Hot weather takes toll on Washington’s wheat crop

REARDAN — Too much heat and too little rain this summer are taking a toll on the winter wheat crop in Eastern Washington.

Joel Zwainz on Aug. 18 estimated that his family’s 3,400-acre farm near Reardan will produce 30 percent to 50 percent less wheat than it did last year.

“Not every year can be a great year,” Joel Zwainz said. “You gotta take the good with the bad.”

The Spokesman-Review reported Tuesday that farmers estimate this year’s crop is down an average of about 30 percent from last year’s yield and slightly below the 10-year average.

In addition, the summer’s extreme heat and drought are making the crop potentially less tasty to foreign customers who make up as much as 90 percent of the market for Washington wheat.

“We’ve had wonderful crops the last few years; this year, not so much,” said Scott Yates, of the Washington Grain Commission.

Much of the Columbia Basin is in moderate to severe drought, according to this week’s report from the U.S. Drought Monitor. One or two more rains during May or June could have made a huge difference, Yates said.

“They’re literally million-dollar rains,” he said. “If you get the moisture at exactly the right time, it doesn’t matter if you’re 2, 3, 4 inches behind.”

The trouble began for some farmers as early as last fall, when winter wheat , which makes up three-fourths of the wheat grown in the state, went into the ground. In drier areas, winter wheat is planted deeper in the soil to collect moisture.

But significant early rainfall “crusted” the powdery soil at the surface before the plants could break through the ground, Yates said, forcing some farmers to replant the crop two or three times.

A cold spell followed in December that damaged portions of the crop left exposed to the chill by a lack of snowfall, which normally blankets and protects it through winter.

On the Zwainz farm, the ground was so frozen that any rainfall during the winter ran off into nearby creeks. That was followed by an unusually dry spring and summer, Zwainz said, and temperatures that reached triple digits in July.

Keith Bailey, general manager of the AgVentures NW LLC, which receives and stores grain from farmers, said the 30 percent to 40 percent production drop from last year is a “significant bar to hurdle” in a business that earns revenue primarily from volume of wheat harvested.

The heat and drought could also influence buyers in North Africa, the Middle East and Asia who find the state’s soft white wheat, low-protein kernels delectable because its consistency is preferred for spongecake, flatbreads, pastries and pancakes.

This year’s soft white crop, stressed by the heat, is one or two grams higher in protein, Yates said, meaning the kernels will be more textured and chewy.

Japan was last year’s big buyer, followed by Nigeria, Mexico, the Philippines and Egypt.

In 2012, wheat was the state’s second-most lucrative farm product, well behind apples and just ahead of milk, bringing in $1.18 billion.

This year, prices for soft white wheat sit at about $7 a bushel, and experts predict it could fall to $6.50 a bushel if Australia’s competing crop turns out larger than expected.

Yates said it’s hard to determine the break-even price for Washington farmers because every situation is different.

“Some could probably make money at $5, but most people aren’t that fortunate,” Yates said.

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