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Winter wheat crop ready to plant

Fall is harvest time for most grain farmers. But growers in eastern Virginia use autumn to plant next year’s wheat crop, which sprouts and then goes dormant over the winter before next year’s harvest.

This production cycle allows farmers to earn some extra money while keeping a crop on their fields and preventing erosion. But wheat acres have shrunk in recent years due to low profits and changing weather patterns.

In 2021, Virginia wheat farmers harvested a little more than 8 million bushels of soft red winter wheat, 3% more than in 2020. It’s the brightest harvest report in several years.

“Yields were up compared to last year,” noted Robert Harper, manager of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Grain Marketing Division. “In the 2020 season we had too much rain and a killing frost on Mother’s Day weekend right before harvest. That’s only three weeks before harvest begins. No one I talked to could remember a frost that late in the season in their lifetime.”

Virginia wheat growers planted 205,000 acres in the fall of 2020, 15,000 acres fewer than the year before when weather hurt their yields. Only 120,000 acres were harvested for grain production this summer; the rest was cut for animal feed or used for grazing.

In 2012, Virginia wheat farmers harvested more than 241,000 acres. By 2017, that number had declined to 152,000 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture.

Only two flour mills in Virginia and a few others in Maryland, North Carolina and Pennsylvania purchase winter wheat for milling from Old Dominion growers. And weather conditions must be near perfect at the beginning and end of the growing season for good-quality wheat, Harper explained. Even then, it can be difficult to make a profit.

“If you go back to 2016 through 2019, the Chicago Board of Trade had low futures prices for wheat those years,” he said. “For a couple of those years, we were at 100-year lows for winter wheat acres in the U.S.”

In addition to wheat raised for milling, many Virginia farmers also raise wheat for use in hog and turkey feed, Harper said. The planting window for winter wheat is short, typically from mid-October until Dec. 1. With prices holding strong, growers are crossing their fingers for average rainfall the next few weeks.

“Our farmers know how to raise top-quality wheat, and we have the best growers out there. But all of that can be nullified in a day if the weather doesn’t work right at the beginning and the end,” he said.