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This was supposed to be the year dry bulk freight vessel owners turned a profit, Jay O’Neil, a commodities consultant and author of a weekly transportation report recently commented. And U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) shared similar thoughts early in 2021. Instead, S&P Global Market Intelligence noted recently that freight rates for dry bulkers have fallen over the past three months after rates peaked earlier than expected in the second quarter of 2022.

As rates recently climbed, however, O’Neil said the freight market may have finally found its bottom.

Bearish Factors

Since early 2020, shipping has faced uncertainties: labor shortages, various COVID restrictions made worse by each country applying different restrictions, port congestion, and supply chain breakdowns have all competed to make shipping tough. The challenges to shipping logistics have abated. As a result, the number of available vessels floating in the dry bulk freight market has increased.

As China Goes…

China plays such a dominating role in the dry bulk shipping market that analyzing economic activity there can predict the dry bulk fleet’s prospects. China’s economic growth slowed under the government’s zero-COVID policy. The global iron ore trade, one aspect that drives the dry bulk fleet, was down 6% last month compared to a year ago. An analyst with S&P Global Market Intelligence said “slower than expected economic growth” could exist through the second half of 2023. O’Neil covered bearish factors for the dry bulk freight market for USW’s 2021 Crop Quality report.

Russian Coal

Putin’s war in Ukraine has also rerouted some cargo flows and driven up demand for coal, another commodity that absorbs dry bulk shipping capacity. Sanctions on Russian gas supplies have quickly reversed European Union plans to close many coal-fired plants. While the E.U. looks to the United States for coal imports, India and China are taking advantage of cheap Russian coal and changing demand for different bulker size categories.

Another key component that helped bring down dry bulk shipping rates is the easing of port congestion.

“Inefficiencies of last year do not apply to the current market anymore and the supply-demand equation is more straightforward,” said one ship owner. AXS said a primary driver behind the lower rates is the drop in ton-miles.

Overall, Breakwave Advisors, a shipping publication, agreed saying, “Following a period of high uncertainty and significant disruptions across the commodity spectrum, the gradual normalization of trade is shifting the market’s attention back to the traditional demand and supply dynamics that have shaped dry bulk profitability for decades.”

This was all good news for dry bulk freight customers, including the world’s wheat buyers.

Line chart shows the Baltic Dry Index change from April 2022 to September 2022

Stormy Seas for Dry Bulk Freight. After peaking in the second quarter of 2022, the Baltic Exchange Dry Index retreated before bouncing up in September. Some suggest the market found a bottom, yet bearish economic factors continue.

Turning Tides

Yet signs of rate recovery are evident. The Baltic Index on September 9 notched its largest weekly increase in 8 years, according to Reuters data. The index was up 12% to 1,213. On September 12, the Baltic Index marked its fourth consecutive session of gain. AgriCensus, in a story published on August 31, noted that the purchasing managers’ index (PMI) rose to 49.4 in August, up 0.4 compared to July. But still, the index remained below the 50-point mark which separates contraction from growth.

Despite the current strengthening in the shipping index, generally bearish factors affecting dry bulk freight rates such as China’s economic situation remain. Those that follow the market closely say that rebound may simply be a market correction. For now, it seems like vessel owners may have to wait longer before turning that profit that many predicted not long ago.

By Michael Anderson, USW Market Analyst

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Editor’s Note: On Aug. 31, USDA/FAS Administrator Daniel Whitley announced the following statement:

“As a result of unanticipated difficulties with the launch of the new Export Sales Reporting and Maintenance System, USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service will temporarily revert to the legacy system while we work to fully resolve the issues with the new system. FAS will be unable to publish weekly export sales data on Thursday, Sept. 1 or Thursday, Sept. 8, but we expect to resume regular reporting on Thursday, Sept. 15.” Read more here.

Each week the USDA publishes weekly commercial export sales for various commodities, including wheat. The Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) collects data from U.S. exporters on  commodity quantity, type, class, the shipment marketing year, and the destination country. Exporters are also expected to report alterations to prior data such as order cancellations and changes in destination.

For the benefit of overseas wheat buyers, U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) posts an updated Commercial Sales Report each week on the USW website, based on this USDA data. Each updated commercial sales report shows the top 20 markets for total U.S. wheat sales and a breakdown by wheat class and destination.

FGIS Inspector

U.S. wheat commercial sales data is generated and reported by the Federal Grain Inspection Service as its teams inspect wheat and other grains before vessel loading. USDA publishes the data on Thursdays on a week delay.

