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Persistent rain helping, hindering wheat crops

Sat., June 18, 2011

Fall planting looking good, but spring planting at risk

RITZVILLE – Enough already.

A soggy spring has put Eastern Washington’s wheat crop more than a week behind schedule in many areas, hampered spring seeding in others and prodded some North Idaho farmers to seek more help from the federal government, saying they’ve had too much of a good thing as welcomed showers evolved into continual, cursed rains.

Despite the worries, this year’s crop is expected to be a whopper for many wheat farms in the region. And with wheat prices still relatively high, farmers are hoping for another flush year, thanks to the rain. What they need now are warm, sunny days.

Most of the region’s wheat fields were planted last fall, and the condition of that crop is excellent, said Tom Mick, chief executive officer of the Washington Grain Alliance.

But some farmers opt to wait and plant in the spring, because spring wheat, such as hard red varieties, can fetch more money.

It’s a riskier move, though. This spring, some farmers in Spokane and Whitman counties were unable to plant because of soggy or flooded fields, according to reports from Washington State University. It’s the same story in much of North Idaho.

A fungal disease called stripe rust might have been a problem as well, because it favors cool, moist weather, but farmers were prepared, said Michael Miller, who grows wheat and potatoes outside of Ritzville.

The fungus, which has been plaguing area farms for several years, affects the important leaves of wheat plants and turns them a hue of burnt orange, or rust. With the leaves then unable to deliver nutrients to the developing head of the stalk, the kernels fail to fully develop.

“It can leave a crop of wheat resembling bird seed,” Miller said.

The disease problems were anticipated last fall and winter and, Miller said, an education campaign by the Washington Grain Alliance, along with continued work by disease researchers at Washington State University, prepared the region.

Extra supplies of fungicides were ordered by agricultural chemical dealers, and crop-duster companies brought in extra planes from as far away as Texas and Louisiana to aggressively fight the stripe rust outbreak.

It’s still too early to accurately predict how this year’s harvest will turn out, both in yield and in cash.

But farmers were optimistic enough in a $7-plus price per bushel this spring that they were ordering two, or in the case of some farmers in the Palouse region, three rounds of spray.

Mick said that price – which represents soft white wheat delivered to the grain terminals in Portland – has been falling but wouldn’t venture a guess where it may stand when harvest arrives.

“That’s the crystal ball thing again,” he said.

The prices for wheat and other commodities have been topsy-turvy over the past few years, soaring to record highs, plunging 50 percent and then climbing partway back.

Many farmers pre-sell at least a portion of their anticipated harvest and then hold the remainder into the fall and winter until they see a palatable price.

In parts of North Idaho, some farmers who held out to plant spring wheat or other rotation crops such as lentils are worried they won’t even see a crop.

They have asked county officials to press for an agricultural disaster declaration from the governor. It’s a formal step to seek and possibly collect extra federal assistance next year.

The numbers – such as the 18,000 acres of Kootenai County that won’t even be planted this year – may be small in comparison to the big wheat acreage of Washington, but the fields are among the highest-yielding in the country without using irrigation.

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