Wheat growers face many of the same challenges as do corn and soybean producers. But there are added issues, especially with global markets.
IFT recently spoke with Jake Westlin, vice president of policy with the National Association of Wheat Growers. In October 2019, Westlin joined NAWG as its government relations representative and was promoted to vice president of policy and communications in 2021.
Prior to that, he interned for U.S. Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND) and was a legislative correspondent and legislative aide to U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). Westlin has an extensive background in agriculture, public lands, as well as food and nutrition policy. He received a Bachelor of Arts in political science from the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, North Dakota.
IFT: One of the biggest geopolitical issues of 2022 is the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one of the world’s largest wheat producers. How is that affecting growers here in the United States?
WESTLIN: Attention has been brought on U.S. wheat growers because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There was a gap that was needed to be filled and there is a lot of interest in plugging those gaps in the supply chains to get to countries that are heavy users of food aid as well as other importing countries. In the month of March, we saw high futures prices of wheat. That has dropped off quite a bit since then.
IFT: As a major producer and exporter, Ukraine supplies many parts of the world with wheat. How do the challenges getting grain out of the country during the invasion alter our trade strategy?
WESTLIN: Ukraine is absolutely a competitor. Those countries in the vicinity of the Horn of Africa that are a little more price sensitive go to Ukraine. It’s more expensive to get U.S. product to market there. That uncertainty continues.
IFT: A recent agreement that would allow shipments of grain from Ukrainian ports is still in question. What is the likely outcome?
WESTLIN: That agreement — which is actually between Russia, Ukraine and the United Nations — creates a corridor for grain. There was some optimism, then Russia lobbed some missiles in that direction. It’s tenuous. We have to wait and see if Russia holds up their end of the agreement.
IFT: How will that war affect plantings as the world supply continues to be uncertain?
WESTLIN: Ukraine grows a lot of winter wheat — more so than the United States. They’re looking to plant in the fall. But if they are still under threat and don’t have fuel and inputs, it’s going to be a difficult situation for them. Our growers here in the United States are also facing increased cost of production. Right now our growers are thinking about what they are going to be planting, but I think you could see more going in just because of what’s going on around the world.
IFT: What is NAWG hoping to achieve domestically in terms of policy?
WESTLIN: One of the big things we’re looking at is the next farm bill, which is just a year away. It expires at the end of September 2023. Last month our board identified 10 top priorities. Protecting crop insurance is No. 1. We saw some cuts in the last farm bill. We want to make sure there is no degradation of that program. We’re also looking at increased funding for the market assistance development program to seek to enhance and build markets overseas. Half the wheat grown in United States is exported. That program has demonstrated significant return on investment.
IFT: All farmers today are dealing with high energy prices. In addition to rising input costs, that is a threat to the bottom line. Where do you fall on the green energy push by the Biden administration, which some critics say will drive fuel prices even higher?
WESTLIN: That certainly has been a concern with the political shift following the 2020 election. That is a contributing factor. You could see a lot of those input costs go up before the war in Ukraine. It is giving a lot of folks heartburn.
Increased fertilizer costs and diesel prices are putting a burden on a lot of growers. It doesn’t always have a one-policy solution. A lot of factors underline some of these issues. The war in Ukraine is impacting fuel costs but also so are some of these ITC (International Trade Commission) cases brought against countries exporting urea into the United States. We saw prices skyrocket through the winter and into the spring.
IFT: What is NAWG doing to expand U.S. exports of wheat?
WESTLIN: We continue to grow our market share in new and emerging markets. We want to make sure we have a diverse portfolio of countries. We’ve seen a lot of increased market access. In The Philippines we have close to 90% market share — there has been significant growth there. Under the Trump administration we saw agreements reached with Japan.
IFT: Wheat is more limited in regard to new uses than corn and soybeans, for which there are markets for biofuels and industrial applications. Where does wheat fit outside traditional uses?
WESTLIN: There are some long-term opportunities in that space. As we go through the farm bill negotiations, we see some programs investing in new areas for uses for major commodities to expand the portfolios that the crop can bring not only as a food or feed product. We’re looking to increase that investment for new uses.