Disruption

Unfortunately, there was a disruption in the report last week. A new technical system was used to report export sales as usual on Thursday, Aug. 25. However, following the publication of the report, traders questioned the contents. The report was taken offline, and the contents were redacted. Reuters reported the redaction occurred after the commodities markets had already closed for the day.

In a statement, the government said it encountered “challenges that affected the physical dissemination of the export sales data as well as data quality.”

The Gold Standard

In explaining the report’s significance, Reuters stated, “the export sales report, which has a week-long delay, is a key indicator for traders, input suppliers and farmers as it highlights recent demand for crops such as corn, soybeans, and wheat at a time of tight global supplies. It calculates the sales of U.S. commodity goods to international customers such as China and Mexico.”

Commercial sales as a percentage of export forecasts can help exporters and buyers understand the supply and outline the general market for a given product. Highlighting the significance of the data reported, Reuters described the weekly commercial sales report as a “gold standard.” In fact, early U.S. wheat leaders fought through the battle of the “Great Grain Robbery” by the Soviet Union and advocated for more transparency and information from USDA to help farmers and their overseas customers that helped lead to weekly commercial sales reports in 1976. The USDA also forecasts annual commodity exports in the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE) report.

USW Commercial Sales Charts

USDA Commercial Sales data 9above from Aug. 18, 2022) is needed to help understand market movements. USW expands and reports that data each week as it is released from USDA.

The USDA is addressing he technical issues now, and as of Aug. 30, the export reporting system was still down.

USW will continue to report commercial sales but only with data that we know to be accurate.

By Michael Anderson, USW Market Analyst

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Global durum production is expected to rebound in 2022/23, but stocks are likely to remain tight this season.

Total durum production in 2022/23 is expected to increase 10% to 33.9 MMT, led by increases in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. While durum production in North America looks good, production across Europe and North Africa is expected to fall. Reductions are led by the E.U. and Australia. Kazakhstan is expected to produce more durum but has banned wheat exports through September. Countries across North Africa, including Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, grow significant domestic crops, but durum production this year is forecast to be smaller, increasing the need for imports.

Drought Slashed Production

Last year, leading durum producers, including the United States and Canada, experienced hot weather and dry conditions that drastically cut production. Worldwide, beginning stocks of durum, according to Stratégie Grains, are 7.9 MMT, 1.6 MMT less than 2021/22. However, unlike last year, durum production estimates outside the E.U. and North Africa look good.

European Union

According to Stratégie Grains, a European research analyst, production across the European Union (E.U.) is seen falling to historically low levels due to dry weather. Stratégie Grains cut its E.U. durum production forecast by 600,000 MT between May and July. Stratégie Grains now forecasts production at 7.0 MMT, 9% behind 2021/22; if realized, this would be the lowest durum production since 1997.

Italy is by far the largest European durum user. Demand is pegged at 6.1 MMT. It produces a sizeable domestic crop but is experiencing a severe drought this year. An extremely dry winter and spring followed by hot weather since late spring has left the growing area parched, leading to the worst conditions in 70 years. The Italian government this month declared a state of emergency.

Heat is On in Europe

According to Coldiretti, an Italian agricultural lobby, the country’s durum and “common” wheat production this year is expected to fall 15% as the drought slashes yields. The Italian Millers’ Industrial Association expects durum production to fall 10% to 3.5 MMT.

Italian durum production, estimated at 3.4 MMT, is expected to fall 2.6 MMT short of total demand. According to USDA sales data, for the 2022/23 marketing year, which began June 1, U.S. durum sales to Italy are up 124% compared to the same time last year.

United States

According to the USDA June Acreage Report, in the U.S., durum wheat planted area increased by 34% to 1.98 million acres (801,277 hectares). In the USDA’s July WASDE report, durum production in 2022/23 is forecast at 2.1 MMT, more than double 2021/22. Exports are expected to increase twofold to 800,000 MT.

The latest Crop Progress Report, published by USDA on July 18, rated 80% of North Dakota’s wheat good or excellent, while Montana reported 50% good or excellent. North Dakota and Montana together account for 93% of the durum wheat grown in the U.S.

USW chart showing U.S. durum production, stocks and export sales

More Durum, More Sales. USDA’s first forecasts of U.S. durum production and exports in marketing year 2022/23 are up significantly. The market will be watching conditions closely from now until harvest.

Canada

Canada, usually the largest durum exporter globally, saw sluggish durum exports in the 2021/22 season. Western Canada experienced a devastating drought in 2021, which slashed yields and cut production by 53%. According to Statistic Canada, durum exports were 60% behind their 2020/21 pace through February, the latest data available.

