From the southern end of South Carolina to the northern neck of Virginia, wheat growers are keeping their fingers crossed that Mother Nature will continue to look kindly on what is shaping up to be one of the biggest and best wheat crops in years.

Growers in the tri-state area share much the same sentiment — we’ve got a great wheat crop and we’re one good rain and good harvest weather away from having a phenomenal crop.

The 2011 wheat crop will have endured one of the coldest winters on record and a spring growing season that featured too much moisture, too little moisture, the worst outbreak of killer tornadoes in more than 20 years and late May hailstorms that obliterated a few fields in northeast North Carolina and southeast Virginia.

Dan Weathington, executive director of the North Carolina Grain Growers Association says when all is said and done he expects growers in the Tar Heel state to harvest more than 600,000 acres of wheat.

It’s difficult to estimate exactly how many acres of wheat we have until it’s all harvested, Weathington contends. “I’ve talked to several people who planted wheat as a cover crop or were planning to graze livestock on it. After they saw the crop had a good yield potential and wheat prices were good, some of them decided to carry crop out to harvest,” he explains.

Last year early summer drought and record breaking heat hammered all crops in areas of North Carolina and Virginia. Wheat, which was at the most vulnerable time in terms of setting kernels, was particularly hard hit.

Some farms, with average yields pushing 70-80 bushels per acre saw production easily cut in half, and in many cases fields were simply turned under to meet guidelines for crop insurance.

So far this year is a different story. Despite late season tornadoes and hail, growing conditions during the critical period of wheat development has been ideal across the Carolinas and Virginia. “I’ve seen plenty of fields this year that look like they have the potential to produce 100 bushels per acre,” Weathington says.

Among the reasons for optimism over the 2011 wheat crop is unusually low levels of disease pressure this season. Christina Cowger, a USDA plant pathologist in Raleigh, N.C., says scab in particular was noticeably absent across the region.