High wheat yields expected for Mid-Columbia

By Kevin McCullen, Herald staff writerJuly 23, 2010 

A cool and moist late spring may have posed problems for some Washington crops, but it could be a boon to dryland wheat farmers.

Yields of Washington winter wheat are predicted this year to reach about 65 bushels per acre, up from 59 bushels in 2009, while the spring wheat harvest is projected at a record 56 bushels per acre, according to a forecast by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Harvest has started in parts of Walla Walla and Franklin counties and is expected to begin within a week in others, with cutting from 10 days to two weeks behind in Whitman County because of the wet spring, said Brett Blankenship, president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.

"Summer's finally here, the grain is growing and the quality looks good," said Blankenship, who farms in the Washtucna area. "The yields look to be 10 percent to 20 percent higher than normal."

Total wheat production in Washington, Oregon and Idaho is projected at 310.2 million bushels, which would be a 10-year high, said Glen Squires, vice president of the Washington Grain Alliance.

Yields of Washington winter wheat alone are forecast to be 111.8 million bushels, up from 96.7 million bushels in 2009, according to the USDA. The bulk of the state's wheat is exported.

"It looks like it certainly will be a good crop," Squires said.

The expected higher yields are the result of persistent late spring rains, which particularly benefited farmers in drier locations. The rain also helped replenish soils that are in fallow now and will be planted in wheat in the fall, Blankenship said.

Rains, however, caused stripe rust -- a fungal disease -- in some fields, particularly in Whitman County, which received higher amounts of rainfall. The disease is controlled by spraying, but since it developed in many fields at the same time, aerial spray applicators were busy, said Randy Suess, a Colfax farmer and vice chairman of the board of the U.S. Wheat Associates.

"It was at least two weeks before I got my fields sprayed," Suess said. "It hit everyone about the same time, so you had to get on the list to have a plane spray."

Higher yields in Washington wheat country may not mean a larger payday for farmers, although U.S. wheat growers overall could be in a better position in the global marketplace because of droughts in wheat-producing countries in the Black Sea and western Europe, according to U.S. Wheat Associates.

The USDA has estimated world production of wheat in 2010-11 to be 661 million metric tons, down 3 percent from 2009-10 but still the third-largest crop on record.

Bids on Wednesday for soft white wheat delivered this month to the Portland Grain Exchange were mostly $4.92 per bushel, ranging from $4.80 to $5.05 per bushel, according to the USDA's Market News.

"Prices are modest right now," Blankenship said. "The U.S. has an adequate supply, and we are definitely the world's top supplier of wheat, so prices aren't high. With an adequate supply and good crop, I'd not expect them to get higher.

"But it still should be a good year for wheat growers in Washington," he said.

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