This year looks different. Statistics Canada projects a 75% increase in supply. Canadian production is forecast at 5.52 MMT in 2022/23 due to increased seeded area and improved yields. Exports are also expected to increase 72% to 4.3 MMT.

Mexico

Durum production dominates Mexico’s total wheat production. USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service in June 2022 dropped its forecast of Mexican wheat production slightly to 3.26 MMT for 2022/23. This change was based on information from industry and official government sources, reflecting unfavorable weather conditions and other factors. Mexico’s total durum and wheat exports are forecast at 850,000 MT.

Global Demand

Global demand for durum wheat is projected to increase 1.0 MMT to 32.9 MMT in 2022/23. As a result of the lower domestic production in many countries, global trade for durum is projected to increase 1.5 MMT to 7.4 MMT in 2022/23.

Stratégie Grains forecasts durum E.U. imports from non E.U. members to be 2.4 MMT, 1.0 MMT more than last year. Imports to Morocco are expected to increase 400,000 MT to 1.1 MMT.

Outlook More Optimistic

The tight ending stocks and a poor European harvest kept durum prices initially high at the start of 2022/23. Now increased planted acres and a positive outlook for the upcoming harvest have created an optimistic outlook for the North American durum crop and potentially easing export prices. However, another year of tight supplies and unknown variables, especially weather, between now and harvest could mean price fluctuations for the marketing year ahead.

The weekly Price Report, published by U.S. Wheat Associates, shows price indications, including durum wheat. USW also publishes annual crop quality data, including for durum wheat. The 2022/23 U.S. durum crop quality will be reported this fall.

Photo of durum kernels to illustrate durum production story

U.S. Durum Production is in North Dakota and Montana where Northern Durum is grown and shipped from Great Lakes and Pacific ports; Desert Durum® is grown primarily under contract in the desert Southwest and shipped via the Gulf or West Coast.

*Supply and demand estimates for durum wheat including world production, beginning stocks, EU-specific highlights, Italy, and Morocco, are based on Stratégie Grains’ July 15, 2022, Durum Report.

By USW Market Analyst Michael Anderson

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Volatility remains the key word when looking at wheat prices, and the soft white (SW) market is no exception.

From their rapid increase following the severe drought in 2020/21 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in March 2022, U.S. wheat futures have declined recently and were down more than 4% on July 5, hitting a multi-month low. While SW does not trade on a futures exchange, as a soft wheat, it reflects the CBOT soft red winter (SRW) futures price that settled July 5 at $8.07, the lowest level since February 18, before the invasion. On July 6, the July contract SRW contracted slipped further, falling below $8.00/MT.

New Crop Arriving

The U.S. SRW and hard red winter (HRW) wheat harvests are underway, helping push futures and SW prices down as the market takes in news about crop conditions and yield potential. An additional bearish factor is improved crop conditions boosting confidence for this year’s hard red spring (HRS) crop.

Abundant moisture and cooler temperatures this growing season have benefited the SW crop but also slowed crop progress, causing a slight delay in this summer’s harvest.

More SW to Come Slightly Late

One wheat trader shared an anecdote about harvest timing from a Washington-based wheat farmer. Each year the farmer looks to when a specific type of flower blooms to indicate when harvest will start. Usually, the flowers bloom around mid-June, and wheat typically matures about three weeks later. But this year, the flowers did not bloom until the end of June, so the farmer expects to start harvest around July 15.

This look ahead at the new SW crop also helps to explain the quick run-up in SW export prices in May when “old crop” stocks were being drawn down and in June when the price started to turn toward a middle ground.

U.S. soft white wheat futures prices over time

Moderating SW Prices. As the harvest of a much improved and potentially high-yielding U.S. SW wheat crop draws near, new crop prices have come down to a level similar to prices in August 2021. Source: USW.

Buyers of SW around the world are all too familiar with the impact of drought and heat on 2021 SW production and functional characteristics, as well as export prices. This year things are different.

“Much Better” Production

The U.S. Drought Monitor keeps statistics comparing changes in drought status from year to year. A recent comparison map (below) shows significant improvement in the Pacific Northwest SW and white club production region, as well as in much of the U.S. HRS and northern durum production region.

U.S. Drought Monitor map from June 2022 showing changes in drought status from June 2021 to June 2022

Source: U.S. Drought Monitor.

In an interview with the Moscow-Pullman Daily News, Glen Squires, chief executive officer for the Washington Grain Commission, highlighted the volatility and numerous factors that fueled and then decelerated the SW wheat market. Weather, he emphasizes, is a key part of what is behind the market right now.

