Washington wheat growers are concerned they will become a casualty of a long labor dispute and political power play on the other side of the state.
Wheat exports have come to a standstill at one of three ports that Washington farmers use for sending more than 90 percent of the state's second most valuable crop overseas.
Exports of soybeans and corn also are affected.
At the Port of Vancouver, inspections of grain to be exported by United Grain Corp. stopped in June after Gov. Jay Inslee decided Washington State Patrol troopers no longer would escort state inspectors.
Troopers had accompanied inspectors for eight months.
United Grain has been in a labor dispute with International Longshore & Warehouse Union for nearly two years and has locked the union workers out, said Brent Knautz, with Enigma Marketing of Yakima, on behalf of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.
Inslee told federal legislators that the escort was intended to be temporary while United Grain and the union came to an agreement.
But he said negotiations have not been productive.
Now, grain must go to ports in Portland and Longview to get inspected, Knautz said. That's quite costly and the extra freight charges will be passed on to growers.
Farmers sell wheat to grain elevators, which then sell it to exporters. It's transported by barge, rail or truck to the ports to be shipped out of the country.
About 20 percent of the state's wheat typically goes through the Port of Vancouver, said Nicole Berg, a Benton County wheat farmer and president of the wheat growers association.
This comes on top of a drought in Benton and Franklin counties. Production has been spotty this year, with some areas seeing high yields, and others rather dismal, Berg said. Some farmers already will be struggling.
Washington farmers are expected to harvest about 2.2 million acres of wheat this year.
Yield is expected to be 106.9 million bushels for winter wheat and another 33.3 million bushels of spring wheat, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture projections.
Washington's 2012 wheat crop was worth $1.2 billion, according to the USDA.
Industry members are concerned they could see a bottleneck in wheat exports soon. Washington farmers are more than halfway done harvesting, and Midwest states, which export from the same ports, are just starting.
Wheat growers contend that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is legally responsible for making sure grain inspections happen.
Knautz said the agency delegated its authority to the state agriculture department, but since the state isn't meeting that obligation, the federal government should step in.
"Federal inspectors need to come in and actually inspect that grain," Knautz said.
USDA officials have said if it's not safe for state inspectors, it isn't safe for federal inspectors.
But Knautz said they haven't seen the USDA's safety assessments.
The Washington State Patrol found it was safe for inspectors.
Farmers are concerned that the lack of inspectors might cause Washington to lose some of its foreign trade partners. Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Vietnam are Washington's top customers, Berg said.
"We have one of the most efficient export infrastructures in the world," Berg said.
And that helps keep Washington-grown products competitive, she said.
Company officials from Korea and Taiwan have written the USDA asking the federal government to step up and provide inspections.
"Last year, Taiwan purchased over 1 million metric tons of wheat from the United States," said Tony I-T Chen, chairman of the Taiwan Flour Mills Association. "We have long viewed U.S. wheat as a reliable, readily available commodity."
Knautz said if those companies go elsewhere to buy wheat, it's going to hurt the state's economy.
"We want foreign trade partners buying from us," he said.
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-- Kristi Pihl: 509-582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org