Mid-Columbia wheat farmers optimistic

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldJuly 15, 2012 

Earlier this spring, the hard red wheat that Berg Farms grows in the Horse Heaven Hills wasn't looking so good.

Then came the rains.

Now farmer Nicole Berg is expecting an average wheat crop, which should make it a good year.

As Berg and other Tri-City area wheat farmers get ready to harvest, their crop may be worth a little more.

The price of wheat rose recently thanks to field corn and wheat suffering in the Midwest after a drought and bad weather, said Glen Squires, interim CEO of Washington Grain Commission. Wheat prices tend to follow corn.

A tight field corn market has caused more wheat to be used for feed, Squires said. Last year, 169 million bushels of wheat were used for feed. This year, about 200 million bushels are projected to be used for feed.

Like Berg, most Washington farmers are expecting a pretty good year. Wheat yields in Wash-ington, Oregon and Idaho are expected to be a little over the five-year average, Squires said.

"We just had very good climatic conditions," he said.

About 310 million to 315 million bushels of wheat may be harvested this year in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, Squires said.

"It should be a good crop," he said.

Berg expects to start highly mechanized wheat harvesting this week. She said the company will start with its 11,000 acres of dryland wheat near Paterson. Then, the combines will move on to the 4,000 acres of irrigated wheat the family farms near Prosser.

Typically, they will get about 130 bushels per acre with irrigated land and 25 bushels per acre with dryland farming, she said. One bushel is 60 pounds.

Berg, the secretary and treasurer for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, said if they could get water to grow all irrigated wheat, they would.

"There are just no water rights available," she said.

About 75 percent of wheat grown in Washington is soft white wheat, used for foods such as pastries and cereals. But Squires said there are microclimates, like the Horse Heaven Hills, where farmers grow hard red wheat, used in yeast breads, hard rolls and bagels.

Benton County has about 94,300 acres of wheat, while Franklin County as 76,900 and Walla Walla County has close to 191,000 acres, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Washington farmers produce the fourth-most bushels of wheat in the nation.

Wheat is planted in the fall, when there is enough precipitation to drop seed into the moisture, Berg said. It is then harvested in July.

It probably will take Berg Farms 12 days to harvest wheat, depending on the weather, said Berg, a fourth-generation farmer.

Ideally, Berg said she likes to see wheat above the knee.

The farm has three combines and two tractors with grain trailers that take the wheat to waiting semis. That takes about five people and three more drivers for the semis from Gonzalez Trucking of Pasco that will take the wheat to Tri-City Grain.

"Wheat harvest is very mechanically operated," she said.

The Tri-Cities is the first area in the state to harvest wheat, Squires said. Wheat will be harvested into September.

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