“Our wheat production in the Pacific Northwest is supposed to be a much better this year,” Squires said. “If the estimates are accurate, we could have 20 million bushels (544,366 metric tons) over our five-year average. So that plays into (the market volatility) a little bit.”

Buyers can monitor U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) Harvest Reports for weekly updates on harvest progress and initial crop quality data and follow more news about the 2022 harvest through state wheat commissions and regional USW office updates.

By USW Market Analyst Michael Anderson

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Consumers and suppliers both appreciate uniformity, the ability to purchase a reliable product that is available when needed. Customers of U.S. wheat know that dependable people grow and supply reliable wheat, which marks the difference between the U.S. wheat market and some competing suppliers.

Freedom to Trade

Free trade has been upheld in U.S. commerce since the country’s founding. The Export Clause, in Article I, Section 9, Clause 5 of the U.S. Constitution, states, “No Tax or Duty shall be laid on Articles exported from any State.” The framers of the constitution, eager to throw off the history of colonial rule, made it a policy that goods from the U.S. would be available to markets worldwide, and no elected official would tell them otherwise.

However, farmers have fought for uninhibited trade.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1980, President Carter cut off U.S. grain exports to the Soviets. In the aftermath of the grain embargo, more stringent laws such as the export sales reporting and contract sanctity law were passed that doubled down on the freedom of commerce.

Protectionism Rising

Despite the sincere efforts by the World Trade Organization (WTO) to keep international markets open, some countries remain quick to block exports when markets become uncertain. Covid-19 and the global shutdowns that followed showed a pattern of export bans from major commodity producers. Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has also had a reverberating effect on the grain markets. Many would-be suppliers have instead banned or restricted the sale of their wheat, creating a supply worry and once again proving that not all markets remain reliable.

When countries implement wheat export bans claiming to protect their domestic market it creates uncertainty and higher prices for buyers. Putin’s war with Ukraine pushed already increasing world wheat prices to spike to more than a decade high in March, and prices remain elevated.

Putin’s war with Ukraine pushed increasing world wheat prices to spike to more than a decade high in March, and prices remain elevated. The latest USDA Supply and Demand Report expects Ukrainian wheat exports to fall by nearly half year-over-year from 19.0 million metric tons (MMT) in 2021/22 to 10.0 MMT in 2022/23. This 9.0 MMT reduction is almost the equivalent of all the wheat Turkey is expected to import in 2022/23. Russia’s unprovoked invasion has interrupted Ukrainian commercial sales and added uncertainty to the market.

India abruptly halted commercial wheat exports on May 13, catching the wheat market off guard. The immediate suspension has moderated somewhat since then. Still, the government’s promise to fulfill export shortages caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an unexpected and costly blow to the market.

Intervention Expands

Other countries have weighed the use of export-curbing measures. Argentina’s president in May urged its legislature to increase export taxes to protect domestic prices from “surging international prices.” Kazakhstan applied a quota on wheat, including durum, soft wheat, and wheat flour, from April 15 to June 1. Belarus imposed an export ban on grains from late 2021 to early 2022.

And Russia, with a very large wheat crop now expected, has not stopped its protectionist wheat export tax that only increases the cost for buyers. Russia also imposed export bans on countries in the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), which comprises former Soviet countries. The ban is in place from Mid-March to August 31, 2022.

When countries implement wheat export bans, they often claim to be protecting their domestic market. But the actual effect is higher prices for every buyer. Export bans also create uncertainty. India’s sudden export ban is a prime example.

“We bought wheat from traders and moved it to ports,” said a wheat trader caught off guard by India’s export ban. “Our intention is to fulfill export commitments, but we can’t overrule government policy. Therefore, we don’t have any option but to declare force majeure*.”

Buyers expect reliability, and that requires suppliers to have dependable partners. U.S. wheat farmers and their export supply chain partners, with government support, strive to be that dependable partner to world wheat buyers.

By Michael Anderson, USW Market Analyst

*Force Majeure is a provision in a contract that frees both parties from obligation if an extraordinary event directly prevents one or both parties from performing.

Header photo courtesy of Adams Farms LLC in Oklahoma, June 2022

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as of Sunday, June 5, reported spring wheat planting at 82% complete, 15-points below the 5-year average of 97% and below analysts’ expectations of 86%. Spring wheat planting was up just 9-points from the week before, dragged down by slow progress in North Dakota and Minnesota. Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, and Washington planting were much further along averaging 98% planted, slightly ahead of the 5-year average.

