Sunday, April 10, 2022


Weekly Opinion Editorial 


by Steve Fair

     Wheat is typically milled/ground into flour that is then used to make bread, pasta, crackers, and many other products.  Wheat is one of the oldest and most important of the cereal crops.  It is the second largest grain planted worldwide, based on acreage and production volume.   China, India, and Russia are the countries who produce the most wheat.  Combined those three nations produce 41% of the world’s total wheat.  America and Canada round out the top five, Ukraine is #6.  Ukraine is the 5th largest exporter of wheat in the world, but have halted exports of wheat to insure a domestic food supply for their own people. The United States produces 2.2 billion bushels of wheat per year and consumes a little over half that amount. 

   Wheat got started in the U.S. when a Ukrainian Mennonite named Bernard Warkentin came to the United States in 1872 at the age of 25 to study the U.S. agriculture, economic and political climate.  He married a girl from Illinois and they settled in Halstead, Kansas, where he built a grist mill for grinding wheat.  Warkentin encouraged his fellow Ukrainian Mennonites to bring Turkey Red hard winter wheat seed with them to Kansas.  By 1874, the Kansas countryside was sown with Turkey Red and soon after Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Oklahoma, West Texas and the Dakotas were growing the hardy, high yield Turkey Red.  Warkentin owned mills and elevators in Kansas and Blackwell, Oklahoma.  So how is that relative to politics?  Three observations:

     First, Americans are paying more for food than they were last year.  It’s not just products made with wheat.  According to the Consumer Price Index, published by the USDA, food prices (at home & restaurant) are up +7.9% vs. last year.  Grocery store food purchases are up +8.6%.   There are four basic reasons for the increases: (1) decrease in food processing production due to supply chain, labor, and transportation issues.  Food processors are struggling to keep up with demand and struggling even more to keep up with increases to produce.  If they are not able to ‘pass through’ increases, they don’t survive. (2) transportation issues for imported foods, like seafood(65% of seafood is imported), (3) eating more at home.  Overall food consumption is up and many households are stockpiling food, (4) bad weather which has affected crops.

     Second, America is putting too much of their food supply in their fuel tanks.  From corn in Ethanol to soybean oil in diesel, the use of vegetable oils in fuel impact food prices.  Last week, the Edible Oils coalition met with representatives of the White House Office of Management and Budget(OMB), the Small Business Administration (SBA), the Environment Protection Agency(EPA), and the USDA to raise concerns about soybean oil pricing.  The price has tripled in the past year.  Soybean oil is used to make a cornucopia of food products, including mayonnaise and pourable dressings.  The coalition pointed out the biodiesel mandate threatens the supply and dramatically impacts the price of soybean oil- and other edible oils.  They asked the administration to relax the biofuel mandate to stabilize pricing and insure supply of edible oils. 

     Third, even with higher food prices, Americans still have it better than the rest of the world. The average household in the U.S. spends $7,500 annually on food(restaurants, grocery stores).  Food constitutes 10% of the average U.S. household monthly budget.  In Uganda, two thirds of household income is spent on food.  60% of the population in Russia spend 40% of their income on food.  

     A very real threat to the food supply in America is the potential loss of food processors.  Most processors are family owned, small to middle sized businesses, who produce the bulk of U.S. food. They can’t survive without passing through increases to the consumer.  They can’t stay in business losing money. When a processor disappears, prices increase due to loss of production capacity. 

     At the Mennonite Heritage and Agricultural Museum is a ‘seed chest.’  It is the one Warkentin carried the precious Turkey Red seed in from the Ukraine to Kansas 151 years ago.   Warkentin guarded the chest because he valued food, but he didn’t eat the seed on the journey over.  America’s biofuel mandates are America eating the seed.

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