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Wheat Crop Only Adequate

WHEAT grower Wilbur Lindeberg is used to coping with three-month dry spells on his south Texas farm near Hondo. But he jokingly asked his pastor last week to pray for "unrain" after getting 25 inches since Dec. 18.

Adverse weather and smaller-than-expected fall planting of winter wheat are restraining growth in United States wheat output at a time of low stocks. Prices have risen in response, causing growers of spring wheat in the northern states and Canada to favor increasing their acreage when planting begins next month.

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The 1991-92 crop year for wheat was marked by inferior yields and high demand. By May 31, the end of the crop year, that combination will drive wheat stocks to their lowest level since 1974, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) forecasts.

Anticipating the decline, the federal government allowed farm program participants to grow wheat on another 10 percent of their land for the coming crop year. But planting of winter wheat - two-thirds of the nation's total wheat crop - fell 3 million acres short of expectations, the USDA reported in January. Wheat prices soared.

USDA wheat analyst Ed Allen says when planting decisions were made farmers had three things on their minds that made them keep their tractors in the barn: low prices, uncertainty over the vital ex-Soviet market, and the end of deficiency payments on the extra acres. And some farmers who don't depend on wheat and who had problems growing it the previous year "just didn't bother," Mr. Allen says.

Iffy weather affected what was planted. While moisture plagues Texas, dryness last fall hurt Kansas, which grows 25 percent of US winter wheat.

"For an average crop, we'd have to have extremely favorable growing conditions through harvest," says Rollie Sears, a wheat breeder at Kansas State University. Mr. Sears isn't worried about freezing weather that had been forecast to arrive today. The real risk, he says, is that this year's slow-to-mature crop will be scorched in June.

The next harvest will exceed the last one, Allen says. But to rebuild stocks to the level of last June, which itself was tight, would take a 25 percent increase. "It's very unlikely that we will get good enough yields or spring wheat plantings to produce a crop that large," he says.

Spring wheat planting begins next month in North Dakota. The current price there is $3.65 per bushel, "a few pennies above break-even," says farmer Frank Dilse, who is still pleased.

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True, the federal farm program will pay Mr. Dilse the difference between the sales and target price of $4. But this deficiency payment applies only to half his crop. "As a farmer, I'm far better off being paid out of the market than I ever am being paid through the government," he says. "Farmers here, I'm sure, have already made the decision to seed more wheat."

And not just in North Dakota, or the US. "Canadians will likely plant more [spring] wheat" because of the US winter wheat situation, says Carl Stewart, with Agriculture Canada. His country and the US compete in the world wheat market.

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