Montana farmers plant fewer wheat acres this year

By Tom Lutey Associated Press

HELENA — After years of shrinking their wheat acres, U.S. farmers indicate they’ll be planting more — though not in Montana, the nation’s third largest wheat state, federal officials estimate.

Farmers shared their planting intentions with the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this month. The results, released Thursday, show Montana farmers expect to plant 190,000 fewer wheat acres, while nationally the intended wheat acres increased 3 percent to 47.3 million.

Wheat is still by far Montana’s largest cash crop, with 4.95 million acres planted, though just four years ago, planting intentions were a million acres larger. Montana farmers were consistently selling $1 billion worth of wheat annually through the first half of the decade.

Prices have slid in recent years because of global overproduction, and farmers have responded by planting other crops like lentils and dry edible peas.

This year is different because acres are down for most crops, said Cassidy Marn, trade and marketing manager for the Montana Wheat and Barley Committee. Marn suspects the long winter, which has kept farmers from planting this month, has influenced what’s being reported to USDA.

“I’m just a little surprised that everything is down,” Marn said. “It’s going to have to be made up somewhere.”

Farm plantings usually shift around like air in a balloon. When acres of one crop are squeezed, the acreage of another crop expands. As wheat acres declined from 2014 through 2017, lentil acres increased five-fold.

Not this year. Montana farmers told USDA there would be 335,000 fewer acres of lentils and peas planted. But these are crops that have to be planted early in the season to fully qualify for federal crop insurance. With March ending and little to nothing planted across the state, time is running out for early crops, Marn said.

If April doesn’t go well, possibly because spring rains make fields too muddy, then wheat might be one of the few options farmers have left, Marn said. She expects there will be farmers who plant wheat as a last option.

Lola Raska, of the Montana Grain Growers expects spring wheat acres to rise depending on the weather. That's what she's hearing from fellow farmers in the Golden Triangle, which includes Great Falls.

"It might be a reflection of a ‘wait and see’ attitude as spring moisture/drying unfolds," Raska said in an email. "As it gets later and later before farmers can get in the field, at least here in the Triangle, I think you may see those spring wheat acres increase – crops like barley and peas don’t seem to do as well with late seeding."

North Dakota farmers expect to plant an additional million acres of spring wheat this year, which might prompt Montana farmers to plant something other than wheat to avoid a supply glut.

Pea and lentil acres are down because tariffs in India have forced sellers to lower prices, said Tim McGreevy, CEO of the U.S. Dry Pea and Lentil Council. India is the largest consumer of peas and lentils, and subsequently the market North American farmers feed into.

India’s tariff on peas is now 50 percent and lentils face a 33 percent tariff, as the country attempts to shield its own farmers from competition. The price of U.S. peas and lentils had to be cut to accommodate the tariff.

“The reason for the price decline is the Indian tariffs put into place in late December,” McGreevy said. “The 50 percent tariff on peas that went into effect Nov. 8, that basically shut down all exports. We shipped 170,000 to 200,000 metric tons a year of yellow peas to India. And we ship 75,000 to 100,000 metric tons of lentils. Still, the price is right at the 10-year average.”

McGreevy said last year’s drought is influencing what Montana farmers intend to plant in 2018. There were spring wheat farmers who went last year with fertilizer that wasn’t put to use because drought wiped out the crop. In the northeast corner of the state, which farmers refer to as the “platinum rectangle” because of its production value, there could be wheat planted instead of lentils or peas because if last year’s fertilizer isn’t put the use, it will be a lost investment, McGreevy said.

Kim Murray, of Froid, said the 2017 farm year was so dry that the fertilizer he put in the ground for wheat was still there when it finally snowed.

“We put all our fertilizer out and it just laid there,” Murray said. “I soil tested before Christmas and still had 60 to 130 points of available nitrogen out there. I don’t know if I could put another crop there,” other than spring wheat.

The big gainers in prospective farm acres were chickpeas, which saw a 40,000-acre increase and hit 315,000 acres. Hay producers expected to plant 2.7 million acres, up 150,000 acres from last year.

Corn acres were flat at 115,000.