Tractor Seat Math
Each fall, I join thousands of farmers across the Southern and High Plains in carefully planting winter wheat seed into soil that we work hard to protect, conserve, and prepare. I consider it a miracle that the wheat seed I’ve planted sprouts, pushes through an inch or more of soil, emerges above ground, and eventually becomes the amber waves of grain that nourish the world.
For more than 5,000 years, farmers around the world have cultivated wheat. Despite centuries of success, I’m sure I can’t be the only one who breathes a big sigh of relief when I see those green shoots emerging from the ground.
In September and October, I’ll spend many hours preparing and planting winter wheat on my farm in north-central Kansas. A lot of thoughts ramble through my head when I spend that much time alone in a tractor. This year, the thoughts are mostly financial in nature because at my hometown grain elevator, wheat today is worth $2.83 per bushel, which worries me. It will take a lot of bushels per acre to offset the cost of production. For a few minutes, take economics out of the picture. Think about how the global impact of this nation’s wheat.
Football and Farm Fields
For the crop that will be harvested in 2017, my farm includes about 500 acres of hard red winter wheat, the kind most commonly used to bake bread. An acre is about the size of a football field; therefore, the 2017 wheat crop covers roughly 500 football fields, each of which was planted to about 75 pounds of wheat seed. Each pound contains nearly 13,300 seeds. Thus, I planted roughly 1 million seeds on each football field-size acre. I hope that about 1 million seeds will grow and produce grain. Each wheat plant will likely produce between 50 and 60 seeds.
Prior to planting each year, I project that each of my wheat acres will produce 50 bushels. Nine months will pass from the time wheat is planted in September to harvest in June. A lot can happen in that time: drought, freeze, hail, flooding, fire, pests. The crop must be extremely persistent to make it to harvest. Sometimes it doesn’t. In the years that I’ve managed my family’s farm, my fields have ranged in yield from 0 to 90 bushels per acre.
A bushel of hard red winter wheat weighs 60 pounds. Each bushel can yield 90 loaves of bread. If I meet my 50-bushe-per-acre yield objective, a professional baker can get 4,500 loaves of bread from each acre of wheat. The total from all 450 acres is 2.25 million loaves of bread. That’s about one loaf for every citizen of Kansas.
My homestate is often called the Breadbasket of the World. When you dive a little deeper into the numbers, there is a lot of truth to that. In 2016, Kansas farmers harvested about 8 million acres of wheat. Each of those acres produced 50 bushels per acre for a total of 400 million bushels – enough to produce 3.6 billion loaves of bread.
Right now, there are about 7.2 billion people in the world. Collectively, Kansas wheat farmers produce enough grain to provide half the world’s population with one loaf of bread.
U.S. farmers produce nearly 1 billion bushels of hard red winter wheat each year (plus 1.1 billion bushels of wheat used for cookies, cakes, and pasta), so you would be correct in assuming we send much of our wheat to other countries. About half our nation’s production is exported; the balance is stored in bins and grain elevators across the country, or saved to be planted the next year.
On a macro level, let’s go back to my football field-size acre. About 25 of those 50 bushels will be sent to another country. That destination could very well be the African country of Nigeria. Millers there love Kansas-grown wheat, as it is perfect for the pan breads its citizens consume each day. Nigeria imports roughly 100 million bushels of Kansas wheat, or 1 out of every 4 bushels of wheat grown in Kansas. Think of it this way: Of every 100-yard, football field-size acre of wheat planted in Kansas, the production from 25 yards will be loaded on a ship destined for Lagos, Nigeria.
Just a Job?
It can be easy to forget about what happens to a bushel of wheat once it leaves my farm and I settle up with the grain elevator. For many of us, farming is a way to make a living; it’s a job, just like that of a teacher, a truck driver, or an accountant. But from the seat of a tractor cab, it’s remarkable to think of the impact that one little wheat plant has on a growing and hungry world.