What Ever Happened to
Wheat Mountain?
Copyright ©1997 by Geri Guidetti

In 1985, we lived on the high, semi-arid, eastern plains of Colorado. It was rattlesnake country and wheat country, too. Dryland farming was what folks did out there. Plant hard red winter wheat in the fall, hope there would be enough moisture during the winter to carry the young plants over until spring, catch some spring rain, and harvest a good crop in late June or early July, before the blistering summer sun baked everything dry.
We had a half-mile wide tornado there in the summer of '85, and I decided to write an article on the way the local farmers were adapting to their losses of buildings, animals and crops. That's when I first encountered "Wheat Mountain." I had stopped by a farm that appeared to have ducked any damage at all.
"Yup," the farmer told me, "it just skipped right by us. It even missed the barn." The building he was pointing to was an enormous, light blue sheet metal structure, about half the size of a football field, I estimated. It was a full two stories high.
"That's a barn?" I asked. "Yup. C'mon inside," he said.
It was fairly dark inside the "barn", and the first thing I did was walk into a hay bale that lay on the floor just inside the door. I soon saw that it was one of hundreds of hay bales laid out along the entire perimeter of the building, as far as the eye could see. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see that the hay bales were serving as a makeshift container for the outer edges of the most enormous mountain of grain I had ever seen.
"Wheat Mountain," the farmer quipped, smiling.
Wheat Mountain, indeed. It was a story and a half high at its peak and maybe 50 yards long. All wheat. The hay bales kept the mountain from gradually pushing out the walls of the metal building. The farmer was pleased to tell me that the Federal Government had just bought that building for him to the tune of a quarter million dollars-- because there had been no market for his wheat this year or last. This mountain was excess wheat, and you had to store it somewhere, maybe for years at a time.
"If there was no market for your wheat this year or last, why did you grow another crop of wheat? Why didn,t you grow oats or barley or rye or winter cabbage for that matter?" I asked.
"Because I'm a wheat farmer," he said, smiling.
His logic escaped me but, in retrospect, one might argue that despite the expense and seemingly illogical Federal agricultural policy, those were the good ol' days.
At the Agricultural Outlook Forum '97, held this winter in Washington, D.C., David Blandford, an economist in the Directorate for Food, Agriculture and Fisheries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) stated:
"In terms of factors affecting the potential variability of international prices, the greatest change over the past few years has been the virtual elimination of public stocks of grain in OECD countries. By the end of the 1995/96 season, stocks of wheat in OECD countries had fallen to roughly 19 percent of production, compared to an average of 29 percent during the preceding five years.
"In an era of budget restraint, governments are increasingly unwilling to fund stockholding and expect this to be undertaken by the private sector. It is difficult to determine the extent to which the reduction in the role of the public sector will be replaced by private stockholding in OECD countries, but some increase in private stocks seems likely. At the same time, stocks in the non-OECD area have largely been maintained and consequently their share of the world total has increased. The share of world wheat stocks held in the none-OECD countries is likely to be around 65 percent by the turn of the century, compared to roughly 55 percent during the early 1990s (OECD, 1996).
"Public stocks of grain, particularly those in major exporters such as the United States, have provided an important buffer against fluctuations in production created by the weather...."
Let's take a look at who the 29 OECD countries are, those who are no longer storing public stocks: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea (Republic of), Luxembourg, Mexico, Norway, Poland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.
It is not too difficult to recognize that most countries of the free world, especially the principal exporters, are no longer storing grain. Blanford points out that the non-OECD countries will own 65% of the world's wheat stocks in a mere 2.5 years. Let,s pose an interesting question: if this year,s El Niño, now expected to as bad as if not worse than the previous record-setting 82-83 event, wipes out Australia's wheat crop with drought as it did in the 80s"if the U. S. and Canada were to lose their over-wintering wheat crops this coming winter when El Niño effects are expected to peak where will we all get our wheat from?
The current El Niño prediction models are calling for dry conditions in most of British Columbia, Alberta and southern Saskatchewan for Jan-Feb-Mar 1998. Dry in North Carolina and the Ohio Valley in Jul-Aug-Sept. Much of the U.S. farm country is expected to be either abnormally dry and warm or abnormally wet and cold this winter.
Would we get our grain from the non-OECD countries? From China, Iran, Africa, India or South America? Don't count on it. Africa, South America and India are all expected to be negatively impacted by drought, though some areas of South America will see floods. Predictions for flooding in China's fertile Yangtze-Huaihe Basins of east-central China are also being published. India and northern Africa will be dry. Then there are the politics involved and the need to feed their own people from their own stocks.
And it doesn't have to be El Niño that causes the disruption in normal food production. There is the colder La Niña event that often follows her warmer brother. The extreme drought in the Midwest Corn Belt of the United States in 1988 has now been linked to the cold event following the 1986-87 El Niño. We have yet to face that prospect in 1998 or later. Remember the Dust Bowl Days. This all bears watching.
There are steps we can take to increase our personal food security. For instance, this growing season is still looking promising despite the arrival of conditions that are now being attributed to intensifying anomalies in the Pacific. For the week ending July 5, for example, more than five dozen record lows were set across the Western and Central states. (Can you imagine Bakersfield, California with three consecutive daily record lows of 54, 55 and 55 degrees F?)
Winter wheat harvests, at 48% complete, are running behind their average 52% for this date, yet the harvests should be sufficient to stock up a bit this year. Corn silking, a sign of maturation, is behind as well, but there is a lot of corn planted this year. If the severe weather anomalies will hold off until the crop is in, corn would be a good bet to buy and store. Despite the welcome rains that broke a dry spell in the Northern Plains states, the country's spring wheat and barley crop condition declined. Spring wheat heading is behind average and so is barley development. Given the worsening of the current El Niño, I would not wait to get spring wheat if you are wanting to put some away at a decent price. It might not materialize. Make hay while the sun shines, as Laura Ingalls Wilder said. You could build and store a small Wheat Mountain of your own.
Another thing you can do is buy open-pollinated food seeds that are drought resistant for those areas that are predicted to be impacted by drought, and fungus resistant for those expected to be much wetter than usual. Learn how to grow food under a variety of extreme weather conditions. These skills and stocks may prove critical to your food security sooner than you think......Geri Guidetti, The Ark Institute

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