2017 U.S. wheat crop is smallest on record, but chickpeas and lentils are hot commodities


An odd thing has happened in wheat country: A lot of farmers aren’t planting wheat.

Thanks to a global grain glut that has caused prices and profits to plunge, this year farmers planted the fewest acres of wheat since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began keeping records nearly a century ago.

Instead of planting the crop that gave the wheat belt its identity, many farmers this year are planting crops that might be less iconic but are suddenly in demand, such as chickpeas and lentils, used in hummus and healthful snacks.

“People have gone crazy with chickpeas. It’s unbelievable how many acres there are,” said Kirk Hansen, who farms 350 acres south of Spokane in eastern Washington, where wheat’s reign as the king crop has been challenged.

American farmers still plant wheat over a vast landscape, from the southern Plains of Oklahoma and Texas north through Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, as well as dry regions of Washington and Oregon. However, this year’s crop of 45.7 million acres is the smallest since 1919.

North Dakota-harvested wheat acres are down 15 percent, Montana 11 percent and Nebraska 23 percent, to the state’s lowest winter wheat acres on record.

Fewer farmers planted wheat after a 2016 crop that was the least profitable in at least 30 years, said grain market analyst Todd Hultman of Omaha-based agriculture market data provider DTN.

Many farmers took notice of a surging demand for crops driven by consumer purchases of healthful high-protein food.

“The world wants more protein, and wheat is not the high-protein choice, and so that’s where your use of those other things comes into play” and why they are doing better, Hultman said. “Up north, around North Dakota, you will see more alternative things like sunflowers, lentils and chickpeas.”

How long the new trend will continue is unknown. While some farmers will most likely switch back to wheat when profitability returns, others may keep planting the alternatives, because demand is expected to remain strong, keeping prices at attractive levels.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, acres planted in chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, are at 603,000 this year, up nearly 86 percent from last year. Nebraska increased chickpea acres 79 percent to 5,200 acres.

The USDA says lentils reached a U.S. record high 1.02 million acres planted this year.


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