Wheat may be royalty across Eastern Washington, but it can’t buy its way into Spokane’s Lilac Parade.
Farmers are angry that their local trade group has been denied entry into Spokane’s big parade celebrating the military, children and communities across the region.
The Washington Association of Wheat Growers wanted to drive a massive red tractor with a group of wheat farming families in tow as a way to advocate for agriculture and promote the importance of a crop that covers more than 2 million acres of the state.
Parade organizers said “No.”
The parade has rigid policies that prohibit lobbying groups. This year, for example, the parade also rejected applications from the National Association of Retired Federal Employees. Perhaps more significantly, parade organizers turned away the Military Officers Association of America because of its lobbying activities.
“We’re not picking on wheat growers,” said Hal Patton, president of the event. “We just don’t allow lobbying groups. If we did, then our parade would become political and lose its meaning.”
The wheat association routinely lobbies state and federal lawmakers. In fact, the first two sentences on its website read: “Lobbying is the heart of WAWG activity, all of which is aimed at helping Washington wheat families. Since 1954, WAWG has been dedicated to the enrichment of the Washington wheat industry.”
Wheat farmers, though, consider the entire episode a snub.
“I’m disappointed,” said Eric Maier, a fourth-generation farmer north of Ritzville who’s taking his turn at the helm of the wheat growers group.
“We’ve heard several different rationales for their decision,” Maier said, “and, frankly, I have to wonder if they don’t think wheat is important to Spokane.”
Patton bristles at the suggestion.
“It’s just ludicrous,” he said. “Any perception out there that we somehow don’t embrace and love, just love our rural communities is just not true.”
Patton said the parade features 200 entries – most of them are schools, communities, military units, veterans’ organizations and other nonprofit charities and services.
Corporate sponsors of the parade also are allowed to present a float, as are political office holders such as mayors, county commissioners and members of Congress.
Patton said he will personally spend most summer weekends in rural communities to participate in celebrations and parades where the Lilac festival will sponsor a float.
He said he was discouraged by the uproar and hopes that it won’t damage the success of the parade, which has been a 74-year tradition in Spokane.
The parade problem not only surprised farmers but came at a time when the entire wheat industry is stinging from another round of criticism, bad press and diet trends.
Just as the low-carb Atkins Diet faded, other food and nutrition trends took hold, including a popular book called “Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight and Find Your Path Back to Health.” Groceries are stocking more gluten-free products, which are perceived as health foods even though only a small percentage of Americans have celiac disease or some other kind of wheat intolerance.
“We’re just up against it,” said Kara Rowe, director of public affairs for the wheat association.
The group is embarking on a public relations campaign and recently received a $200,000 grant from its closely aligned sister organization, the Washington Grain Commission.
Rowe said parade participation seemed like a perfect fit.
“I even participated in Lilac Parade in 1996 as Miss Wilbur,” she said. “Wheat and rural Washington are important to Spokane.”
Though lobbying is an important function of the wheat association, it also promotes education and other efforts.
There are about 3,800 wheat farms left in Eastern Washington. While that number is far less than decades past, most every farm is still operated by a longtime family.
Thousands more people who live in Spokane and other cities still own farmland and lease to farmers.
Though it’s difficult to measure the value of wheat and its economic contribution, strong crop prices have led state agricultural economists to say that in 2010 the crop contributed about $925 million in direct value to Washington’s economy.
About 85 percent of the crop is exported for foreign milling and consumption.