U.S. Agriculture Secretary Edward Schafer had some good news and some bad news for wheat farmers when he addressed a group of food aid groups meeting in Kansas City earlier this month.
Any news about wheat, of course, is important to Kansas. On average, Kansas still produces more wheat than any other state in the nation and accounts for about a fifth of the entire U.S. crop. According to the Kansas Department of Agriculture, roughly a third of the state's 63,000 farmers grow about 400 million bushels of wheat a year.
This crop is important not only to farmers but also to other areas of the state's economy. The state ranks first in the nation in flour milling, wheat gluten production and wheat stored - although according to Schafer, those storage numbers may be down.
Global wheat stocks, he said, are at a 30-year low and U.S. wheat stocks are at a 60-year low. That's good news for Kansas wheat farmers who can expect strong markets and high prices for their crop.
The bad news came in the form of warning about a dangerous wheat disease that originated in east Africa but is quickly spreading to other parts of the world. It is called African stem rust and it already has made its way to Uganda, Ethiopia, Yemen, India, Pakistan and now Iran, leaving a path of crop failures in its wake. It is carried by wind spores and could have a devastating impact on U.S. wheat acres.
More than 75 percent of U.S. wheat acres are planted to varieties that are highly susceptible to the disease, Schafer said. For that reason, scientists have mounted an international effort, shipping U.S. wheat breeding lines to east Africa where they are being used in research to find a rust-resistant strain and new protections against the disease. Kansas State University also has one of the nation's most sophisticated and advanced research programs to monitor and control diseases in wheat.
Perhaps this is a problem that science can solve, but it's sobering to consider the devastating impact this disease could have on Kansas agriculture, not to mention global food supplies. Too often, Americans take the food on their plates for granted. The ag secretary's message should help us recognize the largely unappreciated role performed by farmers in Kansas and across the nation.