Monday, May 17, 2010

2010 wheat harvest (Oklahoma and the world) and food security

OKLAHOMA WHEAT HARVESTThe 2010 Oklahoma wheat harvest is just about to begin.  Usually my home county (Tillman) is one of the first places to start cutting wheat.  The farm I grew up on was only 6 miles from the Red River, so it's about as far south as you can get and not be in Texas.  See the Frederick Press for a nice picture of wheat ripening south of Frederick, county seat of Tillman County.

Wheat harvest was a very exciting time when I was growing up.  The town was packed with strangers -- customer harvest crews from every state north of us, who were following the harvest northwards and cutting wheat.  Farmers were anticipatory (generally anyway) of a good harvest, and also at the same time worried since a quick 10 minute hail storm could turn a field of wheat ready to harvest into compostable straw.  Generally, in southwest Oklahoma, rain is a blessing (about 28 inches annual rainfall down there, 'just barely enough' for dryland farming), but not at harvest time.  Rain can delay the harvest, and that is always a worry.  The price may fall, the custom harvest crews may pull out because they need to get on to the next station in their harvest trail, more bad weather could knock the grain down, and etc. A field ready to harvest is fragile, and no farmer will rest easily until it is safely gathered and in the bins.

Let's all say a prayer for farmers getting ready for harvest, and for the safety of the crews who harvest them (I met a lot of 9 fingered harvesters, usually the ring finger was missing due to a harvest accident that caught on their wedding ring).

The total Oklahoma wheat harvest is still being predicted in the 130-140 million bushel range, which is not a record but better than 2009. 

I am not a wheat farmer, but I always hold my breath on the wheat harvest.  This is a critical moment for all of rural Oklahoma, and many of my friends and relatives.  Plus there's the little detail of the importance of the wheat harvest for all who need to eat in the coming year.  Sure, Oklahoma isn't the only place where wheat is grown and harvested, and world wheat stocks have rebuilt over the last couple of years and are at their highest since the 1980s. 

This is assuming that the government's World Agricultural Supply and Demand report is accurate.  The government expects that we'll end up carrying over 1 billion bushels of wheat into the 2011 harvest, which is about 1 year's supply for human consumption (based on present consumption patterns), or about 10 months total consumption (human plus animal feed).  The world harvest is projected to be the third highest production on record (if all the wheat makes it to harvest, see commentary above about the risks to a standing field of wheat).

Of the other major world food production (corn, rice, soybeans, oil seeds, cotton, turkeys, chickens, beef), only soybeans and beef are showing anticipated declines this year.  World rice harvest will be a record, but so will world consumption.  World rice carryover will only be the equivalent of about 3 months consumption, so everyone of course is also hoping for a great rice crop in 2011.

The downside of this for farmers is that they can expect lower prices for most of their production except for cattle and dairy.  Of course, don't hold your breath waiting for much if any price discounts at the supermarket.  You know how that goes, the price of wheat goes up 10 cents per 60 pound bushel (which is less than a penny a pound) the price of a 1 pound loaf of bread goes up 50 cents.  The price of wheat goes down a dollar or two per 60 pound bushel, the price of a 1 lb loaf of bread remains the same. 

This will however be a good year to add to your own household food security plan.  Every household should have a food security reserve of 2 years of wheat, packaged for long term storage in food-grade buckets.  And every household needs a grain mill, and should regularly use some of that wheat to bake the family's bread.  Here's my bread page, , which is how to make a traditional kneaded bread.  And here's what I'm doing now -- Artisan Bread in 5 minutes -- a no-knead recipe.

Despite the rosy picture painted by the government's report --

+ Governments have been known to fudge their reports for political reasons.  The old Soviet Union rarely reported a crop failure.  And remember the movie Trading Places with Dan Ackroyd and Eddie Murphy?  That was a good lesson about how crop forecasts can impact agricultural markets.

+ All the rosiness is depending upon everything making it to harvest, and harvest isn't over until its over.

+ Just because primary agricultural products make it to harvest, doesn't mean they can make it to your family's table.  There are a hundred things that could happen in a heart-beat that could stop the steady flow of food through the agricultural processing systems to the local supermarket.  One of these days I'm going to make a list of those reasons just to prove my rhetoric ;).

This is why every family should keep some of their family savings in the form of food.  Store what you eat, and eat what you store.  The time to build the family food security reserve and grow a resilient local food system is before the famines hit, so this year is a great year to fill out your home pantry and make sure you can feed your family no matter what is happening at the supermarket.

Note that food storage is only one of the six aspects of food security.  The others being:
  • Buy food from local farmers.
  • Sharp smartly and frugally at the supermarket.
  • Preserve and process some of your own production or local production.
  • Grow some of your own food.
  • Prepare meals from basic ingredients.
We must also note that this wealth of agricultural production is almost totally dependent upon major inputs of fossil fuels and chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, and comes with an enormous environmental price tag.  How long the conventional system of production agriculture can continue to produce at this level is not known.  If a food crisis comes upon us (and I continue to think that that may be the next big crisis, following upon the energy and financial crises), it will happen suddenly and almost certainly without warning.  Creating resilient systems of local food production will be critical to successfully transitioning through the coming Decline years and peak energy crises.

But such systems don't spring into being overnight.  If there is anything that I learned from the process of founding and leading the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, it is that agricultural systems do not turn on a dime.  You can't grow a forest over night.  If we want a more sustainable, just, and resilient system of agriculture, then there must be a market for the products of sustainable, just, and resilient farms.  That's what you're doing when you buy food and non-food items from local farmers -- you're not only feeding your family, you're investing in their future food security.


  1. I wish more people could get into milling their own flours. When you do, you begin to get interested in agriculture and the wonder of those wheat kernels. There is certainly nothing man-made to match it. . . . . Real pretty down around Tillman County.

  2. My brother southwest of Tuttle tested a field of his further south of Amber last night. 11% moisture and 61 bushels per acre! If this dry weather holds as predicted for the next week, this may be a lot bigger harvest than the Dept of Ag is predicting. I would say he's had the best weather conditions for growing wheat this year than he's seen in the last several. Contrast that 61 bu/acre with the 5-10 bu/acre he harvested off of freeze-damaged acres last year...
    Great post, Bob!