Cleavinger to Take Reins of NAWG

Texas producer champions wheat biotechnology.

Published on: Feb 29, 2008

With record new crop wheat prices, one would think David Cleavinger's upcoming tenure as president of the National Association of Wheat Growers would be relatively easy. But Cleavinger, whose reign begins this weekend, says there are a host of issues NAWG needs to embrace in order to keep farmers operating in the black.

Foremost is NAWG's effort – in conjunction with the U.S. Wheat Associates – to bring biotechnology to the wheat industry. NAWG for years has championed that wheat farmers and end-users need access to biotechnology, in order to increase farmers' efficiency and improve quality of the grain purchased by millers and bakers.

David Cleavinger

It's not an easy sell, as some domestic and overseas end-users have shown reluctance to buy and mill genetically modified wheat. That 50% of the annual U.S. wheat crop is exported must be considered, Cleavinger says.

"We don't want to do anything that disrupts trade with foreign countries. But wheat must be competitive [profitability wise] with other crops," he says.

For sure, high wheat prices have improved profitability prospects for farmers and very well could "buy" acres during spring wheat planting. Right now, however, U.S wheat stocks are estimated to last 27 days – well below the normal three-month supply, according to the American Bakers Association.

Cleavinger believes that the lack of wheat could give momentum to the biotechnology movement.

"Two years ago, NAWG told American millers and bakers that farmers are switching to other crops, because wheat production wasn't as profitable. The millers told us they had no problems getting wheat because there was an ample supply. Now, however, the ABA is calling for a ban of wheat exports," he says.

New biotech traits such as drought tolerance or fusarium resistance would not only help farmers become more productive, they could improve quality. These are considerations that most farmers and end-users can support, he adds. The NAWG continues to work with U.S. Wheat Associates to move the biotechnology industry forward. And even though positive signals have been sent to trait providers, it will take years of research and product development to bring traits to the market.

"Three years ago, the biotech trait under consideration [Roundup Ready wheat] wasn't going to be broadly adapted in the U.S. When they saw the signal that NAWG and the U.S. Wheat Associates were not going to support it, they lost a lot of money putting it on the shelf," Cleavinger says.

The wheat industry's marketing arm – the grower-funded U.S. Wheat Associates – is working hard to educate buyers around the world of the positives of biotechnology. When wheat was $4 per bushel, overseas buyers weren't as receptive to biotech wheat.

"Now that wheat is $10-12 or $25 in the case of spring wheat, the perspective changes. Biotechnology can answer the call with quality and quantity," he says.