Farmers in the upper Great Plains are likely disappointed at mother nature’s refusal to cooperate. After dry conditions in 2021, hard red spring (HRS) wheat production was down 44% compared to 2020. Planting conditions remained dry until late spring when heavy snow, persistent rain, and spring flooding made planting difficult due to the excess moisture.

A line chart showing U.S. spring wheat planting progress.

Planting Delay Perspective. This chart showing the percentage of U.S. spring wheat planting progress for the past several years showed planting in 2022 (thick black line) was far behind as of mid-May. Farmers moved quickly when conditions allowed and as of June 6, planting progress stood at 82%. Source: USDA/NASS.

Saturated Soil

Saturated fields are hard to move heavy farming equipment in. The equipment can also compact soil and tear up fields. Additionally, crops can emerge unevenly, if at all, in soggy soil. In the eastern part of North Dakota, flooding along the Red River caused road conditions to become impassable impacting field access for farmers. Finally, farmers must consider the impact of delayed planting; when spring wheat is planted too late the crop can yield less.

North Dakota

North Dakota, the largest spring wheat producing state, reported 74% of the HRS crop planted, compared to 59% the week before and 23-points below the 5-year average of 97%. Rain the last weekend in May delayed planting for some producers. Across the state, conditions differ, according to the most recent North Dakota Wheat Commission update some farmers have finished planting while others are less than halfway done. Some fields remain too wet to plant and more rain is in the forecast this week. Planting past this week is not ideal the commission notes but farmers are doing as much as they can to get their crop in the ground.

Minnesota

The USDA reported Minnesota at 65% planted for the week of June 6, 33-points behind the 5-year average of 98%. Farmers in Minnesota made significant progress between the weeks of May 22 and May 29 when HRS planting went from 11% to 53%, an impressive jump that shows what can be done in good weather conditions. Still, Minnesota farmers have much progress to make in the days ahead to get their wheat in the ground.

Canada

Conditions are not much different in Canada’s spring wheat production region. Dry weather last year also cut production while abundant rain this year is slowing planting progress. In Manitoba, the Canadian province adjacent to North Dakota, seeding progress was 40% for the week through May 31, compared to the 5-year average of 91%. Like North Dakota and Minnesota, Canadian farmers are dealing with saturated and flooded fields.

By Michael Anderson, U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) Market Analyst

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In recent months, U.S. grain rail shipping has faced a host of service-related challenges ranging from delayed cars to metered traffic and dramatic spot freight market increases. Those service problems reached such elevated levels that the U.S. rail regulatory body, the Surface Transportation Board (STB), stepped in.

The STB will now require the four largest rail carriers to submit a host of documents and conduct biweekly check-ins with the agency until service levels are restored.

The U.S. wheat industry depends heavily on rail shipping to move the crop from farms and local elevators to domestic customers and to export elevators. And USDA reports that railroads ship 25% of all U.S. grains. That is why U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) and its Transportation Working Group have coordinated with other organizations to highlight the challenges rail shipping has faced.

New Requirements

The move by the STB shows the agency is taking rail shipping concerns seriously. Carriers now must develop service recovery plans and submit regular progress reports. The regulator will also require all Class I railroads to report on customer-centric performance metrics and employment data for a six-month period. According to their published decision, the STB’s actions are “to promote industry-wide transparency, accountability, and improvements in rail service.”

The challenges with rail service are clear. The American Farm Bureau Federation put together an extensive report showing the severity of the shipping disruptions. For example, in the year after the first quarter of 2021, unfilled grain car orders went up 47%. The number of grain cars that were at least 11 days overdue went up 107%. Rates in the secondary rail market increased, and rail delivery speeds declined during the same period.

Shuttle loading system to present rail rates background

A 110-car shuttle train is loaded with grain at an inland elevator. The U.S. wheat industry depends heavily on rail shipping to move the crop to domestic customers and export elevators.

Threats of Service Cuts

In mid-April, the Union Pacific (UP) Railroad announced that it would start metering traffic if shippers did not voluntarily reduce their freight-car inventories. In a statement, UP said it had “experienced some setbacks – including numerous service interruptions, crew shortages…and delays to our network.” UP added that “additional inventory has led to more congestion in yards, an imbalance of our resources, and further slowdown of our operational performance.”

In response, CF Industries, a major fertilizer producer, said such actions by the railroads would put crops at risk by curtailing fertilizer shipments ahead of the spring planting season.

Addressing the Negative Impact

In March 2022, the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) urged the Surface Transportation Board (STB) to address “significant rail service disruptions,” which have negatively impacted the nation’s supply chains. Following that letter, the STB was quick to react and scheduled public hearings held in late April. Those hearings featured shippers, rail labor unions and rail company executives.

