July 19, 2006 in Business

Wheat harvest fueled by frustration

Associated Press The Spokesman-Review
 

Harvest has begun in Eastern Washington’s wheat belt, where the price of a barrel of oil is being watched as closely as the price of a bushel of grain.

Large combines that cut stalks and separate wheat kernels have begun making their way across nearly 2.3 million acres of golden wheat, Gretchen Borck of the Washington Association of Wheat growers said Tuesday.

“It looks like it will be a decent harvest. Not a bumper crop, but a good, solid crop,” Borck said by phone from Ritzville.

High energy costs have hit farmers in their pockets both at planting and harvest, Borck said.

Increasing prices of natural gas pushed fertilizer prices up this spring, while diesel fuel that powers farm equipment is selling for around $3 a gallon.

“How would you like to fill up your 200 gallon tank every morning before you go out to field and maybe once during the day?” Borck asked. “The price of fuel is killing us.”

Grain shipped to Portland was fetching between $3.80-$3.85 a bushel on Tuesday. But Eastern Washington farmers must pay an additional 50-cents a bushel to ship their grain to Portland terminals.

“We can’t pass our costs on. Our prices are set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Kansas City,” Borck said. “The buck stops here. We’re losing money.”

Farmers won’t know until after harvest, which usually wraps up by the end of August, how much — if any — profit they’ll take from their crops.

“We’re hoping at the end of harvest, the price will jump,” Borck said, adding that events around the world will determine whether the harvest is successful.

Growers in some areas lost portions of their crop when a severe storm moved through the region July 4th. Heavy rain, wind and unseasonable hail knocked down wheat stalks that were nearly ready for harvest, leaving them useless.

The extent of the damage is still being assessed, Borck said.

On Tuesday, Gov. Chris Gregoire asked Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to designate five Eastern Washington counties hit by severe weather as farm disaster areas.

Such a designation would make farmers in Adams, Chelan, Douglas, Lincoln and Okanogan counties eligible for low interest federal loans.

“We’re hoping that, at the end of harvest, they will be able to pencil it out and that they will be able to break even,” Borck said. “We’re hoping for a good crop, a safe year, and that they can meet expenses.”

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