U.S. Wheat Acres – Higher But Still Historically Low
The U.S. planted nearly 50 million acres of wheat for the 2023 harvest, the largest acreage since 2016. That year’s winter wheat crop, which accounted for an average of 73% of total wheat acres, was the first crop planted after the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine sent wheat prices soaring. 2023 acreage was 3.8 million acres, or 8.3%, higher than the year before. While U.S. wheat acres have trended higher recently, this week’s article recaps the long-run decline.
Wheat’s Long Decline
Despite a 5-million-acre increase since 2020, U.S. wheat acres remain at the low end of historical observations (Figure 1). Since 1919, the U.S. has planted fewer than 50 million acres just 10 times, with seven of those occasions being the most recent seven years.
Figure 1 also captures wheat booms during the 1970s and the decades-long decline since the 1980s. For the 1972 crop, the U.S. planted 54.9 million acres. In the fall of 1972, the Great Russian Grain Robbery unfolded and wheat exports surged in the following years. With “fencerow to fencerow” on everyone’s mind, wheat acreage would peak at 88.3 million acres in 1981. During those 10 years, the U.S. added 33 million additional wheat acres. The uptick was equal to an average annualized growth rate of 4.9% for the 10 years. It’s also worth mentioning that wheat acreage peaked for the crop harvested in 1981, but the Russian Grain embargo had occurred a year earlier, in January 1980.
Fewer Acres, But Where?
In 2020, U.S. wheat acreage fell to a 100+ year low of just 44.5 million acres. From the 1981 peak (88.3 million) to 2020’s low, wheat acreage shrank by 49.6%. The 40-year decline was a pace of roughly 1 million acres per year or an average annualized decline of 1.7%. However you slice the data, the trend was a relatively slow rate of change persisting for multiple decades.
Using county-level acreage data, we can plot the U.S. wheat acreage decline by geography. Overall, the decline hasn’t been uniform. This is to say the 50% decline didn’t unfold as a 50% decline in each state or county.
Figure 2 shows wheat acreage in five-year segments since 1970. The first observation is that wheat’s acreage gains during the 1970s occurred as wheat expanded outside the Great Plains, especially in Missouri, Illinois, and the Delta region. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, however, those states again planted fewer acres. Also, wheat acreage contracted in southern and eastern Nebraska during that period.
The Northern Great Plains, especially South Dakota after the 2000s, is also worth mentioning. While wheat production remains, its footprint has dramatically contracted. Even North Dakota has experienced declines, albeit not as dramatic.
Perhaps it’s easiest to mention where wheat acreage has been resilient (or stubborn?). Considerable wheat acreage remains in western Kansas, western Oklahoma, and parts of Texas. There is also the Pacific Northwest (PNW) region. But, again, even these regions have faced a decline in acreage.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning a few hold-out pockets. One area is in southern Illinois and parts of Kentucky and Tennessee. Here, double-cropped soybeans are a critical crop budget consideration. Wheat also remains in northwest Ohio and parts of Michigan.
Wrapping It Up
While wheat has accounted for a smaller share of U.S. acreage in recent decades, it remains a major crop at nearly 50 million acres. Furthermore, some regions and pockets still have significant production.
While it’s easy to overlook wheat when sizing up the annual corn and soybean acreage battle, behind the scenes have been former wheat acres planted for other crops. For instance, the U.S. regularly planted 150 million combined acres of corn and soybeans in the early 2000, compared to 178.5 million in 2023. In other words, wheat’s decline has not occurred in a vacuum and can affect the supplies of corn and soybeans.
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