PALOUSE, Wash. – It’s late February on Ben Barstow’s farm just west of town. But when he stoops to examine the tiny sprouts of winter wheat emerging from his fields, he smiles. “Now that’s a nice one,” Barstow said, pointing to long, winding white roots dangling from a plant dug from soil that has been farmed since 1883. “Boy, look at that!”
Farmers growing Eastern Washington’s largest grain crop have seen a mild winter lead to an early growing season. Researchers at Washington State University say they’re seeing wheat, along with cherries, apples and other tree fruit growing several weeks ahead of schedule across the state.
But the experience of several decades of wheat and barley farming in Whitman County tempers Barstow’s expectations: For every plant that has taken firm root in the ground, there are others with the seed lying on the ground, or that have tiny weeds latching onto the seedling.
“There’s still a lot of time for it to die,” Barstow said, echoing a view held by other farmers statewide.
Larry Cochran, a president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers and a farmer near Colfax, said the mild weather would be a boon only if temperatures don’t once again plunge in the coming weeks. Winter wheat, like other winter crops, builds up a hardiness during the cold months that diminishes as temperatures climb.
“As long as it doesn’t get up into the 50s, then go back down to zero, we should be OK,” Cochran said.
Tom Faerber, who has some land near Uniontown where he grows wheat and barley, said the consistently warm temperatures this year have lessened the effects of scant snowfall. Farmers say the snowpack helps insulate the crop from harsh winds, like a blanket.
“The crop looks fair this year,” Faerber said. “For this time of year, it’s pretty good.”
Barstow, a former agronomist with the University of Idaho Extension, said a crop’s winter hardiness is hard to pin down outside a lab setting.
“One winter it’s going to be terrible, then you may wait 10 years before you get a real severe winter again,” he said.
Many on the Palouse say they haven’t even thought about making projections for this year’s crop because of all the factors that could affect the growing and harvesting seasons. The National Agricultural Statistics Service office in Washington doesn’t start reporting anticipated yields until May, and weekly crop progress reports won’t be issued until April.
For now, much of the information about this year’s harvest is anecdotal and can vary hill to hill on the undulating plains of the Palouse.
The statistical report for February mentioned high honeybee activity across the state, indicating pollination is occurring extremely early for crops such as strawberries, cherries and apricots, all of which are grown heavily in Central and Western Washington. But there are no figures on Eastern Washington’s wheat, though some farmers are reporting damage to their crops from widely varying temperatures and a need for rain.
So far in Whitman County – the nation’s leading county in wheat production – rainfall has been above average this year, but less than what fell during the same period in 2014, according to the National Weather Service. In Lewiston, the closest station to the Palouse reporting snowfall totals, just an inch and a half of snow has fallen this year, down from nearly 16 inches last year.
It has also been considerably warmer in the area than last year. Average high temperatures in February were 7 degrees above normal, and 13 degrees higher than last year in Pullman.
But for Barstow, one of many farmers prepping their equipment for another season of planting and harvesting, each day brings the possibility of an entirely new outlook on the year’s crop.
“When the sun’s out, and it’s warm, bright sunlight, man it looks like everything’s going to survive,” he said. “When you go out there today, when it’s gray and overcast, and the wind’s blowing and you’re freezing your butt off, it looks like it’s all going to die.”
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