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Farmers plant smallest acreage of winter wheat in three decades


WASHINGTON (AP) _ Farmers planted 41 million acres of wheat this winter, the smallest acreage since 1971 and a slight decrease from the year before, the government said Friday.

A 1996 law that ended most controls on farm production spurred farmers to cut back on wheat in favor of more lucrative crops such as soybeans, where returns are two to three times larger.

Farmers in Kansas, the nation's leading wheat producer, have been planting less of the crop ever since and cut back by 400,000 acres this winter to 9.4 million acres, the state's smallest acreage since 1957, the Agriculture Department reported. Nebraska, South Dakota and Washington also cut back.

Analysts had been expecting wheat acreage to increase this year.

``There's been a long-term problem with the profitability of wheat relative to other crops,'' said USDA economist Ed Allen. ``There's also been more drought tolerance built into soybeans and corn, so they've been able to grow them further north and further west in areas that were traditional wheat areas.''

In 2000, farmers made about $105 per acre on soybeans after paying operating costs, compared to $37 per acre for wheat.

The United States still produces so much wheat that half the crop must be exported each year. But prices paid to farmers have been rising with the fall in production. USDA estimated the price this year at $2.80 per bushel, up from $2.48 in 1999.

Winter wheat, which is planted in the fall and harvested in the spring, is used primarily for bread. Farmers harvested 1.4 billion bushels last year, a 13 percent decline from 2000 and 20 percent down from 1999.

USDA also issued final crop estimates Friday for 2001, a banner year for nearly every major crop other than wheat.

Farmers produced 9.5 billion bushels of corn, 4 percent less than the year before, but still the fourth largest crop on record.

The soybean crop was the biggest ever at 2.9 billion bushels, an increase of 5 percent over 2000.

Cotton production jumped 17 percent last year to 20.1 million bales. A bale weighs 450 pounds.

The rice crop was up 12 percent to 21.3 billion pounds.

Production of sorghum, which is used for animal feed, rose 9 percent. The peanut crop was 27 percent larger.

Crops besides wheat that showed declines last year included barley, dry beans, rye, sugar, sunflowers and tobacco.
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