The Agricultural Transportation Working Group (ATWG), a representative body made up of agriculture-oriented trade groups, including USW, sent a letter to the STB on April 21 and urged an immediate resolution to the “current nationwide freight rail service challenges.” The group urged the STB to take appropriate measures that would “deter, and hopefully prevent future service failures,” which include the establishment of reciprocal switching rules.

Additionally, USW filed joint comments to the STB hearing with the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) and the North American Millers’ Association (NAMA). The USW Transportation Working Group, led by North Dakota Wheat Commission Policy and Marketing Director Jim Peterson, also met with each member of the STB to share concerns regarding the current railroad challenges and to point out the benefits that competition-inducing policies provide, such as reciprocal switching.

A Welcome Sign

The orders issued by the Board last week are a welcome sign that rail customers like wheat farmers are being heard. U.S. Wheat Associates commends the STB’s initial steps and fast action and encourages further measures to improve rail logistics and hold railroads accountable to their customers.

The following are several other USW rail and rail performance stories since early 2020:

USW Transportation Group Supports Proposed Change In Rail Rate Review
Secondary Rail Rates, Tight Elevation Capacity Continue To Support Wheat Export Prices
Rail Merger Proposals Should Improve Competition, Hold Down Wheat Shipping Rates
Rail Rates Directly Affect Basis Values For Wheat Importers
Agriculture Calls On STB To Increase Rail Competition Following Executive Order
USW To Surface Transportation Board: “Uphold The Values Of Competition”

By Michael Anderson, USW Market Analyst

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Analysis of the wheat market since February has been underscored by volatility, and no less so for the U.S. soft white (SW) wheat market.

The sudden exit of Ukraine from the export market and the uncertainty of Russia’s wheat exports are recent factors in market volatility. Dry weather is another important consideration for winter wheat markets.

The most recent USDA crop progress report rated 27% of the entire U.S. winter wheat crop as good or excellent, a 3-point drop from last week and the lowest level since 1989 for this time of year. The report encompasses all winter wheat, including SW grown in the Pacific Northwest (PNW). And with summer fast approaching, it is a good time to look at the underlying factors for the 2022 U.S. SW crop.

Conditions Improved

The PNW wheat-growing region remains in some form of drought. Yet crop conditions there are considerably better than in the Plains. Following significantly more winter moisture, spring weather has also returned to normal, with rain and mild temperatures reported in Washington’s Palouse region and north-central Oregon.

Idaho wheat conditions are rated 56% good or excellent. Oregon’s conditions rate 55% good or excellent, and Washington state, the leading SW producer, with 52% of the crop rated good or excellent.

Kernels of soft white wheat

Better moisture gave the 2022 U.S. soft white wheat crop an initial boost. If conditions hold, there will be better yields and quality compared to the 2021 crop. Soft white wheat kernel photo by U.S. Wheat Associates. 

Better Than 2021

Last year, persistent hot and dry weather hit the PNW, impacting both yield and protein content for soft white wheat. According to the U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) Crop Quality Report, the average soft white protein on a 12% moisture basis in 2021 was 11.3%, 15% higher than in 2020 and 16% above the 5-year average. Production was down 28% compared to the 5-year average. In Washington, the leading SW producer, yields were slashed 47% compared to 2020/21.

Ending stocks are especially tight, with the USDA estimating a 26% decline compared to last year. The relatively high cost of the smaller white wheat crop and week-to-week price volatility has translated to reduced SW export volume this year. USDA’s April supply and demand estimate reduced exports by 46%, and the latest USW Commercial Sales report showed soft white exports 50% lower year-to-date at 3.33 MMT.

Planted Area Up

However, USDA expects SW area planted for harvest in 2022 to be 3.56 million acres (1.44 million hectares), up 2% compared to last year. That is good news for SW wheat millers. Production potential and farmer revenue from SW is complicated by higher input costs like fertilizer, and the volatile futures market make it difficult for farmers to determine their best course of action. Even so, the improved conditions this year should benefit both SW customers and farmers.

New Crop Hope

Oregon SW wheat farmer and current USW Chairman Darren Padget is optimistic about the potential in his SW crop this year. He said this year has been much more normal than last year, with moisture being much more consistent and plentiful in the winter and spring. He said that in his area of the PNW, “we are on track for an average crop.”

Glen Squires, Chief Executive Officer for the Washington Grain Commission, said that spring conditions have been wetter and cooler than last year. He did, however, warn that subsoil moisture is about the same as last year, around 40% short or very short. Overall, Squires noted that they are optimistic that crop quality and yields will rebound from last year.

