State’s wheat, fruit harvests coming late

Eastern Washington’s harvest of wheat, apples and pears is about two weeks behind schedule after cool and rainy weather, the latest in a string of frustrations and disappointments for once-optimistic farmers.

Last winter farmers and landowners saw grain prices reach record levels, offsetting rises in fuel and fertilizer costs.

Many had locked in contracts that provided $5 to $7 a bushel, though, and only a few were able to sell in the winter as prices reached $15.68 a bushel before transportation costs, typically 50 cents to 80 cents a bushel.

Many growers then decided not to sign large fixed-price contracts this year, hoping to capitalize on another spot market price run.

Wheat is one of state’s most important crops, valued by the Washington Wheat Commission at $625.8 million last year, and is a mainstay of the economy in Eastern Washington.

Meanwhile, the Bartlett pear harvest is under way in the Wenatchee area and picking of Gala apples will begin in earnest by week’s end.

Growers are concerned about weather, fruit and crop size and having enough pickers. Industry leaders say there are no major problems so far but the crop is late. There has been concern all season that late variety apples may be damaged by frost.

Jim Koemple, a Peshastin grower with orchards in Peshastin and Rock Island, said he finished harvesting his Galas in Rock Island last week and was picking Bartletts in the Upper Valley.

Bartlett size and quality was good but he’s about 10 percent down in quantity from last year and believes he will be 20 percent down in d’Anjou pears, he said.

Warm days and cool nights are preferred this time of year to develop color and sugar in apples.

Jesus Limon of East Wenatchee, who has orchards in Entiat, Orondo and Quincy, said several days of 100-plus-degree weather a couple of weeks ago “toasted” a lot of apples. He said sunburn may likely reduce the size of the apple crop.

The first blow for wheat farmers this year was a snowy winter that delayed much of the spring planting. When much of the 600,000 acres of spring wheat did emerge, the delicate shoots were assailed by unsettled weather with scorching heat one week and frost the next.

Now the combines can’t get into the fields because of the unusual late summer wet and cold.

“Yeah, it’s a pretty dismal production year,” said Keith Bailey, chief executive of AgVentures NW LLC, which manages the Odessa Union Warehouse Cooperative and Reardan Grain Growers.

The more important winter wheat crop fared better, but farmers are reporting below-average yields across the state, said Tom Mick, chief executive of the Washington Grain Alliance.

Yields in the Odessa area west and southwest of Spokane were poor, in some cases below 10 bushels an acre, costing more to harvest than what the crop is worth even at the relatively high current prices of more than $8 a bushel.

“I hate to say it, but it was a perfect storm for a bad crop,” Bailey said. “Hopefully farmers had crop insurance, though that’s fairly expensive, too.”

A bright spot is the quality of the wheat, he said.

Mick said farmers who don’t lock in prices for their wheat are gambling and could be hurt if prices don’t rise this winter. Last year’s big increase, he noted, was largely because of drought that damaged the crop in Australia — a factor that has not been repeated this year.

“I’d be watching things pretty close,” Mick said. “It been a tough year, and we’re not done yet.”

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