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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘That’s farming’: After facing drought last year, Washington farmers contend with cold delaying crops in the new season

Crystal Hoseth, who runs Knapp’s U-Pick Farm in Green Bluff, uses a hoe to remove weeds among the rows of strawberry plants on Thursday. In Green Bluff, the low temperatures and high winds mean  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Talk to farmers in Washington, and they will tell you it’s one challenge after another. Right now, it’s the incessant cold and blustering spring giving them grief.

Agricultural communities across Washington are contending with one of the coldest and wettest springs on record; one that has already hit the Northwest’s beloved cherries and will likely lead to delays in crop production statewide. April was the third-coldest on record for Washington, and snowpack in some parts of the Cascades is still around 130% of normal, according to the National Weather Service.

Compared to last year, planting and growth for virtually every major crop in Washington is delayed, according to data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture earlier this week. Just 40% of corn is planted in the Evergreen State, compared to 80% last year, while spring wheat, barley, onions and dry peas are emerging at a much slower rate.

From the inviting “you-pick” pumpkin and berry patches at Green Bluff, to the sweet corn fields of the Columbia Basin, Washington growers are anxiously waiting as the state struggles to reach higher temperatures.

Ryan Poe is a fifth-generation farmer on a 15,000-acre centennial farm in Grant County, where he grows mostly winter wheat and canola.

While some might think the cold temperatures and consistent precipitation are better than the drought conditions seen last growing season, Poe said he’s much more concerned about his crops than he was last year.

“It’s definitely been a challenging start to the year; crops are way behind what we would normally see at this time,” Poe said. “Winter wheat normally would be really taking off, and it’s just kind of sitting there.”

Usually planted in the fall and harvested in the summer , winter wheat gets its name for its flip-flopped season. Poe does some spring planting, but prefers to take advantage of the moisture that comes with planting in the fall and growing through the spring. He said both his winter and spring crops are behind schedule; the spring canola he planted this year is coming up a lot slower, and his winter wheat will have to be harvested much later than usual unless things warm up.

“We’re usually, in our area, done harvesting by the time that we’re planting our winter wheat; we’re not really set up very well for doing both at the same time, so that’ll definitely have an impact for us,” Poe said. “But if it just turned hot and dry right now, we’re definitely going to see reduced yield; it’ll cook it.”

The price of wheat shot up after Russia invaded Ukraine, one of the top producing wheat countries in the world. Poe said he hopes to get a good crop this year so he can at least break even. He finds some relief knowing he has crop insurance, but after having to file a large claim last year due to drought conditions, he’d like to avoid doing so again.

“It’s a kind of a wait-and-see game here at this point,” Poe said. “Talking to my uncle that has been farming a lot longer, probably 45-plus years or so, he just doesn’t remember a time with these kinds of back-to-back real big challenges.”

The same delays are taking place in the orchards, pumpkin patches and berry fields at Green Bluff, where cold temperatures and strong winds are preventing bees from doing the work they are relied on for, and forcing growers to wait for warmer weather in order to get seeds in the ground. Each year, billions of bees are brought to the Pacific Northwest to pollinate the region’s prized apples, cherries, pears and plums.

Brad Erovick, owner of Smith’s Hilltop Orchard, as well as Cherryshack orchard, has had eight hives spread around his 14 acres for about two weeks. He said he’s only seen bee activity on a handful days.

His tree fruits are still in blossom, as well as his strawberries, so he said it’s too early to tell if yield will be affected. He hopes the bees did the work they needed to on the few days the weather allotted, and is grateful the blooms came a bit later than in other areas of the state, where orchards have been covered in frost and blankets of snow.

About 5 minutes away at Knapp’s U-Pick Farm, Crystal Hoseth said her strawberries are also just beginning to bloom. So far, her biggest challenge this season was the soil temperatures. Hoseth is a new arrival to Green Bluff; this is her second full season on 10 acres of land she leases from Larry Knapp.

Hoseth grew up locally, and would often visit Green Bluff for the agritourism that drives the area’s economy. She said she loves Green Bluff, and has wanted to try her hand at growing for a while now, so she started by leasing some land from longtime Green Bluff resident Mel Walker.

