Farmers suffer big losses in Sunday thunderstorm

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 16, 2013 

Corn Storm Damage

Corn stalks in Mark Weiseler's Franklin County field near the intersection of Garfield and Ironwood Roads were knocked to the ground by Sunday's storm that rolled through the Mid-Columbia.

BOB BRAWDY — Tri-City Herald Buy Photo

Wind gusts flattened corn fields and sent recently cut alfalfa hay flying into irrigation canals and ditches across Franklin County in the wake of Sunday evening's thunderstorm.

Apples were blown off trees, while some parts of the Columbia Basin were pelted with hail and rain.

Power outages caused the South Columbia Basin Irrigation District to shut off a lot of water.

Some farmers also had to delay grape harvest because of the outages and the rain.

The National Weather Service reported wind gusts with highs of 60 miles per hour to nearly 70 miles per hour in some parts of Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties. Near Richland, some areas received about .42 inches of rain in a single 15-minute period.

"This is the worst that I have ever seen," said Mark Wieseler, who farms alfalfa hay and corn in Franklin County between Merrill's Corner and Basin City.

Wieseler's corn was flattened to the ground and the recently swathed hay either was gone or in piles in his fields.

He said Monday he hoped to be able to harvest about 60 percent to 80 percent of his feed corn, but was unsure how much of his silage corn was salvageable. As for his hay, Wieseler said more than half was gone, and it would be difficult to get the rest dry enough to bale.

Wieseler said many of his neighbors were in a similar state.

Among those hit hardest were alfalfa farmers, who were into their fourth and final cutting for this year. After the hay is cut using a machine called a swather, it lays on the field and dries for about four days and is raked before baling.

From Sunday night until about 3 a.m. Monday, about 40 employees of the South Columbia Basin Irrigation District were using machines and their muscles to pull alfalfa and beans out of irrigation ditches and canals.

Rich Hill, the district's superintendent of field operations, said they did not lose any pumps or have any breaks, although there were still some crops floating down the canal Monday afternoon.

When the electricity went off, the irrigation district shut off quite a bit of the water. Hill said the agency was putting the water back in Monday afternoon.

Ron Reimann of T & R Farms in Franklin County said his field corn fared fairly well. The wind caused the corn to lean over, but did not flatten it.

"We came out a lot better than I thought it was going to be," said Reimann, who farms near the Snake River.

When he first looked at his apple orchard, Reimann said he felt his heart sink. The trees on the edge had lost about half of their apples to the wind, which peaked at about 44 miles per hour.

But those trees appeared to protect the ones inside the orchard, causing Reimann to estimate a 3 percent loss.

"I was absolutely ecstatic that we got through this," he said.

Reimann said he was hit worse during the storm a few weeks ago. Then, he lost 236 acres of sweet corn, which was beaten down to the ground.

"Thank God we had some crop insurance to ease the pain," he said.

Area farmers also experienced a storm about a month and a half ago that caused some damage, although Reimann said his crops got through that one in fairly good shape.

"There is nothing worse than losing a crop that you raise" to weather, Reimann said. It's like having a house burn down, he said.

Dick Boushey, who farms near Grandview, counted himself among the lucky ones. While strong wind did knock down some of his apples, his juice and wine grapes survived.

He said some of his neighbors appeared to have some damage, including an entire grape trellis that was blown over.

Welch's first day of Niagara grape harvest was delayed Monday because of the electrical issues from the storm, said Boushey, who serves on the board of National Grape, the farmers' cooperative that owns Welch's. But by Monday afternoon, it was into harvest.

Boushey said he planned to delay wine grape harvest at the Red Mountain vineyards he manages by a day to make sure that the wine grapes' sugar levels are back up.

Like cherries, grapes can absorb rain through their skin. However, they are not as sensitive as cherries when it comes to rain damage, although they can split, he said.

He expected that the wind would help with that since it was like having a giant blower on the grapevines. Rain on Monday night would be more of a problem, he said.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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