Ordinarily, Bobby Morris would spend most of September planting wheat as fast as he could pull seed out of his five storage bins and get it in the drill and to the field.
He's scrambling this year to find enough seed to plant 3,500 acres of his own land and some 3,000 his two sons intend to sow.
He has plenty of seed wheat stored from last year's crop. All five bins are full. But he can't plant the first kernel of that seed. And he can't move it out of the bins to make room for new seed.
Morris and many other farmers in the four Texas Rolling Plains counties of Baylor, Throckmorton, Young and Archer have wheat with detected Karnal bunt spores. And that's where the situation gets complicated.
If government inspectors had discovered bunted kernels in last year's wheat harvest, farmers would have been entitled to compensation, about $1.80 per bushel. But no compensation is available for wheat with detectable spores on the seed.
“About 90 percent of the wheat in these four counties has Karnal bunt spores,” says Morris, who farms near Seymour, with acreage in all four affected counties. “We can't plant it, and we're having difficulty moving it out. We can't buy new seed wheat because we have no place to store it. It's a mess.”
“Many of our farmers would have been better off if inspectors had found bunted kernels in their wheat,' says Mark Dorsey, Baylor County Extension agent.
The wheat can be sold, but buyers are not anxious to take it.
“We thought we had arranged to ship most of this spored wheat to Houston,” Morris says, “but the World Trade Center tragedy shut down transportation. We may be able to get rid of it eventually, but we need space to store seed wheat now.”
Dorsey says one buyer has indicaed he may take the wheat. “Farmers can put it in the loan and at least get something for it,” he says. “That's beginning to look like a possibility.”
Morris says a sensible solution would be to allow farmers with spored wheat to plant it for grazing only. “We would not harvest it,” he says. “But policing the acreage to make certain none is combined next spring would tax government agencies beyond their manpower limitations, they say. So we can't use it for this year's crop.”
Morris usually pulls seed out of his storage bins and moves it directly to the fields. “That's pretty typical of how wheat farmers in this area work,” he says. “This year, we're all having to scramble to get a truck to an elevator when we learn that a shipment of seed is coming in.
“We just hope we can get enough seed to plant what we need.”
“Farmers have been extremely cooperative about splitting a shipment of seed when it comes in,” Dorsey says. “They're having to unload from a semi-trailer into their hoppers in some cases.”
Dorsey says some farmers have “planted wheat they're not too comfortable with. We got some from neighboring counties that doesn't look any better than wheat we grew here. We've also gotten wheat from Abilene and Amarillo. We're experimenting this year. We've even planted some soft wheat.”
Virtually all the wheat in this area provides winter forage for stocker cattle.
“We're into cattle big time,” Morris says. Cattle offer area farmers their best profit opportunity, and wheat provides the foundation for taking 400 pound calves to 800 pounds by early summer.
Morris and his two sons may buy as many as 5,000 head of cattle this fall and winter. To assure ample forage, “we need to plant our wheat in September,” he says.
Morris says the Karnal bunt issue likely will be resolved with trade negotiations, but not in time to move the seed out this fall.
World Trade Organization agreements include a zero tolerance for Karnal bunt. Some observers say the United States placed the zero tolerance language in agreements to prevent Mexican wheat from entering the country.
“If that's the case, we did it to ourselves,” Morris says.
“In my opinion, Karnal bunt is not a biological problem but an international trade issue. We have four smuts in this area that are more serious than Karnal bunt, but they do not have the zero tolerance label.”
Morris says Karnal bunt poses no threat to livestock or humans. In heavy enough concentrations, flour made from infected kernels may have a fishy odor.
Morris also expresses concern that seed with identified spores is not eligible for compensation. “The government basically condemns the seed but we get no compensation. That doesn't seem right,” he says.
“I have wheat stored in my bins and will still have to spend $70,000 to buy seed to plant.
“Out of 400,000 acres of wheat planted in these four counties, only a handful of farmers had bunted wheat and were eligible for compensation. Most of it has spores.”
Morris emphasizes that the issue, in light of the crisis the country faces, may seem insignificant. “I don't want to be a complainer,” he says. “I'm making a living growing food on this farm and I like what I do. And farmers have to change and see what new opportunities come along. Grazing cattle, now, seems to be our best option.”
Dorsey says Baylor County farmers had about half their anticipated wheat acreage planted by mid-September. “Some of it was up by mid-month. Moisture has been fairly good so far, but we'll need another rain to get the wheat off to a good start.”
He said a mid-September dry spell slowed planting. “Still, we're ahead of where we were the last two years.”
Dorsey says getting back to normal for the quarantined counties will take some time. “We will probably be three to five years before we can plant wheat the way we would like to,” he says. “This year, all the wheat we plant will be harvested by four-legged combines. We'll graze it all.”
Farmers had hoped that a November meeting of the WTO could resolve some of the trade issues with Karnal bunt wheat, but with the World Trade Center disaster, no one is optimistic that the meeting will take place.”