This dry year necessitated moving spring plantings from April-May to February-March. Even then, soil moisture levels were low such that I didn’t know if seeds would germinate. Since I dry farm, meaning that I rely exclusively on rainfall for irrigation, I have to time planting with the right amount of rainfall, while also depending on soil moisture, for germination. In 2018, we also experienced a warm, dry winter, but the soil was too moist to get onto for planting, without risking compaction. Some farmers planted before the end of February, but I and many others didn’t. We had to wait until late April, and when we could finally get in we were met with two heavy storms that caused soil erosion and flooding in many parts of the county. So, we want rain, the right amount, and at the right times.
Not much going right this year. I’ve received several messages from fellow California grain farmers asking if they can purchase my grain because their crops didn’t germinate or survive past March. When I made a delivery to Stockton a couple weeks ago, wheat fields stood only two-feet tall instead of three or four, and wheat heads were stunted at 0.5-1″ by water stress . I’m hearing from small organic and large commodity growers that they’re going to till under their struggling wheat. A friend told me that at the most recent Wheat Commission board meeting, each region’s representative reported they’ll be tilling under their crop.
This regional shortage is set within a broader context of lower wheat stores than previous years and high international demand, worsened by shipping delays. As you’ve likely noticed, flour bags don’t label when the wheat was harvested (or milled!), and that’s because knowing that the wheat could be as old as 10 years would turn off customers. We’ve long relied on overproduction to tide us over, but we’ve been tapping into reserves for the past ten years. Floods have lowered Midwestern yields for years, then in winter 2019 the government shutdown disabled farmers from receiving subsidies in time to purchase seed for 2020 plantings. Afterwards, heavy flooding befell those who did plant. Floods also affected China’s grain producing regions, so they increased purchases of US grain. They couldn’t purchase from India because the sudden pandemic shelter orders disabled wheat harvesters in one state from traveling to the wheat producing states.
Going into 2021, Texas, another large wheat producer, lost crop during the big winter freeze that also caused the power outages. While parts of the Midwest are faring ok so far this year, and they have some grain from last year, it’s been sold to China-based buyers and awaiting shipping. The main hold-up is the shipping container shortage
; typically, shipping containers with products coming from Eurasia arrive in California ports for unloading, then get sent to the Midwest to be filled with grain, and returned to East Asian ports. Because North Americans, mostly US Americans, have dramatically increased online purchasing of overseas products (think Pelotons, home office furniture, etc.) such that orders outpace shipping container production, the containers are sent back before getting filled with grain for overseas customers.
What’s tricky about assessing the US wheat supply is that it’s been geared towards overproduction since the Great Depression and accelerated during the Green Revolution, under the premise of food security for US Americans but has been a tool for destroying other global economies and creating dependence on the US. As supply constricts, certain supply chains are deprioritized, namely ones going to aid purposes, to the global South, to people of color. One doesn’t have to trace these chains far to reach the migrant crisis and impacts of climate change.
As activists have long said, we have what we need, but it’s a distribution problem–of food, resources, and power. Under Biden’s administration that is focusing on secure food supply chains, racial equity, and infrastructure, let’s call upon our government to distribute funds towards regional grain processing and food infrastructure that connects everyone–breaking down urban and rural food apartheid, and make it easier for farmers like me to reach you.