By Jennifer Latzke

The annual meeting of the Oklahoma Wheat Growers Association, Dec. 10, allowed wheat farmers to learn about trends in wheat genetic modification, marketing forecasts and the making of the 2002 farm bill.

The afternoon began with OWGA President Eddie Bowman giving a brief overview of the year's activities, including the work of the OWGA on getting a farm bill passed.

"It was a give and take situation," Bowman said. "We were pressured to take some things that we didn't want, but, overall, we got some good things for Oklahoma wheat farmers. Prices are up and hopefully next year they stay up."

A panel of representatives from the food industry, research sector and handling industry discussed identifying genetic value in wheat. The group included Gene McVey, president, Johnston Seed Co.; Michael Doane, Monsanto; John Bartel, ConAgra; and Arron Guenzi, associate professor and director of Oklahoma Plant Transformation Facility, Oklahoma State University.

Guenzi said there are many issues to consider when discussing genetic improvements to wheat. The first would be considering a long-term research partnership. Another would be to increase yields through increased genetic management.

"We started out growing about 10 bushels per acre in 1946," he said. "We raise three times that amount now, with improved genetics and management."

Guenzi also said researchers also must consider that wheat isn't used just for a loaf of bread, but for livestock grazing.

"That miller or baker still is a high priority, but improving the grazing potential for some wheat gives growers options," he said. "There is a value of about $31 million or more each year for grazing wheat in Oklahoma," Guenzi added. "There is a penalty to the crop, though. Long-term research shows a 10 to 30% yield penalty during grazing, and research is needed to improve the production of wheat so we only have about a 10% loss."

Guenzi and other panelists discussed the future of white wheat in Oklahoma and surrounding states.

"We still are experimenting with Intrada hard white wheat, which has been out a couple of years. But, in order for it to be popular, we need to have a well-defined market and we need the incentives in the farm bill," Guenzi said.

"In the Platte Program, we have a third variety that has been developed by AgriPro for ConAgra," Bartel said. "It had all the baking characteristics, but there wasn't a lot of yield, at first. We had all the incentive programs, but our farmers needed the yield results boosted. We think Platte is the one that will work in the Panhandle and in western Kansas. Specialty wheats are going to be the future. They will mean more work for identity preservation, but they should be profitable for farmers."

Doane said the next five to 10 years will bring about a whole new era for genetic potential of wheat.

"When we look at the future, genomics is big," he said. "To be able to sequence an entire plant's genome and to see gene functions mapped. We are working on improving the drought resistance for some plants, and we are looking to build yield into some plants. It is not just the private companies, though. Universities all over are grasping the marketing concepts, from these advancements. Knowledge is truly power."

McVey said the biggest change he sees in the future is the changing views of who is the end customer. The problem isn't farmers not wanting to plant GM wheat, but the end consumers don't yet know enough about GM wheat to accept it fully.

"My customer, the farmer, doesn't understand why folks don't want to by GM wheat," he said. With the increasing speed of grain transport, Oklahoma wheat can be across an ocean in a matter of days, he added. "With new GM varieties, producers must pay attention to their special needs for identity preservation and management, in order to stop contamination incidents."

Following the panel discussion was a presentation by Martyn Foreman, a wheat and feed analyst with Doane's Marketing Service. Foreman said planted wheat acres are supposed to increase to about 62.5 million acres in 2003 and then will decrease to 60 million acres by 2007. Production, this year, was down 17% in the U.S., and that combined with Australia's 46% decrease in production has cause a bit of a drawdown of world wheat stocks.

"We are seeing a big shift in buyers, on the world wheat markets," Foreman said. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture is revising its estimates of China's consumption levels and the world's wheat stocks are tightening. When China's wheat stocks go down, it has a negative psychological impact on the market."

Tommy Womack, vice president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, gave a brief summary of the activities of the national organization. Among the accomplishments was passage of the 2002 farm bill. However, Womack said work on the farm bill still is in progress.

"Since the bill is tied to the House Appropriations Committee, it doesn't look likely for a disaster package to be passed this year," he said. "And we don't want to open up the farm bill." Womack said Washington, DC, been turned on its ear by the announcement of the House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest's retirement.

"He (Combest) has been a champion for agriculture," Womack said. "Now that he has resigned, chances are his replacement as chairman will be Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R) from Virginia, who has a lot of timber interests in his area. I am meeting with him soon and we will discuss the needs of the wheat growers in this nation." Goodlatte serves on the House Agriculture Committee and he is the chairman of the Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry Subcommittee and also serves on the Livestock and Horticulture Subcommittee.

"I don't think Combest's resignation will hurt NAWG, but maybe the American farmer may not have the accessibility to that position that he has had before," he said.

Keith Kisling, secretary of U.S. Wheat Associates, presented a video describing the special circumstances surrounding wheat trade with Egypt; historically, the largest importer of U.S. wheat. He also discussed the changing world trade trends.

"Non-traditional wheat exporting countries are increasing their exports, while traditional countries, like Australia, are decreasing exports, because of drought and other conditions," he said. "The markets are volatile. But one thing is 100% sure, export market development never has been more important to the U.S. wheat farmer."

Terry Detrick, OWGA board member and former NAWG president, rounded out the late afternoon with a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the 2002 farm bill. He said the work that NAWG members and officers did was extremely important to the passing of the bill.

"I once heard that you can make a living from what you get, but you make a life from what you give," Detrick said. "Membership, in an organization like this one, is extremely important, in order to make things happen." Detrick said he never has been a proponent of partisan politics on any issue, but less on farm issues.

"We have to deal with the issues, regardless of politics," he said. He added there were several supporters of farm policy in Congress, but many more had no idea what they were really voting on.

"It is difficult to explain to some members of Congress, because there are so many titles in the bill," Detrick said. "It covers so much area. For example, 55% of the funds in the farm bill are designated for welfare and food stamps. That leaves about 25.6% for commodity support programs. The bill costs about $180 billion, but that only is 0.5% of the national budget."

The meeting concluded with entertainment and a banquet meal.

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