In harsh year, U.S. crop acreage shrinks 5%

The rainiest spring in a quarter century slowed the planting season and helped limit U.S. farmers to their smallest crop area in five decades, said the government in assessing 2019 production. Early snowfall and icy autumn weather prevented growers from harvesting more than 600 million bushels of corn, and the USDA said it would update estimates of corn and soybean supplies, if warranted, “once producers are able to finish harvesting remaining acres.”

Plantings of the 22 “principal” U.S. crops, which range from corn, soybeans, and wheat to potatoes, canola, and dry edible beans, shrank by 16.7 million acres, or 5%, in 2019 from the preceding year, said the USDA in its Crop Production Annual Report, issued each January.

“The 302.6 (million acres) is the lowest that we’ve seen since 1970,” chief economist Rob Johansson told USDA radio news.

Along with the Phase One trade agreement with China, the slump in 2019 plantings will “be a major story in 2020,” said economist Scott Irwin of the University of Illinois on social media. “What is going to happen to those 16.7 million acres of principal crops this spring?”

President Trump and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He are scheduled to sign the Phase One pact on Wednesday at the White House. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said on Sunday the agreement calls for China to buy “$200 billion of additional products across the board over the next two years and, specifically in agriculture, $40 billion to $50 billion,” reported Reuters.

Soybean production fell 20%, chiefly due to a 13-million-acre drop in plantings, said the USDA. The 2019 soybean crop was the smallest since 2013 and the corn crop of 13.692 billion bushels, down 5% from 2018, was the smallest in four years. Corn and soybeans are the two most widely planted crops in the country, accounting for 55% of principal crop area last year. Lower production in 2019 creates the opportunity to reduce large stockpiles of the crops.

In a companion report, the USDA said winter wheat sowings of 30.8 million acres for harvest this spring were the smallest since 29.2 million acres in 1909, which are the lowest on record. Winter wheat, used in making bread and other baked goods, is the dominant wheat variety grown in the U.S. Plantings have waned for years, partly due to the expansion of corn and soybeans, which offer higher yields. Winter wheat is sown and sprouts in the fall, sprouts lies dormant during winter, and resumes growth in the spring.

The USDA said it would contact corn growers in five states — Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin — and soybean growers in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in coming weeks for final data from harvest. The five states grow one fifth of the corn crop. In early December, the USDA’s Crop Progress data indicated that roughly 624 million bushels of corn were still in the field, the equivalent of 4% of the U.S. crop.

Similarly, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin were estimated to grow 9% of the U.S. soybean crop in 2019. The final Crop Progress Report on soybeans, also in early December, indicated that nearly 36 million bushels of soybeans remained to be harvested, equal to 1% of the U.S. crop.

“If the newly collected data justified any changes,” said USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, it will update its crop estimates. “Because farmers’ ability to complete harvest is impacted by winter weather, timing of the recontacts and subsequent publication schedule will be announced at a later date.”

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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