How to Grow Wheat

Prices of wheat, rice, and other staple grains are increasing rapidly, doubling in some cases. There’s been food riots in various cities around the world, and government-mandated price controls and halts on exporting. What can you do? The supply of wheat and other grains is pretty tight, as the main harvests are still a couple of months away, stockpiles are at unprecedented lows, and a lot of agricultural acreage is being shifted to production of biofuels instead of fuel crops.

Option 1: Stop growing what entirely. Rely on your essentially guaranteed foreign income to purchase as much wheat as you need. This is the route that Saudi Arabia is taking, as outlined by the Financial Times on February 28, 2008.

Saudi Arabia plans to halt wheat production by 2016 because of concerns about the desert kingdom’s scarce water resources, according to a US government agency [the U.S.D.A.]. The Saudi Arabian government has not publicly given details of the move, which comes as global cereal prices surge, driven by strong demand and lagging supply. Top-quality wheat prices for baking bread hit a high this week of $25 a bushel and have more than doubled since January.

The forecasted increase in demand from Saudi Arabia, in addition to already high consumption in the region – Egypt is the world’s second largest wheat importer – would tighten global wheat supplies even further, analysts said. The US report said that “the main reason for change in the local wheat production policy was concern over the depletion of fossil water since the crop is grown on 100 per cent central pivot irrigation”.

However, water resource issues have previously led to reduced production of wheat and other grains. Demand for water is increasing rapidly in Saudi Arabia as the population has swelled from 7m in 1974 to about 24m, and the economy expanded during the oil boom, with the government seeking to boost industry. The country has no permanent rivers or lakes and very little rainfall, and the government has relied on dams to trap seasonal floods, tens of thousands of deep wells and 27 desalination plants.

This option is pretty extreme, and my guess is that the Saudis must really be worried about permanently depleting the nation’s aquifers. After all, it’s a lot easier and cheaper for a desert country to import their food than their water. This is still somewhat of a risky strategy for them, though. Saudi Arabia will probably be able to pull it off, as they have large foreign currency reserves and continue to earn significant amounts of foreign currency through oil sales. Unless that changes drastically, Saudi Arabia will have the cash on hand to buy wheat, and will be able to outbid other importers to assure a steady supply. Wheat prices in Saudi Arabia will probably go up, but I’d venture that higher wheat prices are less socially destabilizing than the prospect of extremely limited fresh water supplies.

Option 2: Grow your own wheat. Don’t rely on a global supply chain or risk astronomical prices, ensure that you will have your staple grain by growing it in your garden. The BBC actually presented an article about growing your own wheat, complete with a how-to guide, on March 10, 2008.

The world is running dangerously low on wheat, one of civilisation’s original staple foods. Drought in Australia and China and a switch to meat in the newly prosperous parts of the world are putting the squeeze on wheat. Prices are at a record high.

Baker and organic food campaigner Andrew Whitley believes the answer lies in your back garden and that it’s time, as he puts it, to “bake your lawn”. He is launching the Real Bread Campaign.

“If wheat makes bread why not grow bread just like you grow vegetables. We think of it as being a massive prairie-style enterprise but it is just a plant like anything else. It’s like grass.

“There are few things that give greater satisfaction than being able to grow something and harvest it and share it with friends and family.”

The following illustrations give a simple step by step:

But Whitley knows most people will not be able to grow all their own wheat and suggests even producing a couple of loaves-worth a year would be a triumph.

Those in the wheat industry are a little sceptical to say the least. Martin Caunce, owner of Brow Farm in west Lancashire, sells milling wheat and hand-operated mills so people can produce their own flour, but suggests most people will not want to take the final step and grow their own wheat.

“It is more feasible to grow your vegetables and buy your bread,” he says. “It takes too much space. You just couldn’t make it pay.”

So, we’re all probably not going to be growing our own wheat. Perhaps, just perhaps, we’ll be collectively be paying a local farmer to grow it an than either milling it ourselves or paying our local miller to do it. (Ever wonder where all the people with the last name of Miller came from?) Either way, it’s very interesting that the BBC published rough instructions to growing your own wheat, even half in jest.


6 responses to “How to Grow Wheat

  1. Hi am from east Africa living in London with my family.
    I’m thinking is time to go back to my roots to frame wheat in a industrial scale.
    And to teach people how to do so.

    I feel as though we can all grow wheat in are back garden as you have put it if know the know how.

    Please if you can give me any more information how to grow wheat it would be helpful.
    thanks you hope to hear from you soon

