Wheat Prices Soar on Ukraine Fears, But U.S. Can't Cash In

USAgNet - 03/22/2022

After Russia's invasion of Ukraine sent global wheat futures soaring, U.S. farmer Vance Ehmke was eager to sell his grain. Local prices shot up roughly 30% to nearly $12 a bushel, about the highest Ehmke could recall in 45 years of farming near the western Kansas town of Healy.

Instead of reaping a windfall, Ehmke found a commodities market turned upside down, reports Reuters.

He and his wife Louise told Reuters they couldn't sell a nickel of their upcoming summer wheat harvest for future delivery.

Futures prices for corn and wheat had rocketed so abruptly that many along the complex chain of grain handling — local farm cooperatives, grain elevators, flour millers, and exporters — stopped buying for fear they couldn't resell at a profit.

Others couldn't afford an industrywide risk-management strategy known as hedging that keeps global commodities markets moving.

Missiles falling in Ukraine had rocked that system, sending middlemen scrambling to shore up positions in the futures market that were costing them millions of dollars per day.

"More than anything, the market is just in a panic," Andrew Jackson, a Kentucky grain merchandiser, told Reuters.

Many of these players continue to hold back on purchases to see how the Eastern European conflict shakes out: Russia is the world's top wheat exporter, and Ukraine is a major global supplier of both wheat and corn.

While some North American millers have said they have enough grain on hand from past harvests to continue producing for several months, prolonged or repeated disruptions to grain trading could eventually contribute to already-inflated food prices.

Meanwhile, the inability to sell some of their winter wheat — the harvest of which starts in June — is putting the squeeze on U.S. farmers.

Growers like the Ehmkes need cash now to pay for seed and fertilizer ahead of spring planting, as well as for land rent and tax bills coming due.

Fertilizer bills alone are expected to jump 12% this year, after rising 17% last year, according to American Farm Bureau Federation and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) data.

If American farmers decide to cut back, that could curb yields for the fall harvest at a time when the world may soon need more grain.

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