Prices hit a two-year high recently, up 57 percent in less than three months. And on Thursday, the price of wheat spiked again after mellowing in the last weeks on reports that Russia may have to import millions of tons of wheat.
“The market says plant more,” said Eugene Schroder, who farms about 4,000 acres here in the flatlands of southeast Colorado near the Oklahoma border, where agriculture’s fingerprint stretches beyond the eye’s ability to see — some fields stubbled and cleared in post-harvest, others tassled and green with corn.
Mr. Schroder said he feared that wheat prices were being manipulated by speculators, as was the case a few years ago, just before the recession, when the price soared and then crashed.
“What is this wheat market? I don’t have a clue, and I’m a professional wheat farmer,” he said. “There’s a complete lack of transparency.”
And yet, if good wet weather holds up in the next few weeks heading into the mid-September planting time, he plans to follow the market’s signal and quadruple the number of acres in wheat. Mr. Schroder’s nephew, Curtis Schroder, who farms about 10,000 acres, said he was contemplating about the same degree of expansion on his land — to 640 acres, from 160 acres in this most recent crop.
Talk like that, repeated over morning coffee by men in baseball caps and coveralls, sends a shiver down the spine of people like A. C. Chenoweth.
Mr. Chenoweth, 89, vividly remembers how the grasslands here in Baca County were broken up for wheat beginning in the 1920s when he was a farm boy. By the mid-’30s, the loosened earth — parched by drought and abandoned by impoverished homesteaders — was lifted up in vast, swirling brown clouds. Southeast Colorado became one of the Dust Bowl’s epicenters.
“Especially to an old codger like me that saw it first hand, you wonder if it might happen again,” he said. “It worries you.”
Even before Russia’s drought, wheat was on the rise in Baca County.
Thousands of acres of grassland formerly protected under a federal system called the Conservation Reserve Program were shifted into open-market farming uses in the last few years — and much of that went to wheat.
From 2008 to 2009 alone, about 100,000 new acres of winter wheat went into cultivation in the county, according to federal figures — the biggest one-year jump since the late 1950s.
This year, a quirk of crop insurance, which locks in grain prices for policies based on a window that was set in the last few weeks — after Russia announced the ban on grain exports on Aug. 5 — could accelerate the trend, farm experts said, or prompt farmers in other parts of the country to give wheat another look.