The 2014 football season is over, but the next time you watch a Seattle Seahawks game, take a close look at the playing field. Then imagine 2.2 million of them.
That’s the approximate area of Washington’s wheat crop, which in 2014 came in fifth among U.S. states in wheat production. In a good year — and most years are good in Eastern Washington — we are a solid fourth in production and depending on other states, can even slip into third place from time to time.
But 2014 wasn’t a good year for Washington wheat. In fact, it was the worst crop since 1991, when much of the state’s winter wheat acreage froze out. The recent crop’s difficulties had a different mother. Its poor performance came down to a lack of precipitation. Not to mention, much of the precipitation that fell ran off frozen fields.
On the bright side, improved insurance coverage that protects farmers from occasional downturns in yield or price worked as designed. Farmers will not be going bankrupt from a poor wheat yield that otherwise may have placed a few in severe hardship.
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At the Washington Grain Commission (WGC), however, we operate on a small assessment (three-quarters of 1 percent of the price at the first point of sale) collected on each bushel of production. We have no access to crop insurance. Less production means less income to pay for WGC projects.
Sound fiscal decisions, including adequate reserves, will insulate commissioners from having to cut too close to the bone after one bad crop. But as one elevator manager said: Bad crops usually come in pairs. That’s because the same conditions that led to a meager harvest make for poor planting conditions. Judging from the appearance of the winter wheat crop now in the field, the manager’s words appear to be prophetic.
The WGC was established on behalf of the state’s wheat and barley growers to fund research, marketing and educational opportunities. Research, through Washington State University, has and will remain our top priority, but marketing must be addressed with equal urgency.
It wasn’t so long ago that an average of 30 percent of America’s wheat exports went to the Middle East and North Africa. But with the demise of the Soviet Union and the introduction of modern wheat-growing technology in countries referred to as the Black Sea States (Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan), world exports patterns have undergone a major shift.
In the last 20 years, for instance, Egypt has gone from the Northwest’s No. 1 soft white wheat market to only an occasional buyer. The same holds true for other countries in the region. As much as they might like the quality of our soft white wheat, the transportation advantage enjoyed by the Black Sea States can’t be overcome.
The good news is that our exports to Latin America have increased 30 percent during the same period. With the WGC concentrating on the market for the last several years, that’s a number I believe will increase.
My optimism is based on research looking at blending soft white wheat into the hard wheat classes. Although millers have mixed different wheat types for years, it took the WGC’s funding to understand the science behind blending and why soft white is so good at it. Although Latin America was our initial target, the research has received attention elsewhere, as the practice not only makes better products, but it’s cheaper as well.
It’s anybody’s guess at this point how the Seahawks will respond next season, but while the team’s fortunes are fun for fans to imagine, how the 2.2 million football fields of wheat cultivated across Eastern Washington perform are far more important to the planet. As Normal Borlaug, the wheat breeder and Noble Peace Prize winner said: “If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.”