Paul Gross steers his combine across an irrigated field of wheat, smiling and sharing stories.
This is the best time of year for farmers, Gross says, wiping the sweat beading on his forehead with the long sleeve of his shirt — a garment sewn by the women in the Spokane Hutterian Brethren colony where he lives and farms.
“This is my vacation,” he says of reaping months of work and hope through the annual crop harvest.
The scene is a familiar one each July and August when farmers cut huge swaths through wheat fields stretching across 1.8 million acres of Eastern Washington.
Though prices for the type of wheat typically grown in Washington remain stuck below the recognized break-even level of $4 a bushel delivered to Portland grain terminals, farmers are now finding that they can change what they do to make money.
For Gross, this meant planting a higher-protein hard red wheat variety on an irrigated field above the Spokane River a few miles east of Reardan. He expects this particular variety to pay more than $5 a bushel and deliver a crop big enough to cover the expense of water, fuel and fertilizer.
“The price tells us to grow this wheat,” said Gross, who oversees the farming operation of the Hutterite colony.
That scenario is changing the way farmers think about their crops.
“It’s a neat story of diversification,” said Tom Mick, chief executive officer of the Washington Wheat Commission. “There’s just this huge spread between soft white and hard red. Sometimes it’s a $1.50 (per bushel) difference.”
The dollar difference has pushed red wheat to 20 percent of the state’s wheat crop. That number could double next year as plenty of farmers bank on a continued drought in Montana and the Dakotas, where red wheat varieties, best for baking high-rising breads, are normally grown, Mick said.
Most types of wheat are grown in Washington, with the exception of durum, which is ground into flour along with semolina to make macaroni. About 85 percent of the overall crop is barged down the Snake and Columbia rivers to Portland and exported to Asia and Africa.
“We like to see the mix,” Mick said. “I think our state could easily take a third of our acreage into hard wheats.”
Mick tempers his enthusiasm with a caveat: Farmers and seed dealers must ensure that good-quality wheat is planted, especially at a time when seed is in short supply and demand is up. Attempting to sell inferior wheat to quality-conscious buyers such as South Korea and Japan could short-circuit red wheat sales.
Gross said about half of the Hutterites’ wheat crop is planted with hard red this year, much of it as rotation planting for the colony’s most important crop: seed potatoes.
First Hutterite community
The Hutterites began farming in Washington about 50 years ago when the late Paul S. Gross moved members of his family from Alberta to the fertile fields near the community of Deep Creek. It was the first Hutterite community west of the Rocky Mountains and many of the old traditions remain among the group’s 80 members.
At 7 a.m. on a recent summer morning, 17-year-old Linda Gross walks out of the dining hall with an arm wrapped around her 5-year-old cousin Crystal and draws a rope attached to an old bell. The clanging echoes among the colony’s living quarters, which resemble blocky, yet well-engineered, apartment buildings. Members of the colony sit down to a breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, fruit and toast. The men sit on one side of the dining hall, women on the other.
Bill Gross, the financial manager for the colony, offers a German prayer asking the Lord to bless the food and nourish the colony. When breakfast is completed, he offers a second prayer of thanks. The women clear the tables as the men head to the fields and machine shops.
Hutterites are similar to Mennonites, tracing their religious roots to Europe and the Protestant Reformation. They live in largely self-sufficient colonies where the women sew the men’s clothing of pants, long-sleeved shirts and suspenders. The women wear ankle-length skirts and cover their hair with small bonnets. They speak a German dialect among themselves; the English spoken to outsiders gives away their German heritage through mild inflections.
Though they shun many modern conveniences, they embrace technological advances and the fruits of capitalism. Few farms can boast of better machinery and the group is adept at using computers in the most modern farm-management techniques.
Gross said it’s a matter of survival. Good farmers must have keen understanding of commodity markets, agronomy, economics and political dynamics, as well as a good sense of business and timing.
Four other Washington colonies have split off from the Spokane Hutterites, each successfully establishing a diversified farm.
They raise cattle and grow sweet corn and field corn, white and red wheat, potatoes for seed, alfalfa and timothy hay.
Gardens provide a homegrown food supply.
At the Deep Creek community, the men fix machinery, drive grain trucks and combines and tend to other crops, while a half-dozen women sit in the shade of a large shed and husk ears of sweet corn. The smell induces one of those “close your eyes and breathe deeply” moments.
Dora Gross explains that the corn is quickly dropped into boiling water, then dunked in a cold bath. Women then use fillet knives to shave the kernels from the cobs. The women freeze some for use on the farm and sell the rest as ” Hutterite Corn” at local grocers such as Yoke’s.
Hutterites operate for federal income tax purposes as a 501(d) communal religious community. The designation means that colony members own no personal property — everything is owned by the collective.
That also means if a colony member decides to leave for a different life, they are not entitled to any property or cash.
The status provides some tax relief, but the arrangement prevents the colony from creating multiple family corporations to take full advantage of federal farm programs that have subsidized American grain farmers for decades.
Prices create squeeze
Yet even the government programs are failing farmers.
Gross talks with regret of farming neighbors who are struggling. Unless somebody puts a stop to soaring petroleum costs, he says, the farm economy will crumble.
This year’s crop didn’t help much, said Washington State University agronomist John Burns.
Farmers expected a better crop after a wet May and June. But a few tough weather stints, including a hard freeze in February and a hot dry stretch in early May, stressed wheat plants. Farmers didn’t know what to expect until harvest and many were mildly disappointed, Burns said.
Across Washington, yields were averaging about 66 bushels to the acre according to the National Agricultural Statistic Service. That’s down about a bushel an acre from average and from last year.
It was the same story for the Hutterite colony.
“We’re doing OK, but the costs are sure hurting us,” said colony member Steve Benning, filling a tanker truck with diesel fuel for delivery to the combines.
Back on his combine, Gross talked about the challenges of farming, the year’s harvest and what’s in the future.
“I have to look forward to tomorrow,” he said. “Look at this beautiful wheat.”
And with that, he spins the steering wheel and makes a big turn, lowers the header and drives into a golden field.