India eyes bumper wheat harvest in 2023 as record prices lead to more sowing

FILE PHOTO: A worker carries a sack of wheat for sifting at a grain mill on the outskirts of Ahmedabad

By Rajendra Jadhav and Mayank Bhardwaj

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India is expected to harvest a bumper wheat crop in 2023 as high domestic prices and replenished soil moisture help farmers surpass last year's planting, while an intense heat-wave cut output this year.

Higher wheat output could encourage India, the world's second biggest producer of the grain, to consider lifting a May ban on exports of the staple and help ease concerns over persistently high retail inflation.

Although the wheat area has almost reached a plateau in India's traditional grain belts in the northern states such as Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, growers are planting the crop on some fallow land in the country's west where farmers have traditionally grown pulse and oilseeds.

"Wheat prices are very attractive," Nitin Gupta, vice president at Olam Agro India, told Reuters. "We can see a big jump in states like Gujarat and Rajasthan, where farmers could bring barren land under wheat."

Domestic wheat prices have jumped 33% so far in 2022 to a record 29,000 rupees ($355.19) per tonne, far above the government-fixed buying price of 21,250 rupees.

The surge in wheat prices is despite the ban on exports of the grain, indicating a far bigger drop in this year's output.

India, also the world's second biggest consumer of wheat, banned exports of the staple after a sharp, sudden rise in temperatures clipped output even as exports picked up to meet the global shortfall triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

India grows only one wheat crop in a year, with planting in October and November, and harvests from March.

Farmers have planted wheat on 15.3 million hectares since Oct. 1, when the current sowing season began, up nearly 11% from a year earlier, according to provisional data released by the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers' Welfare.

In Punjab and Haryana, India's bread basket states, a lot of farmers decided to bring forward their planting, believing the early-sown varieties would be ready for harvests before temperatures tend to go up in late March and early April, said Ramandeep Singh Mann, a farmer.

Higher temperatures shrivel the wheat crop.

"In Punjab, farmers have already planted wheat on 2.9 to 3.0 million hectares of its normal area of around 3.5 million hectares," Mann said.

To cash in on higher prices, farmers are also opting for superior wheat varieties such as Lokwan and Sharbati, the premium grades that fetch higher returns.

"Wheat area has gone up, but the crop will require lower temperatures in the weeks to come, and then the weather needs to remain favourable in March and April when the crop ripens," said Rajesh Paharia Jain, a New Delhi-based trader.

(Reporting by Rajendra Jadhav and Mayank Bhardwaj; Editing by Arun Koyyur)