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US reaps bumper wheat crop from fewer acres

The rumble is growing with each passing day. You can't hear it from the cities, but out on the nation's wheat farms, around tiny communities like this one, thousands of farmers are oiling their giant combines, climbing up into the driver's seat, and starting their engines.

Wheat harvesting, which started several weeks ago in Texas, has begun in this region. And predictions of a big crop hold major implications for farmers, shoppers, and people around the world.

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On many farms around here, before the combines arrive, slender wheat stalks with their prickly, full heads that hold precious grains sway in the warm breezes, covering the fields with a tall golden carpet as far as you can see.

''It sure looks good,'' says Werner Hoops, a lifelong farmer, now retired, as he drives alongside one of the fields.

A big wheat crop is predicted - and it could have been even bigger. One-third of the nation's wheat land was not planted this season, as farmers opted instead to take title to government-held crop stocks under the federal payment-in-kind (PIK) program, says an official with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Under the plan, the federal government uses its stores of surplus crops to pay farmers not to plant.

Around here the unplanted acres make it look as though soil is a major new crop.

But good weather and more care given to the land planted (generally the least productive lands were not planted) have led to predictions of a record yield of 40 bushels per acre. This year's harvest is estimated to be only 11 percent less than last year's bumper crop.

According to experts with the USDA, the Federal Reserve, and the American Farm Bureau Federation, this year's big wheat crop means:

Abundant food supplies. The US crop is more than ample to meet domestic and export demand. Big wheat crops are also predicted for most of the other major wheat-producing nations, including Australia, which last season had a major drought.

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No major effect on food prices. Wheat costs represennched this spring because of large crop stockpiles from abundant harvests in previous years. An oversupply tends to depress prices to farmers.

Ross Korves, an economist with the American Farm Bureau, the nation's largest farm organization, says he is pleased with PIK, but wants it continued a second year. Farm income will increase from about $11 billion to $15 billion this year, he predicts, primarily due to costs saved because of reduced planting.

The US exports about 60 percent of its total wheat production (including the spring-planted wheat, which is harvested later in the year), says Mr. Korves. If US production costs are too high, other countries undersell the US, he says. But if prices are too low, farmers suffer. Wheat prices to farmers are expected to be about what they were in 1981, around $3.60 a bushel, says James R. Donald, chairman of the USDA's World Agriculture Outlook and Situation Board.

Corn production is expected to be down substantially this year as a result of the PIK program, says Mr. Donald. And the soybean crop is expected to be lower than last year for a number of reasons, he says.

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