For two years, the powdery soil on David Lang's farm refused to yield a crop.
This year, he finally got rain and about 1,500 acres of golden wheat. But he's stuck with the wheat.A world wheat glut totaling more than 21.6 billion bushels is holding down prices, experts say. The U.S. wheat crop alone is expected to total a record 2.76 billion bushels, up 35 percent from last year.
"There's a wheat war going on," said Neal Fisher, director of the North Dakota Wheat Commission. "Canadians sold wheat to China about two weeks ago for something around $2.50 a bushel. The European Community is selling it for $2.05."
North Dakota wheat farmers like Lang are getting about $2.20 a bushel, at least $1 less than last year and the lowest they've seen in at least five years. Farmers say the costs of producing a bushel are at least three times that much.
"You have to pay $1.35 to $1.40 for a gallon of gasoline just to harvest that crop," said Lang, 44, who farms 3,000 acres with his father about 20 miles from Bismarck.
Government subsidies help offset production costs, but farmers say they also are being squeezed this year by energy prices, which have risen sharply since Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2.
"We will probably lose more farmers this year than any year previous," said Gov. George Sinner. "The long-range future is so bleak to many farmers that they are simply saying, `The hell with it.' "
Wheat growers say the embargo against Iraq is having little effect on the market because American wheat sales to Iraq had already virtually dried up this year.
Farm leaders are asking the U.S. Agriculture Department to help lift wheat prices by keeping more grain in reserve, offering bigger loans to farmers and paying more federal export bonuses to increase sales.
But Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter has said that if American farmers plant less or put more in storage, foreign competitors will only plant more. His department already has increased export bonuses at the risk of driving the market lower, he said.
"We're doing all we can to help move U.S. wheat in the marketplace in a sensible way," Yeutter said in a letter to Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kansas.
For some farmers, it's a hard blow after two years in which nothing would grow. Lang said he is leaning on strong livestock prices. He can sell some of his 150 cattle, and he'll get a USDA loan on his wheat to help pay bills.