USDA’s chief economist projects the highest corn plantings since 1944, a decline in cotton plantings due to lower prices and a small increase in rice acreage for 2012. Speaking at the USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum 2012 in Arlington, Va., Joseph Glauber also projected higher wheat acres this year. Here’s more:

Corn plantings, estimated at 94 million acres, would be the largest plantings since 1944. Soybeans are projected at 75 million acres, unchanged from 2011, but down 1.6 million from last year’s intentions which were not achieved partly due to excessive moisture during planting, especially in the upper Midwest.

Lower prices will likely result in a decline in upland cotton area to 13 million acres. Rice plantings will likely increase 2.3 percent to 2.8 million acres. Most of the increase is expected to occur in long grain rice in the Delta where farmers were prevented from planting substantial intended acreage by early season flooding in 2011.

Wheat acreage is expected to increase 3.6 million acres to 58 million. Winter wheat area, at 41.9 million acres, is up 1.3 million from last year. Spring wheat plantings should rebound from last year’s levels when excessive spring and early summer wetness limited seedings.

This year should be another good one for U.S. agricultural exports with the lower value of the dollar more than compensating for the expectations of slower world growth, according to Glauber.

He pegged U.S. agricultural exports at $131 billion in fiscal year 2012, down $1 billion from the last estimate, but still forecast to be the second highest on record. The decline from record exports in fiscal year 2011 reflects record global crop production which has weakened prices and export volumes.

Imports are projected at $106.5 billion, up $12 billion from 2011. The net trade balance for is forecast at $24.5 billion, compared to $43 billion in 2011.

China was the largest destination for U.S. agricultural exports in 2011, importing just shy of $20 billion. “Just five years ago they were our 5th largest destination after Canada, Mexico, Japan and the European Union,” Glauber said. Exports to China are expected to fall by 15 percent this year.

China import demand is expected to remain strong in 2012, accounting for over 60 percent of total world soybean imports and over 50 percent of world cotton imports.

Glauber noted that record prices in late 2010 and the first half of 2011, “resulted in increased plantings and record production for grains and cotton. Soybean production, while off last year’s record, was still the third highest on record.”

Global demand has largely kept pace with production, Glauber noted. “Total wheat consumption topped 680 million metric tons, total corn use was over 867 million metric tons, and total rice use was 480 million tons, milled. Unlike grains and oilseeds, demand for world cotton declined last year, reflecting sluggish world growth, particularly in the developed economies.”

Glauber noted that wheat and rice stocks have rebuilt from low levels reached in 2007-08, though demand remains strong. Corn stocks have tightened further in 2011-12. World ending stocks for corn for 2011-12 expressed in terms of use are estimated at about 52.3 days of use, the lowest level since 1973-74.

Meanwhile ethanol production is slowing after increasing by almost 700 million bushels per year over 2005-10. Corn use for ethanol has flattened and is projected to fall by 21 million bushels in 2011-12.

Expected returns for soybeans and corn are again historically high reflecting strong new-crop futures and cash forward prices, Glauber said.

CRP enrollments are also down again for 2012-13 with total CRP area projected at 30 million acres, 6.8 million acres lower than at peak enrollment in 2007-08.

Farm prices for most field crops will be lower, Glauber said, reflecting larger world and domestic supplies. A return to trend yields will likely push corn prices down significantly as stock levels rebuild. Corn prices are forecast to average $5 bushel in 2012-13, down almost 20 percent from 2011-12’s record levels.

Cotton prices are expected to decline by more than 10 percent to 80 cents per pound for 2012-13, reflecting larger supplies worldwide. Rice prices are anticipated to remain strong, in part reflecting strong world demand which will likely boost U.S. rice exports in 2012-13.

Agriculture’s strong performance is projected to ease in 2012. Net cash income for 2012 is forecast at $96.3 billion, down 11.5 percent from 2011, but still the second highest in nominal terms on record. Cash receipts for 2012 are forecast at $364.1 billion, a record high. Total expenses are projected to increase $12.5 billion.

Farm asset values are likely to increase by more than 5 percent for the third consecutive year, according to Glauber. Debt is expected to rise 3.8 percent. The inflation-adjusted value of the farm sector’s equity is expected to establish a new record high.

Slowing demand for ethanol means that corn stocks will likely increase in 2012-12 assuming a return to trend yields. This should help moderate record feed grain prices. Livestock markets should see increasing margins towards the end of 2012 as the new crop is harvested bringing down feed costs.

There are still a number of key uncertainties starting with the size of the South American corn and soybean crops and the persistent dry areas of the southern United States. Nonetheless, prospects for U.S. agriculture continue to be strong with record income in 2011.