Whether it’s revolution in the Middle East or an earthquake and tsunami in Japan, this year has already been tumultuous for the region’s wheat industry.
Japan buys more Washington-grown wheat each year than any other country. The purchases account for up to 950,000 metric tons – or about 20 percent – of the wheat grown in the state, said Tom Mick, chief executive of the Washington Grain Alliance, which markets the region’s wheat crop.
It’s too early to know if the 8.9 magnitude quake that struck Japan will affect those sales and shipments, but speculators have already seized on the volatility: the price of a bushel of wheat has tumbled more than a dollar this week and some analysts say prices are poised to go lower.
Mick said he is still trying to ascertain the damage to ports, rail lines and milling operations.
“First thing we did was to assure our staff in Japan is safe,” he said. The organization’s offices sustained damage from the quake, and the bookkeeper is stuck because trains and roads are too damaged for travel.
“She’s sleeping at the office,” Mick said.
The earthquake didn’t cause much damage to Japan’s ports and agriculture. “The tsunami was a different story,” he said.
There is worry that the waves substantially damaged the country’s rice production, which is centered in the low-elevation areas near the coast.
As events unfold in Japan, Mick and other wheat officials are nervously watching the political turmoil in Egypt and Yemen.
Together the two countries last year bought another 20 percent of the wheat grown in Washington.
Egypt has continued to buy wheat as before as its military now runs the country until elections can be held later this year.
Yemen is less clear. The country on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula has been a solid customer for many years. However, an uprising, Mick fears, could usher in a government that may not be interested in buying wheat from U.S. farmers.