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Willamette Valley growers swap grass for wheat

THURSDAY, NOV. 19, 2009

Expected high yield raises concerns over lack of storage

SALEM – As growers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley shift from grass seed to wheat, the question on many minds is: What are growers going to do with all that wheat?

Many don’t have storage to handle their production. And what storage is available generally is packed with grass seed.

With Willamette Valley growers planting nearly 10 times more wheat than normal, the question presents a sizable problem, said Oregon State University Extension cereals specialist Mike Flowers.

“With the yield potential we have in the valley, that’s a huge number we could be adding to the state’s wheat supply,” Flowers said. “I’m not sure we’re going to be ready for it.”

According to industry estimates, Willamette Valley growers are planting between 200,000 and 250,000 acres of winter wheat this fall – double 2009’s large wheat acreage, estimated at between 100,000 and 125,000 acres.

Not since the 1980s has wheat production topped 200,000 acres in the valley.

The valley acreage could boost the state’s production by a third, adding 20 million bushels to the 60 million bushels produced in Oregon in recent years.

Grass seed acres, conversely, are expected to fall to their lowest level in years. Growers reportedly are dramatically reducing annual and perennial crop plantings and pulling out marginally productive perennial stands.

Tall fescue seed acres, for example, are expected to fall from 175,000 in 2008 to around 130,000 next year. Perennial ryegrass acres, which topped 160,000 in 2007, are expected to fall to around 100,000 acres.

Despite the drop in production, industry experts expect barns to be full of grass seed next summer. The industry in recent months has encountered an unprecedented drop in demand, and the seed isn’t expected to move in time to store next year’s wheat crop.

Leaving wheat piled in fields isn’t a good option, Flowers said, due to the risk of wheat sprouting from August rains.

Much of the valley’s grass seed storage isn’t equipped for the heavier wheat kernels, Flowers said.

And with exporters packed with Eastern Oregon crop when Willamette Valley growers begin harvest, storing wheat in Portland isn’t an option.

“If guys in Portland aren’t taking it, you don’t have a lot of other options other than leaving it on-farm or taking it to grain storage facilities across the mountain,” Flowers said.

Washington County farmer Tom Duyck, a board member of the Oregon Wheat Commission, said the jam-up in Portland got so bad last year, some exporters told growers they didn’t want valley wheat until they moved Eastern Oregon wheat out of their channels.

“The good thing is people are starting to look at this,” Flowers said. “Ideally someone will put some storage on this side of the mountain and we can take care of some of these issues.”

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