Parts of rural Alabama are likely to bear a close resemblance to parts of the West and Midwest next spring, with thick stalks of wheat gently swaying against the cool spring breezes.
Many cash-strapped Alabama farmers are turning to wheat to try and recover at least some of the losses stemming from last summer's disastrous drought.
“Prices really are the big factor,” says Robert Goodman, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System economist and Auburn University associate professor of agricultural economics.
“With wheat selling at well over $8 a bushel, it's a tremendous opportunity that many farmers are taking advantage of.”
Many farmers also are trying to take advantage of the fertilizer that was never used on other crops as prolonged drought set in this year. Under the circumstances, wheat seemed like a good bet to many.
A veteran farmer himself, Goodman always has expressed admiration for his fellow producers' ability to adapt to the most trying of situations. They've not disappointed him this year.
“Is it a perfect situation? No, but we're at least trying to make lemonade out of lemons,” Goodman says, adding that “while the wheat won't buy back the farm, it is a step in the right direction.”
But there is a long way to go before harvest, he cautions. One thing that especially worries Goodman is the prospect of a big Easter freeze similar to last year, which took a big bite out of summer wheat yields.
“We all need to remember that this is a stop-gap measure at best, and the wheat is not yet in the bin,” he says. “We have a lot on the line and it could turn bad too.
“Without irrigation, we have some awfully small wheat going in and we still need rain.”
In some cases, farmers also are getting dual use out of their wheat crop, irrigating it, at least where water is readily available, and grazing it with cattle to make up for acute hay shortages. Wheat can be grazed through the winter without harming spring yield, Goodman says.
For many farmers, though, the decision to plant wheat is an act of desperation.
“We have a lot of farmers who don't know if they will be farming next year,” Goodman says, adding that the decision to plant wheat is an effort to get through spring while securing the confidence of their bank lenders.
“They can put in the wheat, and it gives the lender an incentive to stay with them until they can put another crop into the ground next spring.”
But what to do after the wheat is harvested presents many producers with the biggest challenge of all.
Grain sorghum and soybeans are options — especially soybeans, which now are selling at almost $11 a bushel — but the big factor remains weather. Will Mother Nature finally come through next year with the moisture they need to turn a profit on whatever they raise?
For many Alabama producers, that remains the overriding question.
For now, Goodman says many farmers simply are thankful that wheat has turned out to be a viable option following this year's weather disaster.
“We at least should count ourselves lucky we live in a warm enough climate where we can grow wheat in between our major crops,” Goodman says.
“Farmers had a shot and they took it.”