Acreage data issued last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture illustrated the widely different fortunes of two principal crops, wheat and soybeans. While corn for many years has been king of crops in the United States with regard to acres planted to grow it (wheat area last exceeded corn area in 1990), until the mid-1990s, it was wheat, not soybeans that laid claim to the second-largest planted area. What a dramatic shift the past 15 years have seen! The U.S.D.A on June 30 estimated area planted to wheat for harvest this year at 54,305,000 acres, down 4,828,000 acres, or 8%, from 59,133,000 acres in 2009. More to the point, the 2010 wheat planted area was estimated to be the smallest since 1971, two years before the Russian wheat purchases that ignited a dramatic increase in wheat plantings. In 1971, 53,822,000 acres were planted to wheat. Within five years, U.S. farmers responded to surging world demand by increasing wheat area nearly 50% to 80,395,000 acres in 1976.

In contrast, the U.S.D.A. estimated the area planted to soybeans for harvest this year at a record 78,868,000 acres, up 1,417,000 acres from 2009 and less than 10 million acres shy of the 2010 corn planted area estimated at 87,872,000 acres.

Paving the way for the steady decline in wheat acres seen in the past several years as well as for the steady increase in soybean acres was the pivotal 1996 farm bill, which freed producers from the obligation to plant specific crops on designated base acres to maintain their eligibility to receive benefits under the nation’s farm support programs. The “freedom to farm” provisions of that farm bill, preserved in the subsequent farm bills, enabled producers to respond to market signals in deciding what to plant, and the market cried out for more soybeans and less wheat.