Imagine creating an area that could hold all of the farms in Spokane County a 976-square-mile food basket combining cropland from Reardan to Rockford, Deer Park to Plaza.
Imagine the approximately 200 farmers and tractors it would take to work the ground, planting 15 tons of seed and spreading 31 million pounds of fertilizer to jump-start a new crop of wheat.
Imagine the first harvest, with farmers threshing enough grain to fill rail cars that stretched from Spokane to Ellensburg.
Now imagine you are in the farm supply business when this happens.
While Inland Northwest landowners and politicians grouse about the recent loss of taxpayer-subsidized Conservation Reserve Program land, marketers of equipment, seed, chemicals and grain are quietly preparing to recoup the losses they experienced a dozen years ago. That was when the popular soil and wildlife conservation program began to pay farmers to take more than 1 million acres out of production.
“If the acres come out, it’s definitely going to affect the rural economy,” Dan Helbling, salesman for Jones Truck & Implement in Colfax, says as he shows off a new red seed drill. “They’ll need fertilizer, tractors, combines and many more supplies to make it work.”
Under a new nationwide sign-up for conservation reserve acres, Washington farmers last month were awarded just 21 percent of the land they offered, the lowest acceptance rate among all U.S. farm states. That could reduce total idled acres from 1 million to about 400,000 by October. By comparison, the acceptance rate in Idaho was 83 percent.
The program in the past annually paid farmers $50 per acre on average to idle eligible land and preserve it. The new program will average $39 per acre.
Most landowners seeded the idled land with prairie grasses, but others planted trees and shrubs to enhance wildlife habitat and preserve the soil for future generations.
Scientists and environmentalists praised the program for arresting destructive wind and water erosion and improving water quality. However, some grain merchants and feedlot operators complained that the program artificially raised grain prices by limiting crop production across vast stretches of land.
There’s still a slight chance the government could ease the rules and allow landowners to keep more of their CRP acreage.
Larry Albin, state executive director of the Farm Service Agency, who recently met with Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, said Glickman plans to present a final decision on Washington’s participation in the program next week to the state’s congressional delegation.
If lobbying efforts fail, about 600,000 idled acres in Washington, and 100,000 acres in Idaho, likely will return to production.
The change would reduce annual payments in Washington an estimated $31 million, from $52 million to $21 million.
In total, those lost acres would qualify as the fifth-largest farm district in Washington behind Adams, Grant, Lincoln and Whitman counties.
If seeded into wheat, the acreage could produce a 24-million-bushel crop, or more than what farmers in Uruguay, Portugal or New Zealand harvest in a year.
Business owners such as John Anderson, general manager of the Central Washington Grain Growers, the state’s largest grain cooperative, hope the U.S. Department of Agriculture will change its mind and let Inland Northwest farmers preserve their conservation reserve land.
“I’m not counting on a windfall, yet,” Anderson says from his Waterville, Wash., office, which oversees grain terminals in nearly 20 communities. “But we have the storage available to handle any increase in production.”
Other agri-business people, such as Marilyn Laughlin, owner of Laughlin Trading Co. in Spokane, are scrambling to guess how much seed farmers will need to plant wheat, alfalfa or other crops on the restored land.
“This is good for my business, or any seed dealer,” Laughlin says. “But the change is a little heavy without any warning. You understand that we can’t produce good, quality seed out of the clear blue sky.”
Getting enough seed will be just one of the problems facing growers who want to return conservation reserve fields to production.
Some farmers retired on the program, selling off essential equipment they may need to get back into business.
Others face losing the security of annual government payments and the challenges of being forced to, once again, generate income off marginally productive land. That means greater risk to farmers who wonder if an increase in planted acres will depress crop prices.
“Growers are scared to death of revisiting the prices of the 1980s,” says Michael Dunlap, regional production manager for Cargill Intermountain Canola.
The change also has implications for the Spokane economy, where farmers often come to buy cars and furniture, and other items, or to watch a play or movie or sporting event.
The U.S. Census in 1992 reported that farmers in five agricultural counties - Adams, Latah, Lincoln, Spokane and Whitman - spend $450 million each year on labor, fertilizer, fuel and machinery.
At the Wilbur Department Store, owner Chuck Berg says he should be happy about thousands of acres returning to crop, but he’s not.
The merchant says hunters who like to stalk the CRP land tend to buy more clothing, shoes and boots than farmers and farm hands.
“If we have a good year, it might turbo-charge business in town. But if I had to roll the dice,” Berg said, “I’d bet on sportsmen spending more money than extra farm hands hired to take care of the new ground.”
Don Dillman, professor of rural sociology at Washington State University, says there are signs around the Palouse that equipment dealers are anticipating greater sales as farmers come off a year of high prices and look ahead to returning conservation reserve land to production.
“As soon as wheat prices go up, you start seeing the equipment come out. And with CRP acres coming back into production, I’d look for more of that to happen. That’s my price indicator.”
But Dillman doubts that the change would be enough to resurrect the grocers, car dealers and barber shops that shut down when the program first began.
“It probably will mean more activity for existing businesses,” he says. “This is a year of transition and, frankly, we’re all in uncharted territory.”
Martin Anderson, with Palouse Welding, says his company typically sells one no-till seed drill every spring. At $80,000 to $95,000 each, the small shop considers the sale a success.
But already this year, the company has sold three of the drills, Anderson says, and expects to deliver a few more before the end of the season.
“There’s a lot of interest surrounding this CRP,” Anderson said last week while demonstrating his 22,000-pound drill at the Fields of Tomorrow farm tour in Colfax. “Somebody has to deliver all that seed and fertilizer and equipment. Might as well be us.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 photos (1 color) Graphic: Lost acres