Blasting, razor-sharp ice shards that hailed down Sunday on the Inland Northwest have shredded what could have been a banner year for many farmers.
From Whitman County, where officials Wednesday estimated crop and structural damage at $50 million, to Okanogan County, where glassy golf ball-sized stones ripped through more than $15 million in fruit, growers are counting their losses.
“We’ve lost 1 million boxes of fruit,” said Ed Pariseau, general manager of Brewster Heights Packing Co. “The apples weren’t cut, they were ruptured. I’ve seen a lot of hail, but never anything like this.”
The timing of the violent rain and hail storm could not have been worse. A crop forecast issued Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that Northwest farmers who were growing wheat, apricots, peaches, among other crops, were poised for an ideal year of both bountiful harvests and strong prices.
That means farmers who escaped the wrath of the hail storm, which picked its targets randomly, could still come out ahead. Their unlucky neighbors, however, are left wondering why they were singled out.
“For those who still have a crop, it could be pretty sweet,” said Don Fraser, executive of the Consolidated Farm Service Agency in Whitman County. “But for those who got hit, it’s a bitter pill.”
Until now, weather problems were expected to cut into the year’s harvest in just about every region of the country except the Pacific Northwest.
Winter storms had killed wheat in Kansas, but spared the Palouse. A blazing sun burned California apricots, but kissed the soft fruit of the Columbia River Basin with a mild summer.
Then in less than 15 minutes, on what some consider God’s day of rest, heaven came tumbling down and fortunes were lost.
“Some guys got hurt pretty bad,” said Fraser, who observed green pea plants mashed into the dirt and ripening wheat heads shattered. “They may not be able to harvest an acre on a 1,000-acre plot.”
Fraser and other officials Wednesday completed a three-day tour of damage in the worst areas of Garfield, Colton and Colfax. They estimated $50 million in damage, including 100 smashed steel grain bins.
Washington’s congressional representatives and Gov. Mike Lowry’s office said they have been contacted by dozens of farmers seeking disaster assistance. Declaration of a disaster area would allow farmers to tap low-interest loans to continue operations and make repairs.
Dave Green, Spokane-based branch chief for federal crop insurance programs in the Pacific Northwest, said damage reports are pouring in, but it is too early to know how many farmers are insured and will file a claim.
Ironically, this is the first year where farmers who participate in federal farm programs must buy basic catastrophic insurance that protects against losses of 50 percent or more. Some farmers also buy crop insurance from private carriers.
“I don’t think they’ll be any trouble getting disaster assistance,” said Fritz Van Doren, who was preparing to harvest 60 acres of apples, apricots and peaches near Brewster. “This thing (storm) was a mile wide and went up the whole valley. It totaled cars, broke windows and flattened hay fields. It wiped us out totally.”
Thus far, Whitman and Okanogan counties appear to be hardest hit. Fraser estimated that about 250,000 acres, or one fourth of Whitman County farm land, had hail or flood damage. Van Doren said estimates of lost fruit in Okanogan County ran as high as 3.5 million boxes.
In a damage report to the CFSA state office in Spokane, Douglas County reported that 190,000 acres of wheat, 2,200 acres of barley and 8,000 acres of orchards were struck by hail or floods.
Chelan County reported damage on 2,200 acres of apples, 200 acres of pears and 100 acres of cherries.
Benton County reported damage on 7,000 acres of wheat, while Franklin County said it had losses on 1,500 acres of cherries.