By USW Market Analyst Michael Anderson

The header photo is courtesy of the Washington Grain Commission.

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While the Russia-Ukraine conflict remains the biggest driver of wheat futures prices, U.S. winter wheat in drought conditions across the Plains is becoming an increasingly bullish factor. This latest concern is likely to overshadow USDA’s recent estimate for a slight increase in winter wheat acres with potentially serious implications for supplies heading into summer.

On Tuesday,  Chicago Board of Trade (CBOT)  soft red winter (SRW) wheat futures reached their highest level since March 23, while Kansas City Board of Trade (KCBT) were up nearly $0.21 Tuesday and up 50% since the start of the year. The Washington Post this week reported that winter wheat conditions are the poorest in more than two decades for this early in the growing season.

Drought Monitor

Dry weather is not unique in the Plains states, but some years are worse than others. The current USDA drought monitor data indicates that most hard red winter (HRW) wheat is in drought. USDA reported just 32% of winter wheat is in good or excellent condition. That is a two-point improvement compared to last week but far from the 53% good or excellent rating at this time last year. The last time crop conditions were at this level so early was in 1996. According to USDA, total wheat yields that year were 2.41 MT/HA, 24% behind 2021/22, a year that also saw substantial wheat in drought.

USDA map showing where U.S. winter wheat in drought is located

Too Much Wheat in Drought. Of the 69% of winter wheat production USDA shows growing under drought conditions, almost all the 2022/23 HRW wheat crop is struggling in dry top- and subsoil.

Tough Conditions

Growing conditions for the 2022/23 HRW crop have been tough from the start. Last fall, plantings were sown in very dry soil, and precipitation was light. Snowfall was limited, and now above average temperatures with limited rainfall have only added to the stress. Weather forecasts point to more dry weather ahead.

Kansas, the leading HRW producing state, is dry. The U.S. Drought Monitor reports severe drought in the western half of the state. However, Kansas Wheat published a recent story about varied HRW conditions, perhaps unsurprising for a state that is 400 miles (644 kilometers) long. Nevertheless, all the farmers agreed that rain is needed.

State-by-State

To the west of Kansas, conditions are also dry and windy in Colorado. High winds rob the soil of moisture, exacerbating a lack of rainfall. Topsoil moisture conditions were rated 16% very short, while subsoil moisture was rated 17% very short across the region. Both were unchanged from the week before. Nebraska’s wheat conditions are above the national average, with 32% rated good or excellent and 46% rated fair. Soil moisture is short for the state, but decent moisture in the fall has provided some relief. In South Dakota, where winter wheat planting is 4% higher than last year, conditions are rated 58% fair and 22% good to excellent. Given the overall winter wheat conditions, the crop in South Dakota looks strong.  Montana also looks good compared to the average. Wheat rated fair is 62%, while 15% is good to excellent. But like so much of the winter wheat growing area, soil moisture is poor. Most of the state is either in extreme drought or severe drought.

In Oklahoma, the second largest winter wheat producing state after Kansas, conditions improved week-over-week, with 29% of HRW rated good or excellent, up 6 points from a week ago. Texas has the most wheat in drought, with 56% of the statewide crop rated very poor. Long-term drought conditions have impacted the growth of this year’s crop. One Texas Farm Bureau member noted that some farm areas hadn’t seen measurable rainfall at all this calendar year.

April Showers Needed

April is critical for HRW development, and timely rain is needed. And while conditions are not ideal right now, farmers as ever remain optimistic.

You can follow weekly updates on the HRW crop by reading the U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) Price Report or the weekly USDA crop progress publication. In May, USW will begin publishing weekly Harvest Reports for the 2022 U.S. wheat crop.

By Michael Anderson, USW Market Analyst

 

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It is 3:00 on a brisk and overcast Tuesday afternoon, and the sun is already low in the sky. I am sitting in the galley of a tugboat — state of the art, I am told. The tugboat has all the amenities any crew would need with five staterooms, a kitchen, a washer and dryer, and even a weight room. There is some tension on board, with a hurry-up-and-wait attitude, when the phone finally rings. The deck mechanic answers and the barge we are waiting on is finally loaded with 1,500 metric tons (MT) of soft white wheat. The motor hums to life, and we start moving, slowly, toward the grain elevator. It is growing dark as two grain barges are tethered together, and we begin downriver from Lewiston, Ida., headed to Portland, Ore. It will be a two-and-a-half-day journey first down the Snake River, connecting to the Columbia River and finally to the Willamette River, to reach our Portland export elevator destinations, about 360 miles.