  2. From Dust to Dust
    Reuters reported on January 8, 2008 that purchases of wheat from local farmers would be reduced by 12.5%, with the aim of relying entirely on imports by 2016. This U-turn effectively ends three decades of desert irrigation. The story is sobering.
    Over the centuries, agriculture in the Arabian Desert had been almost nonexistent. Arid conditions constrained food production and population growth. Suddenly in the early 1980s, the government embarked on a scheme to turn parts of the desert green.
    Saudi investors were induced by huge government subsidies to import the technology and the equipment, seeds, fertilizers, engineers, and farm workers. Between 1980 and 1993, a twenty-fold jump in cereal production, to five million tons, made Saudi Arabia for a few years the world’s sixth-largest wheat exporting country.
    Between 1994 and 2000, however, a dramatic 60% retrenchment in wheat production took place, abandoning 500,000 hectares; almost a half of the newly irrigated lands. Under pressures from low oil prices and from the heavy cost of the 1991 Gulf War, plus persistent budget deficits, the government had to scale down its subsidies. By 2008, the subsidies had to be abandoned altogether; this time, most of the aquifers were depleted.
    The spectacular rise and fall of this wheat venture shows haphazard planning. The foray proved merely that throwing money to extract groundwater could make even a desert bloom, until either the money or the water runs out.
    The Saudi government and its propagandists have constantly hailed this folly as an amazing achievement.
    For the sixteen years between 1984 and 2000, it may be estimated that the cost of this venture exceeded US$85 billions and the average cost of wheat was more than US$500 per tonne. When the cost of abandoning 500,000 hectares, plus un-quantified government subsidies (for lack of data) are added the cost might double. During the same period, the international price for wheat averaged US$120 per tonne.
    If the money has become of late of no concern for Saudis, water ought to have been. Desert land needs three times the water needed under temperate conditions. Between 1980 and 1999, a gargantuan volume—300 billion cubic meters, equivalent to six years flow of the Nile River into Egypt—was wasted. Two-thirds, possibly more, of the water was from nonrenewable aquifers.
    At this rate, it does not take a genius to predict that the nonrenewable aquifers will sooner or later be depleted completely. Estimates varied regarding the day of reckoning. In a published book in 2006, I predicted that Saudi nonrenewable aquifers might be depleted after 6-7 years.

    Why was desert agriculture pursued?
    Ostensibly, the project was in search of achieving food self-sufficiency. Is such objective sustainable? The answer is no. Saudi population growth is among the highest in the world and its renewable water resources are insufficient. Even at the peak of its water extraction years, and depending on which Saudi ministry data one uses, Saudi Arabia lifted between 49% and 78% of the required water for food self-sufficiency, with the rest of the food being imported.
    While independence in foodstuffs is a politically attractive slogan, it is a flawed notion for two main reasons:
    1) Wheat—indeed all foodstuffs—is not critical for national security. The inability to import desalination equipment and spare parts by a country like Saudi Arabia that supplies more than 80% of its ten largest urban centers with desalinated water, would have much greater repercussions than a wheat boycott.
    2) Saudi cereal production was not limited to meeting domestic needs. Between 1985 and 1993, it was more than twice the level required domestically.
    Also, Saudi foodstuffs were even exported to neighboring states. Foodstuffs are virtual water, teaches University of London Professor Tony Allan. Between 1997 and 2001, the average annual volume of water used to produce the exported produce was equivalent to the annual requirements of the entire Saudi Arabian population for drinking and household purposes. That Saudi Arabia exports such volumes of its finite groundwater endowment is breathtaking.

    How was the decision to support desert agriculture made?
    Desert agriculture was pursued as a means to enrich the Saudi business elites. The promise of high financial returns enticed some of the country’s wealthiest traders to underwrite the risk of the new venture. The early investors were not professional farmers. They were absentee farmers, which is understandable, given that farming is alien to the desert habitat.
    Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, has non-representative and non-participatory governance. Foreign suppliers closely associate themselves with the powerful elites. Schemes such as food self-sufficiency in the desert, which are unsound both economically and environmentally, are attractively packaged with nationalistic slogans. In the absence of political parties, a free press, environmental groups, or any other concerned groups, such as egalitarian nongovernmental organizations, it is impossible to introduce a balancing economic or environmental perspective into water policy. Consequently, there has been no effective dissent against desert agriculture and its seriously negative economic and environmental policies.
    The oil economy and the nature of the Saudi political system provided the decision-making context. The Saudi experience is an extreme case of a politically determined ecological policy with the negative tendencies of a poorly informed elite enjoying rentier economic circumstances.
    Although most Saudi cities have sufficient groundwater reserves to meet their drinking and household water needs, these cities are supplied with desalinated water from plants hundreds of kilometers away. The volume of water used in irrigation in the Riyadh region in 2000, for example, was nine times greater than the volume needed for drinking and household purposes in that region. Also, in the Qassim region, the water used in irrigation was 37 times greater than the volume needed by the Qassim householders.
    In his Cadillac Desert Marc, Reisner wrote: “Water flows uphill towards money.”

    A final thought
    As the fable of Saudi desert agriculture rapidly reaches its logical end, a footnote in Saudi Arabia’s history will remain. Alongside the tale of the Saudi ruling group that has accumulated enormous riches and engaged in some of the most profligate indulgences, there is the story of the one generation that squandered tens of billions of dollars on the fruitless quest to make parts of the desert bloom and, in so doing, wasted the nation’s finite water inheritance without regard to their grandchildren.

    Elie Elhadj, Ph.D.
    Author: Experiments in Achieving Water and Food Self-Sufficiency in The Middle East

  3. Pingback: Water or Wheat? « Food Mapping

  4. hi everyone,
    Am from Kenya and really like any informattion on how to grow wheat on a large scale:- the seed prices, ratios to use, etc.
    any help would be greatly appreciated, thanx

  5. omg u people are…………….

  6. Thank you for a very nice article. The USA” is running dangerously low” on nutritional foods. With the take-over of mega farms, our choices are becoming slim for finding high quality, ripe fruits, vegetables, and grains of all kinds. When they harvest the crops before they have reached maturation, there is very little nutrition (glyconutrients) available in the food. In America, it is becoming a serious problem. Buy local or grow your own… about the only reliable solutions.

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