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Despite high prices for wheat, farmers in Montana are pessimistic

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The war in Ukraine is disrupting about a third of the global wheat supply. So farmers elsewhere who can bring in a good wheat crop this year will likely get record prices. But for farmers in Montana, one of the top five wheat-producing states in the U.S., a persistent drought and high inflation have brought only pessimism. Yellowstone Public Radio's Olivia Weitz reports.

OLIVIA WEITZ, BYLINE: Nathan Keane (ph) pilots his tractor across wheat fields that stretch as far as the sky above. When a little sprinkle of rain blows through, enough to turn on the windshield wipers, his chapped lips curve into a smile.

NATHAN KEANE: Just to have raindrops on the window is nice to see. Even though it's not much, it's just nice to see water.

WEITZ: Usually, this whole field would be green by now with wheat Keane planted in the fall.

KEANE: Yep, if you grab that - there you go.

WEITZ: But this year, there are a lot of brown, dry patches. He hops out of his tractor and digs into the soil.

KEANE: See if I can find any kernels here.

WEITZ: Eight months after planting, the seeds haven't yet come out of the ground.

KEANE: We've been finding, you know, in these droughted out areas of just some wheat that never germinated.

WEITZ: As a dry land farmer, Keane relies entirely on rainfall to water his crops. Planting into dry soil last fall, during the worst drought Montana has seen in decades, he took a chance.

KEANE: You hear jokes - you know, the biggest gamblers are farmers, you know, because we do. We risk so much. We put so much money in the ground. And we have next to no control.

WEITZ: Now he's rolling the dice on planting spring wheat where his previous crop failed. That means burning more diesel in his tractor, though. The price of a gallon has doubled since last fall.

KEANE: So now it's just going through all of the areas in this field that look pretty weak, where there's no stand at all or it's just really patchy stand, to put some seeds in the ground and hope they come up. I don't know.

WEITZ: The fertilizer he applied to the failed crop in the fall will still work on what he's planting now. That helps when fertilizer prices are going up faster than diesel. Vince Smith, an economics professor at Montana State University, says that's due to high energy prices and global demand.

VINCE SMITH: We're definitely looking at a fertilizer bill that's between double and a little bit more than double what would have been the case last year.

WEITZ: But the same thing driving up the cost of what Keane needs to grow wheat is also driving wheat prices sky high.

SMITH: Wheat prices are at record levels right now, upwards of 11 or $12 a bushel.

WEITZ: While conditions on the ground vary from farm to farm, Professor Smith says it won't take a bumper crop for Montana farmers to make a buck.

SMITH: The much higher prices they can expect to receive for the crops they expect to produce, in fact, more than offset any increase in their variable cost of production.

WEITZ: But that assumes farmers like Nathan Keane, who have no irrigation, will get a break from what's now the second year of Montana's drought.

KEANE: Our crops can survive and produce OK if we get rains at the right time. But worst-case scenario is it stays the way it has been, where we're just not getting anything. We're getting - we're measuring our rainfalls currently in hundreds.

WEITZ: Farmers in Montana are taking a gamble this year. Keane is hopeful he'll get back more than what he put in. For NPR News, I'm Olivia Weitz in Bozeman, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.