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Thousands of farmers expected at Spokane Ag Expo

Mon., Feb. 2, 2009

Spokane Ag Expo, one of the largest trade shows in the Inland Northwest, is drawing thousands of food growers, from those who produce wheat for export around the world to those who sell their vegetables at local farmers markets.

All are trying to weather a recession that has changed the spending habits of shoppers, diners and food companies.

Yet expo manager Myrna O’Leary and other organizers anticipate a crowd of perhaps 5,000, saying there’s opportunity in such times. The exhibitor list is full, with 240 businesses and agencies ready to answer questions, dispense information or make sales.

Thayne Barker, a regional manager for Great Plains Manufacturing in Kansas, will show off a new tiller billed as a way to preserve soil moisture, curb erosion and save tractor fuel.

As several workers washed and towel-dried the $45,000 machine called a turbo chopper inside the Spokane Convention Center, Barker said corn farmers in the Dakotas and other Midwest states are harvesting better crops – and financial savings.

He is ready to tell Columbia Basin corn and wheat farmers all about it as they look over new equipment between educational seminars that include how to better market their crop and how to stick to a tight budget during lean times.

Tom Mick, chief executive of the Washington Grain Alliance, said this year is loaded with uncertainties.

It starts with this: Wheat farmers are holding about 40 percent of last summer’s crop. That’s perhaps twice as much as usual.

Farmers spent, on average, about $6.50 a bushel to grow and harvest the crop. They paid a premium for fuel and fertilizer. After what Mick termed “a harvest from hell,” the price of grain tumbled.

Many didn’t sign advance contracts that would have locked in better prices last year – choosing instead to gamble on spot prices that a year earlier had soared to all-time highs.

Now they’re stuck storing bushels of red-ink wheat.

“We may have some real problems,” he said, “and I don’t want to be a pessimist.”

At the trade show, wheat farmers will be looking for tips on farming without much rain.

Last fall was dry, and many farmers seeded into the dust, hoping for good winter moisture to give the plants a healthy start. Others decided to wait until spring to make planting decisions.

All should be interested in the forecast by Art Douglas – who has been giving mostly accurate predictions on regional temperatures and precipitation for 30 years.

He has said to expect a dry spring and summer across the Inland Northwest. Furthermore, he has predicted “critically dry” conditions for 2010.

“If we could get an average crop this year, with all that’s gone on with the weather, we would be delighted,” Mick said.

O’Leary expects the questions facing farmers to bolster attendance. Last year’s numbers were down significantly after a series of snowstorms slammed Eastern Washington, drifted highways shut and brought Spokane to a standstill during the show dates.

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