Wheat growers celebrate banner year, but uncertainty looms
The crop that dominates Eastern Washington’s landscape has made most farmers happy this season, as wheat harvest numbers are coming in as much as 50 percent higher than average yields, officials said Wednesday.
Scott Yates, the director of communications for the Washington Grain Commission, and Creston-area farmer Mike Carstensen both were featured speakers Wednesday at the Spokane County Interstate Fair during an afternoon session on wheat. The event was sponsored by The Spokesman-Review, which is hosting a series of speakers as part of its ongoing “A Year in the Fields” project on Washington agriculture.
Most of the area wheat has been harvested and prices have held relatively steady despite uncertainty about policies enacted by President Donald Trump’s administration, Carstensen said, citing a brewing trade war with China and the president’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, which had opened markets for Washington producers.
“Farmers want predictability and certainty, but we just don’t have that right now,” said Carstensen, who also serves as commissioner on the Grain Commission. “It’s hard to predict where everything is going.”
As an example, he said, China was the fourth-largest importer of U.S. wheat last year. That is critically important because about 90 percent of all wheat grown in Washington is sold overseas.
“This year, they bought zero,” Carstensen said of the Chinese. “It took us 15 to 20 years to develop that market. Now all of the sudden, that’s no more.”
Yates, who worked for 22 years as journalist before joining the Grain Commission a decade ago, said the decision to pull out of the TPP may not hurt farmers this year, but it will very soon.
He said that wheat producers in Canada and Australia remain part of the partnership. As a result, they will eventually be able to sell wheat at $65 less a ton than U.S. producers, which will lead to hundreds in millions of lost revenue for American farmers.
“That is going to bite us badly if we don’t get this fixed,” he said. “Dating back to the late 1940s, Japan has bought more wheat from the U.S. than any other country in the world. Suddenly, we may be priced out of that market. That is an enormous frustration.”
Despite the trade problems, the weather in 2018 provided farmers with an amazing crop, both agreed.
“This year was a great year,” Yates said. “We had an ideal season for our favorite crop.”
In 2017, so much rain fell in the spring that farmers couldn’t get out in the fields to plant.
“The old saying goes that rain makes grain,” Yates said. “But we learned in 2017 that you can have too much rain.”
The conditions were drier in the spring in 2016, but farmers “had a bad year for falling numbers.”
“Falling numbers” refer to the quality of the crop based on the critical 20-day window when the wheat plant begins to produce its kernels. “If you have cold mornings followed by hot afternoons during that 20-day window, it creates the falling numbers problem,” Yates said. “Then 2015, we had drought.”
With most farmers in the region growing dryland, or nonirrigated, crops, they don’t have many choices to explore other crops.
“They are always looking for alternatives,” Yates said. “They have tried pulses or canola. But wheat is still very much king.”
Yates said the average American consumer thinks about immediate needs and in a cycle of days and weeks. But farmers, must plan their crops at least two years out.
“These guys are looking forward in terms of rotations of crops,” he said. “So, their lives are timed different.”
For instance, the Farm Bill requires farmers to set their plan for crops for a five-year period.
“Some choose right. Some choose wrong,” Yates said. “If they were wrong, they are still locked in.”