Although California wheat acreage dropped significantly in 2014, farmers may be planting more of it this fall and winter, thanks in part to a record tomato crop.
Much of the state's wheat is planted in rotation, typically following tomatoes, said Janice Cooper, executive director of the California Wheat Commission. That the tomato crop was so big this year may indicate that more wheat is being planted, if those tomato acres are rolled into wheat, she added.
"(Wheat) is a very good crop to follow tomatoes, so that provides some hope. I would say that we can be very cautiously optimistic at this point," Cooper said.
State wheat acreage has been on the decline the last three years, falling to 495,000 acres this year, the lowest since 1991, when California farmers planted 483,000 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This compares to 690,000 acres in 2013 and 750,000 acres in 2012.
Storms the state received last week have helped, Cooper said, as much of the fall-sown wheat is already planted and any moisture is beneficial.
With the current strength of the durum wheat price, farmers also have planted more acres of that variety this year, she noted.
"Not everything that could be planted is in the ground yet, so we could still see acres go in, especially with this moisture," she added.
Sean McCauley, who farms dryland wheat in Contra Costa, Solano and San Joaquin counties, said he is increasing his wheat acreage by about 2,000 this year, whereas he let about 3,000 acres sit fallow last year due to the drought.
"It's been a tough two years out in this area, but it's looking pretty good," he said. "We just felt like we're going to be lucky this year. We have a pretty positive outlook."
Dryland farming has been a struggle the last several years, he acknowledged, and there have been some fields where he didn't get any crop at all. McCauley said while the early fall rains help to get his crop started, he really depends on late-winter and spring rains to finish the crop.
He said he remains optimistic about this growing season because he farms in such different microclimates and weather patterns, allowing him to offset some of the risks of dryland farming.
Because wheat is largely a rotational crop in the state, some farmers such as Erik Freese of Solano County said he didn't plant much this year because he's following his normal schedule, while others such as Scott Schmidt of Fresno County said he has increased his acreage slightly.
A diversified farmer in Westlands Water District, which received zero water from the federal Central Valley Project in 2014, Schmidt said he had to rely on his wells for irrigation. He said he's planting more wheat this fall because he has some open ground that normally would be planted to cotton, but because he does not expect there will be enough water to grow cotton, he's decided to grow more wheat instead.
"As it is, I'm still going to have 25 or 30 percent of the farm fallowed," he said.
Cooper said even though 80 percent of the state's wheat is grown using irrigation, it doesn't necessarily mean there's water available for the crop, especially during a drought. For this reason, farmers plant wheat in the fall to take advantage of winter rains, with the hope that they will need only one or two irrigations at the end of the season to finish the crop. The ideal situation is for periodic storms throughout the season to provide enough moisture to grow the crop, she said.
But even in drier years, Cooper said wheat is still "a fairly modest investment" that farmers can make if they have ground they want to plant. Wheat is good on water usage, she noted, and allows farmers the flexibility to harvest it early for hay or silage, or grow it all the way to grain, depending on how much water is available.
"Wheat is a very good option and is often planted by a farmer knowing that there are those options ahead," she said.
She noted that in the last two years, a large portion of the state's wheat was cut for nongrain purposes to feed livestock due to the high price of forage. For example, of the 495,000 acres of wheat planted last fall, only 215,000 acres were harvested for grain, according to USDA.
"Because of the drought, some of the traditional feed sources were not available, and so brokers were offering very attractive prices to get the wheat chopped (for feed)," Cooper said.
Tim Grunsky, a grain dealer at Phil O'Connell Grain Co. in Stockton, said he has seen an increase of growers planting more "beardless" wheat varieties because they want that option of selling their crop as hay. Beardless varieties without the awn are preferred as livestock feed.
With less silage being grown in the San Joaquin Valley due to water shortages and high demand from dairies and other livestock operations, Grunsky said he saw more silage production shift to the north, including increased wheat acreage around the delta and the larger supplies of silage harvested this year. But whether demand for forage will remain quite as high as this year is unclear, he said.
"I'm sure (dairy farmers) will need some fresh product, but none of us know how much and a lot of it depends on milk prices as well," he said.
Grunsky acknowledged current wheat prices are not "great," as the U.S. has adequate stockpiles of wheat and the strength of the dollar has hurt exports. But he maintains the wheat market, in general, is healthy.
"So much depends on what happens everywhere else in the world, but nevertheless, right now it's a pretty good price," he said. "The silage and hay markets have been good, so from a grower's perspective, it's still a pretty good market."