This river, in general, is very handsome, except at the rapid, where it is risking both life and property to pass.” – From the Journal of Sgt. Patrick Gass, a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Michael Anderson is picture front, left with the crew of the tugboat crew.

We follow the same route that Lewis and Clark took as the “Corps of Discovery” traveled west. The rivers were different in 1805, untamed by today’s intricate system of dams and locks. The eight dams that we will pass through have made it possible to harness the rivers into a major artery carrying U.S. wheat bound for export from farm to port.

The boat rocks side to side on my first night. It is comfortable, but the unfamiliar feeling makes it hard to settle in. Suddenly the boat lurches, and the light outside gets brighter. The first lock, Lower Granite, comes into view from the deck. Two spotlights illuminate our way as we creep up to the lock. Slowly we approach the brightly lit lock and are guided in along a long concrete wall. The force of the shallow water beneath us is the only thing that keeps the tug and barges moving forward. With inches to spare on either side, we have entered the lock. Behind the boat, a gate rises from underneath the water; it is about three feet above the surface when suddenly the gate stops rising, and our boat starts sinking below the surface. It is a rapid movement, but it continues for a long time. The watermark rises above us as we descend below the surface, protected by thick concrete walls. Finally, we stop moving. We are now 100 feet below the level at which we entered the lock. I walk to the front of the boat just in time to see the gates in front, towering above us, start to open, revealing the river ahead, and slowly we make our way out of the lock and down the river.

As a crew member aboard a tug, your day is not a simple “9-to-5.” With one crew on and one off, the day is broken into shifts of six hours each, from 12 to 6 and 6 to 12. The environment shared by the crew is family-like, cooking meals together and watching TV. Only the person driving the boat, the captain or the pilot, is constantly on watch. The deck mechanics jump into action when the boat enters a lock or when we pick up another barge, and this journey is a four-barge tow, meaning four barges being pushed by one tugboat.

From the bridge, the captain has a sweeping view on all sides, and plenty of sophisticated equipment helps him navigate even when we are surrounded by fog, which in the Pacific Northwest is common. Another lock is just ahead. The boat only moves about nine miles per hour. We fit into the lock with precision, again with just a foot on each side to separate us from the massive concrete walls. Unlike the lock last night, this lock is too short to fit the whole tow in at once, but that is nothing out of the ordinary for this crew. Once the barges are tethered in place, the captain skillfully maneuvers the tugboat like a game of Tetris into a tiny space giving the back of the boat just enough room for the lock keeper to close us in. Again, a large iron gate rises from the water behind us, and like an elevator, we start moving down inch by inch. In front is what looks like a massive garage door. The lock opens, revealing the next stretch of the river ahead.

The mechanics of the lock are simple: we are moving down river with the flow of the water, so when we enter a lock, it is full of water. The lock seals behind us, and a valve is released to allow the water to rush out of the lock. The tow itself is being moved to the same level as the river we are moving down. Once the tow is at the same level as the water outside the lock, the valve is closed, and we wait for the massive concrete door ahead of us to open so the tow can move out. It is a similar procedure for ships going upriver against the flow, but instead of the valve releasing water, the valve fills the lock. It takes about 30 minutes to pass through each lock.

The Columbia Snake River System is a superhighway for moving wheat and other agricultural products from farm to market. The barges and rail lines that run on both banks of the Columbia River carry more than 55% of all U.S. wheat bound for export each year. Barges are the most efficient way to move large volumes of grain, making the river system a cost-effective and “green” logistical option. The Army Corps of Engineers maintains the lock system; its history goes back to the 1930s when President Franklin Roosevelt personally inaugurated Bonneville, the first of the eight dams and locks east of Portland.

After about 60 hours on board the tugboat, we arrive in Vancouver, Wash., on the north bank of the Columbia River. We drop off two barges at an export elevator and proceed west again, up the north-flowing Willamette River that bisects Portland. It is my third river in a week, and we are taking the last barge to an export elevator just across the river from the U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) West Coast Office. There is a vessel at berth waiting for the wheat we carry. The crew drops the barge, and me, at the elevator. I walk up a set of metal stairs connected to a hoist and hop off, touching land for the first time since Tuesday. I walk across the river on Portland’s Steel Bridge, under which the wheat from our tow will pass on its way overseas, to my office.A tugboat pushes a grain barges down the Snake River on its way from Lewiston, Idaho to Portland, Ore.

By Michael Anderson, USW Market Analyst

This story was originally published on October 21, 2019.