Many Wheat Farmers
by Scott A. Yates, Washington State Staff Writer
SPOKANE -- Farmers who would have ordinarily planted spring wheat this year have purchased crop insurance and planted barley instead, knowing the crop is likely to fail without copious amounts of rainfall.
At least that was the general wisdom around the Washington Barley Commission board table on March 24. The wheat crop insurance deadline is Sept. 30 for both winter and spring types, but barley coverage could be purchased in most counties up to March 15.
Steve Moore, a barley grower from Dusty, Wash., and chairman of the commission, said he has heard from several sources that farmers were working the crop insurance angle in what is shaping up to be a drought year. Even without insurance, however, barley is the better agronomic choice in a dry year because the plant grows faster and needs less water than wheat.
But Moore said it doesn't appear there's enough moisture in the profile in many areas to support the spring crop. Farmers understand the conditions, said Tom Zwainz, a commission member from Lincoln County, and are planting barley with very little fertilizer. If the crop does survive to harvest, he expects yields will be particularly low.
Steve Ullrich, barley breeder at Washington State University, said barley is a good choice in a drought year with respect to its shorter life cycle.
"It gets the job done quicker," he said, adding that given current moisture conditions, crop insurance is still probably the primary motivation for planting.
Although the barley commission would like producers to plant the crop for its intrinsic value, the fact that acreage may not suffer a debilitating blow this year is good news. Over the past 20 years, harvested barley acreage has fallen from a high of 1.2 million acres to 245,000 acres last year.
Kurt Carstens, a former barley commission board member, said he has been receiving inquiries from other farmers about buying seed this spring. He said growers are looking at cutting costs by buying clean seed through a farmer rather than more expensive certified seed.
As for the drought, Carstens said, farming is always a gamble. There have been other years like this one when the season was early and dry, and a good crop was still harvested.
"It matters how hot it gets and the rains in the summer. If we catch that one nice June rain, we can have a pretty good crop," he said.
John Burns, agronomist at Washington State University, agreed. Although a spring storm soaked much of Eastern Washington at the end of March with accumulations that quickly "went from a million-dollar to multimillion-dollar rain," he said there's still a big moisture deficit to make up.
Marketing the barley crop has lately become even more problematic than growing it.
Sean O'Connell, a merchandiser at Columbia Grain in Clarkson, Wash., said "for all practical purposes" Japan is the Northwest's only barley export customer. And even that reliable purchaser has been changing the rules of the game.
O'Connell, who serves on the barley commission, said the feed grain is now sold under "buyer's call," which means the customers will take it when they can handle it. In the meantime, they don't pay any storage.
"We could always buy it back, but where would we sell it?" he said, adding the marketing dynamics of barley have changed dramatically in the past year or so.
He said he expects the market could get even tougher. In addition to last year's sprouted wheat coming into the region and displacing feed barley, a lot of malting barley from North Dakota didn't make the grade and is expected to head West. Corn is also coming into the region.
At the same meeting where members discussed farmers' planting intentions and marketing, the board voted in favor of a strategy that would preserve the commission structure while bringing its administration under a consolidated small grain organization. The proposal was earlier adopted by the boards of the Washington Wheat Commission and the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.
Chairman Moore said progress toward the consolidated goal is now on hold awaiting a response from the Washington attorney general's office on legal questions that have been posed.
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