Grain inspections have resumed at the Port of Vancouver, easing fears that foreign buyers of the bulk of Washington’s wheat crop would take their business elsewhere.
United Grain Corp. and the International Longshore & Warehouse Union came to a tentative agreement late Monday on a nearly two-year labor dispute.
Inspectors from the state Department of Agriculture resumed grain inspections at 1:10 p.m. Tuesday at the port.
The restarting of inspections eased concerns of Pacific Northwest wheat growers, grain elevators and foreign buyers. Soybeans and corns also were affected.
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Wheat farmers did not weigh in on the labor dispute. But the side effect of the United Grain’s lockout of union workers was an interruption in the flow of grain at a critical time.
Washington farmers are finishing up wheat harvest and Montana’s wheat harvest has peaked.
The halt of inspections lasted for more than 30 days after Gov. Jay Inslee decided Washington State Patrol troopers no longer would escort state grain inspectors. He said then negotiations between United Grain and the union had not been productive.
Wheat was being sent only to ports in Portland and Longview to be inspected and growers worried a bottleneck could happen soon.
Now, shipments of grain to Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Ecuador can proceed, said Brent Knautz, with Enigma Marketing of Yakima, on behalf of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. More than 90 percent of Washington’s wheat is exported. Of that, 20 percent typically heads through the Port of Vancouver.
The inspection halt became a national issue because other states, including Montana, also use the Port of Vancouver to export wheat. Montana wheat growers could have lost a portion of their crop.
There was a major concern that grain would get backed up in Montana, where United Grain has four grain silos, Knautz said. BNSF Railway Co. had said it would not move grain between Montana and Washington until inspections resumed.
That meant United Grain was running out of room to store grain, said Bing Von Bergen, a Montana wheat farmer and the National Association of Wheat Growers past president.
The Moccasin, Mont., United Grain facility near Von Bergen’s farm already was piling wheat on the ground, he said.
“A lot of us have grain that we have contracted for harvest-time delivery,” he said. “The fear was that we were not going to be able to get that in.”
Farmers would have to store wheat on their own farms on the ground, losing some of it, Von Bergen said. Not all of it could be recovered and cleaned or could be damaged by rain and animals.
U.S. grain is considered the most reliable in the world and the break in inspections put that in jeopardy, Von Bergen said.
Grain commissions from Washington, Montana, Idaho and North Dakota have invested significant time and resources to develop export markets, he said.
Von Bergen said he appreciates the congressmen who helped with the issue. Montana farmers, like those in Washington, called on their representatives to find a resolution to the lack of inspections.
But he remains concerned that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is mandated to provide grain inspections, failed to step in after Washington state officials stopped inspecting grain. The USDA has delegated its authority for grain inspections to the state.