Idaho

Farmers’ hopes grow for profitable wheat harvest

COLFAX – A wet spring has led to optimal conditions for the region’s new crop of winter wheat.

And if prices hold, farmers are poised for another good year.

Agriculture has been a rare economic bright spot during the last several years, in many ways helping to sustain a regional economy beset with job losses and a slack housing market.

As recently as late February farmers were fretting about drought. Snowfall was light and predictions of a weak crop abounded, said Tom Mick, chief executive of the Washington Grain Alliance.

Then the weather patterns shifted and wave after wave of storms brought enough rain and snow in March to break moisture records.

The late-summer harvest should reach the five-year average of 145 million bushels.

“Things are shaping up great,” said farmer Brian Largent, who acknowledged recently he was grateful for some sunshine to aid in planting other crops such as chickpeas. His family has been farming fields in the Palouse since 1934.

While winter wheat – seeded last fall – remains the dominant crop, many area farmers also plant wheat, barley, chickpeas and lentils in the spring.

The Washington wheat crop was worth about $925 million last year. The industry reports that it created about 25,000 jobs in industries such as transportation, product and machinery sales and service in 2011 – far more than the 3,800 people who are considered “wheat growers.”

Mick said agriculture appears to be a safe bet for the next two decades as the world’s population climbs and farmland continues to disappear.

“Wheat is one of the world’s basic staples, and right now the supply and demand is favorable” to farmers, Mick said.

There will be fluctuations, he said; the market for agricultural goods is complex and interrelated, and includes competitive trends from other crops as well as global weather patterns.

Mick noted, for example, that in Kansas, where wheat has long been king, farmers are now harvesting more corn than wheat.

Farmers in Oklahoma and Texas, meanwhile, seem to be getting a reprieve from a stubborn drought and could add millions of bushels of wheat to the market.

If the Midwest harvests a bumper crop, prices will likely drop for the Washington crop, too, even though most of the wheat grown across Washington, Oregon and Idaho is exported to countries in Asia and Africa. But other exporting countries such as Australia, Argentina and several countries in the Black Sea region are having poor crop years.

All of that means the outlook for the 2012 crop is solid, with a good harvest and prices north of $6 a bushel.

Corn has been the big driver in agricultural commodity prices in recent years as the crop is coveted for cattle feed, ethanol and a ubiquitous food additive.

China now buys a huge amount of corn to feed livestock as its population gains income and upgrades its diet to include more dairy and beef.

But when corn for feed ran short last year, some of the highest-quality, priciest wheat grown in Washington was sold as cattle feed rather than ground into flour for bakeries.

Though fuel and fertilizer costs remain high, Largent said, farmers like him have become adept at curbing costs and securing prices by selling some of their crop early through futures contracts.

“We were nervous for awhile there,” he said. “Now it looks good. Let’s hope the prices hang in there.”



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