This is a farmer’s worst nightmare.
With an Arctic express threatening the Inland Northwest, grain and fruit growers can only pray that $2 billion in winter crops aren’t wiped out during the next five days.
“I’d be in church if I thought that would help,” said Plaza, Wash., wheat grower Bob Kjack. “I’d like to throw a blanket over my wheat crop.”
What began as a promising early spring suddenly could become a bad dream for farmers, who can do little but watch if millions of acres of exposed winter wheat, carrot seed, alfalfa and fruit trees are forced to brave the coldest temperatures of the year.
Unseasonably warm weather in recent weeks melted a protective snow cover and plants have emerged from winter dormancy. They are vulnerable to the shock of a sudden freezing storm.
The same storm is likely to freeze crocuses and tulips popping up in Spokane flower beds. But the stakes are considerably higher for thousands of people who bet their annual incomes on the vast agricultural fields that stretch from Yakima to Bonners Ferry.
This multibillion-dollar factory of foodproducing fields covers more than 3 million acres in Eastern Washington and North Idaho. The perennial fruit trees and fallplanted crops in the region annually yield a harvest valued at more than $2 billion.
In the Tri-Cities, researchers say, peaches and apricots are at a stage of development that usually doesn’t occur until early March.
The storm’s timing also would be bad for ranchers, who are at the height of the calving season. Some have erected tarps and other windbreaks to protect cows and keep newborns from freezing to the ground.
But most realize that attempts to stop the penetrating cold are futile.
“There’s very little you can do about it,” said Elvin Kulp, an extension agent in Grant County, where orchardists and carrot seed producers are closely watching the thermometer.
Total crop disasters are rare because geographic differences tend to alter the force of cold temperatures and wind. Certain crop varieties of wheat and fruit also have greater tolerance than others to severe winter weather.
But this week’s storm looks frightfully similar to one that struck the Inland Northwest in February 1989, when a sudden freeze shocked growing crops and destroyed 800,000 acres of winter wheat.
The National Weather Service predicts a low of about 2 degrees on Sunday with below-zero temperatures Monday.
If that happens, Spokane County extension agent Paul Peterson said, it may be two months before farmers will know whether their fields have been damaged. The extent of damage may depend on such nuances as whether the plant is growing on the south side of a hill or sitting in a furrow.
This is the first year wheat growers and others enrolled in the federal farm program are required to buy catastrophic crop insurance. The basic plan covers 50 percent of a crop.
But farmers would just as soon avoid a catastrophe.
“Pray, that’s all we can do,” said Kjack. “I’ve seen forecasters predict storms before and we get nothing but a blow. I’m concerned, but that’s the life of a farmer.”