spot as the world's largest exporter of wheat. The United State's top export locations include Sub-Sahara Africa (Nigeria, Republic of South Africa, Sudan, and Kenya), Japan, Mexico, and the Philippines. In most years, the United States, Australia, Canada, the countries belonging to the European Union, Argentina, and the former Soviet Union (primarily Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan) account for approximately 90 percent of the world's wheat exports. In 2007-08, a decade high of 34 million metric tons of wheat was exported, up by almost 10 million metric tons from the previous year and totaling 30 percent of the world's total wheat exports. Not only did the United States have large stocks that year but also the value of the dollar fell. The decreased value of the dollar combined with poor wheat crops in other export countries led to the high level of U.S. exports.

Trade-Expanding Provisions
The United States offers loan guarantees to foreign purchasers of U.S. wheat, and, under Public Law 480, which was established in 1954 by President Eisenhower and renamed in 1961 as the "Food for Peace Program" by President Kennedy, it provides some surplus wheat to low and middle-income countries through subsidized sales or as donations. In return, the revenue the country generates goes toward specific developmental projects. Public Law 480 funds also are regularly used to support wheat farmers' associations and commissions and is largely operated by the USAID. A smaller Food for Progress program (Section 416(b) of the Agricultural Act of 1949) is geared toward the implementation of market-oriented agricultural reform in less developed countries. Although Section 416 had an impact on wheat exports in the late 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s, the program had little consequence in the early 2010s. These programs were all under the constant scrutiny of U.S. wheat farmers to ensure that they continue to generate business for them.

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