“I leased Mel Walker’s just for, like, the end of one season to see if I could bring it back a little bit,” Hoseth said. “Larry Knapp had retired from farming, and he came up to me, I think he saw me working my butt off over at Mel’s, and he asked me if I’d like to take over doing his blackberries. So I started doing his blackberries too, and that turned into me leasing up there.”

In addition to the variety of berries she grows and oversees, Hoseth fills 6 acres with autumnal “you-pick” crops: pumpkins, winter squash, corn and sunflowers. Rather than waiting for soil temperatures to rise, she jump-started her pumpkins and winter squash seeds in her basement.

“That’s a very important crop for us, so I actually started 11,000 seeds inside this year to make sure that they would germinate and we’d have a good crop of pumpkins and winter squash,” she said. “So, much more labor-intensive planting once you’ve started them inside, but I’ll have a much higher success rate and we’ll still have a good crop.”

During a challenging season like this one, Hoseth is grateful for the guidance and advice from the seasoned farmers around her like Knapp.

“It’s just one issue after another. Last year it was all heat and no rain, and this year, we’re getting rain but no heat,” she said. “You never know what’s gonna happen.”

Hoseth said strawberries usually kick off “you-pick” season, so she hopes they reach maturity around Father’s Day.

While orchards at Green Bluff are still in bloom, orchards closer to the Cascades are a little further along and have faced much harder conditions. Spring snowfall and record-low temperatures devastated early blooming cherry trees, with some farmers expecting to lose up to 50% of their crop.

Lee Bridges of Bridges Orchard in Wenatchee estimated the low temperatures have damaged around 25% of his cherry crop. On 15 acres just south of the family farm he grew up on, Bridges grows cherries, apples and pears. He said his apple and pear trees seem to have a good crop on them, and that his cherry trees made out a lot better than some of the orchards in the area.

“The crops that seem to be hurt worse in Central Washington are cherries,” Bridges said. “There are some places south of me, Malaga, and in the Columbia Basin, that some of those crops are completely froze out. They were just a little earlier than I was, and so they got damaged more.”

Crops across Washington are facing delays due to the adverse weather conditions, but Columbia Basin’s sweet corn is the most pronounced. Only about 40% of corn fields have been planted so far, compared to 80% at this time last year, according to data published by the USDA this week. Corn has taken a hit nationwide, with the USDA reporting only 22% of fields planted.

Tony Bruketta oversees thousands of acres of organic and conventional corn fields in Kittitas and Grant counties as a field representative for Twin City Foods in Pasco. He also freelances as an agricultural consultant through his business Bruketta Ag Consulting LLC.

About 40% of his fields have been sown, right on track with the rest of the state. For the fields he does have planted, he said he noticed the same slow growth others are seeing in other crops.

Bruketta said some of the stalks have been damaged by frost or high wind, but nothing serious enough to cause concern. What he is concerned about is the delays in planting this spring that will lead to a longer, more challenging harvest this fall.

Like most farmers with large properties, Bruketta staggers his seeding over several weeks. This allows the fields to reach maturity at different times, so when harvest rolls around, the picking is easier to manage.

“The weather definitely has been a challenge on crops coming up,” he said. “Normally, we’d be planting over there in George, and that area over there, but a week before it was snowing and blowing. So, you stage back a little bit, you know, hold off.”

However, all that waiting around for better conditions, compounded by slow growth, can lead to trouble later on.

You look at when you planted it, and how long it might have taken some of the seed to germinate, and there could be a crowding of corn,” Bruketta said. “That would be where it would be harvested close together; there’s a bigger abundance of it at one time. That can sometimes work against you, because you can’t pick 1,000 acres in one day. We’ll just have to wait and see how that kind of works out right now.”

Bruketta is pretty sure his crop will turn out well this season, but it all depends on what’s in store this summer. He said it can be hard to tell how yields will be affected this early in the season, but he feels for those growing crops more adversely affected like lentils and other dry peas that were planted weeks ago.

“That’s farming in general,” Bruketta said. “I mean, it’s just one thing after another.”