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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Cold February puts Washington wheat farmers a month behind

A tractor sits atop a hill near Kamiak Butte on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, outside Palouse, Wash. Late snows in February and March have meant later dates for spring wheat. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
A tractor sits atop a hill near Kamiak Butte on Wednesday, April 3, 2019, outside Palouse, Wash. Late snows in February and March have meant later dates for spring wheat. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

During most years, many area farmers put in their spring wheat crop at about the same time that area high schools begin chasing championship dreams at the State B tournament.

However, the snow and cold of February has mostly kept tractors out of the field at the same time turbulent market forces remain unresolved.

“In the dryland parts, guys have got started this week,” said farmer Mike Miller, who grows wheat both west and south of Ritzville. “The irrigated guys in Moses Lake, they are going to town now. But in the Palouse, they still have a ways to go. They still have snow on the north slopes and some mud.”

If February weather produced any good news, it was that the snow provided the winter wheat a blanket of insulation from the bitter cold, he said.

“I haven’t heard of much winter kill at all,” Miller said. “The ground is still quite cold. It has to warm up before the wheat plants takes off.”

Dry fall conditions also prevented the winter wheat from getting much of a foot hold before colder temperatures took over.

“I haven’t heard anybody saying that the wheat looks as good as last year,” Miller said. “It looks like an average winter wheat crop that is a month behind schedule.”

Tom Zwainz said he’s only got his equipment out on some of the ground he farms near Reardan.

“North of Highway 2, it’s still a little early yet,” he said. “We still have some snow on the north side of the hillsides. But what we see looks OK.”

Normally, farmers are already weeks into planting the spring wheat or spraying the winter wheat that was planted last year.

“During a lot of years, we don’t get done seeding until the first week of May,” Zwainz said. “We will be running a month straight through. It just depends on the spring rains.”

While the cold has stunted winter wheat growth, the snow did add some needed moisture to the ground, both farmers said.

However, in several places south of Ritzville, the snow melted before the ground thawed. That caused the water to quickly run off, which washed out a road, but did little to saturate the soil, Miller said.

Asked if the wheat can overcome the slow start, Miller, who has farmed for 40 of his 56 years, said: “Always.”

“We are the eternal optimists,” Miller said. “It’s going to be a late year. A lot depends on Mother Nature … but we’ll get caught up.”

Wheat prices holding steady

Many of the same market uncertainties that rocked the agriculture world last year remain in place, said Miller, a member of the Washington Grain Commission and former chairman of U.S. Wheat Associates.

U.S. officials have a verbal agreement to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, but nothing has been ratified. Talks have been ongoing with China without resolution and the United States has no new agreements to replace those vacated when President Donald Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes several important wheat customers for the Pacific Northwest.

“I would say that prices are probably treading water right now,” Miller said. “I think everybody is worried if the bottom falls out because of these unresolved trade agreements. But the agencies working on this are going full throttle trying to get this stuff done.”

Bad news for other wheat producers tends to ease financial tensions in Washington. For instance, a massive drought in Australia could have a positive impact for local farmers.

“They have their drought, we have our trade problems,” Miller said. “Canada has a lot of snow, so they might be a little late. But a lot of those things are just talk this time of year.”

The economic situation would improve if the U.S. could solidify an agreement with Japan, which is one of the leading importers of Washington wheat.

“That could be a really bad thing if we don’t get an agreement with Japan this year,” Miller said.

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