RITZVILLE – The first thing Ron Jirava does on this warm morning is slip a key into the ignition of his 3,000-gallon water truck and coax its old diesel engine to start.
After a few minutes of idling, he kills the engine, hops back into his work truck, and drives a half-mile to prep a pair of combines.
“That’s my safety blanket back there,” he said, jabbing a thumb over his shoulder toward the 1957 International truck.
“Especially this year.”
Jirava and wheat farmers across Eastern Washington have begun harvesting the most profitable crop in a decade. There’s no way he’ll risk losing it to fire.
The price of wheat has soared to record highs this year and the harvest promises to spin money through cash-starved small towns.
“There are smiles all around,” said Jirava from his fields about 70 miles southwest of Spokane. “We’re in no-man’s land with prices and just wondering if the price rise is here to stay, or if it’s once in a lifetime.”
It was just two years ago that farmers were complaining that high fuel and fertilizer prices could drive them out of business. For the first time since the Great Depression a gallon of diesel had cost more than a bushel of wheat.
Fast-forward two years and today that same bushel of Northwest grain fetches twice as much as a gallon of tractor fuel.
Farmers will use this big year to pay off bank loans, upgrade equipment, and maybe even tuck some money away for leaner times.
It’s the first time in years that wheat farming is fun, said Allan Koch, who farms about 3,500 acres with Jirava: “This is why we farm – to have a chance for this kind of year.”
The price of wheat has shot past $6 a bushel, and some say $7 wheat may be possible. That’s the kind of money necessary to put the brakes on the number of farmers giving up and selling out to neighbors.
During the past couple of years, anecdotal evidence shows every small town has lost one to two farm families, said Tom Mick, chief executive officer of the Washington Wheat Alliance.
“Doesn’t sound like much, but multiply that by all of the farming communities in this state and the numbers are really unfortunate,” he said. “What we’re hoping is that this year can keep some of our farmers from crossing that line.”
The high price of wheat, though, is about much more than the good fortunes of the dwindling number of farmers.
Wheat is an economic powerhouse for all of Eastern Washington. Grain dollars reaped from 2.2 million acres fund public schools and cycle through retailers ranging from clothiers in downtown Spokane to auto parts dealers in Odessa. The money keeps rural lenders flush and provides landowners – many of whom live in cities – a second income.
Last year the wheat harvest was valued at $456.3 million. Of the state’s more than 200 crops, only apples, milk, beef and potatoes were worth more to Washington’s agriculture economy.
The harvest could be worth double that in 2007 as farmers bring in an average crop.
The high prices are driven by droughts in other countries, a deluge of rain that damaged crops in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, and, until recently, ethanol-crazed corn prices.
Corn is the nation’s dominant crop and guides the price of other grain commodities. While the price has declined slightly, it’s so valuable this year that irrigators in Central Washington have ripped out fields of alfalfa to plant row upon row of corn, said Shawn Clausen, president of the Washington State Hay Growers Association.
Clausen said he doubled his corn crop this year. But rather than tear out alfalfa, he abandoned wheat – even at record prices – for the first time on his irrigated farm south of Interstate 90 near Warden. His decisions are part of a national trend that saw farmers planting the largest corn crop since 1944.
The United States leads the world when it comes to corn. Not so for wheat.
“We’re small fish,” Jirava said. “We don’t control the marketplace, we don’t control the price, and there’s not much we can do about it.”
What they can do is lobby the government for help.
Even with the price at record levels, wheat farmers will collect federal crop subsidies and conservation payments.
In the 10-year span of 1995-2005, farmers in Washington collectively received $2.5 billion in federal subsidies ranging from direct guaranteed payments to wheat and barley farmers, to money received for conservation practices, to checks for offsetting losses due to disasters in fruit orchards.
Smaller group of harvest hands
Jirava’s family arrived in Adams County by wagon train in 1884 to homestead acreage a few miles west of Ritzville. They brought their Bohemian/German heritage to the dry, broad land along with thousands of others.
The Koch family arrived in 1892, Germans who left Russia rather than face conscription.
Now, six generations later, these farm families have done their best to maintain and strengthen traditions.
No longer necessary are the scores of men who worked in the fields during harvest while women toiled in the kitchens preparing huge meals.
Today, Jirava and Koch drive two 25-year-old John Deere combines and a couple of grain trucks during the harvest. They start after 7 a.m., when the wheat is dry enough to cut, and lay off around noon for an hour or more, escaping into the shade of Jirava’s freshly mowed lawn to open coolers and dig out sandwiches, fruit, cookies and drinks.
They watch Western kingbirds chase insects through the air. The conversation bounces from machinery to good restaurants to family to farm politics and back to tractors.
Dusting wheat chaff from his buttoned shirt, Koch wonders about the future of farming. He worries that people, even some in farming communities like Ritzville, don’t appreciate the origins of food, much less farming.
“Used to be that when you drove the grain trucks to town it was a big deal,” Koch said. “Now sometimes it feels like you’re just a big truck that’s in the way.”
A few minutes later and it’s back to work, cutting grain that Odessa accountant Todd King said should help farmers make up several tough years.
Fetching more than $6 for the farmer even after paying the cost of transporting the grain to Portland, the extraordinary price comes at a time when more and more farm families were pressed into taking jobs in town to supplement sagging incomes.
“We’re encouraging farmers to get right with their banker, maybe some equipment upgrades, but not to spend all their money on iron,” said King. “This is really a good thing for our clients.”
After several years of counseling farmers during the tough times, King said it is a welcome change to talk about how to spend and invest money wisely for the future.
Highest price in 30 years
The last time the price of soft white wheat was this high was in the aftermath of what’s today called the Russian Wheat Deal, said Martha Hansen with USDA Market News Service in Portland.
In summer 1972 the U.S. government subsidized a credit agreement that allowed the Soviet Union to buy 440 million bushels of American wheat – a number equal to about 80 percent of the wheat needed to feed Americans.
The agreement between private grain suppliers and the Soviet Union put wheat in short supply. Prices began to rise, and by August 1973 the price of wheat had tripled, peaking in February 1974 at $6.35 a bushel.
The aftershocks included steep rises in the cost of foods like bread, milk and beef. Press reports dubbed the transactions “the great grain robbery.”
The problems led to changes in how grain is exported and how companies report foreign sales, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Rising wheat prices now may lack the political intrigue of the early 1970s, but they are still dramatic.
“The price this year is going to make a lot of little old lady landlords in town a lot happier than in years past,” said Jirava.
Although the bushel price is the highest in decades, the 1996 crop may have been more profitable because of lower fuel and fertilizer prices, a bumper crop and farm subsidies.
Not everybody is cashing in this year, however. Farmland enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program – a government initiative that pays landowners not to plant crops – is sitting idle this summer.
And some farmers jumped on modest prices last fall, contracting this year’s crop for $4 a bushel. Mick and others predicted that perhaps 20 percent or more of the wheat harvested this summer was sold before prices shot up.
“If there’s a downside to any of this it’s that some people are missing out on a great opportunity,” said Ed Stoner, manager of the Davenport Union Warehouse, a 300-farmer cooperative that buys and sells wheat and seed. “But you can’t blame people after the tough years they’ve been through.
“Now we’re hoping these prices are here to stay for a while.”