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Erratic winter hasn’t hurt wheat yet, farmers say

MOSCOW – With lower temperatures predicted for weeks to come, farmers are eyeing their soggy grounds where winter wheat lies dormant. Without snow insulating the planted crops, low temperatures could kill off dormant seeds in Palouse soil.

“There’s always a concern that you could have a cold snap in February and this wheat could break dormancy, and … that could be tough,” said Sam White, chief operations officer at the Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative.

So far, La Niña winter weather has treated area farmers well, White said. Though lower than average temperatures are expected to last through April, temperatures are only expected to decline a few degrees from average, said John Livingston, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service. This means it’s unlikely winter kill will affect local crops.

Steve Van Vleet, an educator at Washington State University extension in Colfax, said temperatures would need to fall to single or negative numbers before crops would be damaged.

Robert Blair, who manages a farm near Kendrick, Idaho, said such dips in temperatures on the Palouse are not unheard of. In 1993, warm February weather sent farmers out to their fields through most of the month, but by the last week, cold weather and rain washed out and froze some crops.

“You always have the frost in the back of your mind,” Blair said.

While that’s true for Colfax farmer Craig Cox, worrying won’t help him be a better farmer, he said.

“I can stress about a lot of things, but I try not to,” Cox said.

There’s almost nothing farmers can do to protect themselves from the weather, Cox said. The best defense, he found, was to plant a hardy variety on his land outside of Colfax.

“What I have is a three-way blend from different plant breeders,” Cox said. “All three varieties have their own things that they’re good for and bad for, so you kind of diversify.”

For now, farmers like Blair are keeping track of rainfall. Soggy soil has prevented Blair from surveying all of his property, but he predicted the warm weather and rain have eroded patches of land. Lee Hawley, who farms north of Moscow, said the wet fields and little erosion he’s seen aren’t too concerning.

“So far I haven’t seen anything that bothers me,” he said. “But we’ve got lots of time for winter yet.”

While La Niña may affect temperatures into early spring, it will not have any bearing on summer weather, Livingston said.

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