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Farmers uncertain of insurance from Mount St. Helens

Should Mount St. Helens harm farmers financially, it is uncertain whether insurance will soothe their troubles.

Nearly 30 percent of the state's wheat crop is insured by the Federal Crop Insurance Corp.

But that insurance covers only specific risks, such as earthquakes, hail and fire, plus " unavoidable weather risks," said Everett Sharp, of the Kansas City office.

Sharp said attorneys were meeting this week to determine if the volcano is such a ''weather risk.''

In addition to wheat, Sharp said the corporation insures barley, pea, lentil and dry bean crops in. Washington.

Some private crop insurance companies contacted said they also are uncertain whether a volcano claim could be honored.

"This is our first volcano," one agent said.

U.S. Department of Agriculture emergency boards were activated in some counties Tuesday to assess possible crop damage from volcanic ash. An emergency declaration by the governor today could bring special federal aid.

The USDA board in Benton County already has met and determined there were no disasters to report, said Leo Moore, of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service.

But Moore said it is unknown whether the ash could cause problems later or whether more ash will accumulate.

Officials in other parts of the state also agree the damage, if any, is unknown.

Despite some reports to the contrary, the ash apparently is little different in acidity from Mid-Columbia soils. John Burns, Grant County extension agent, said tests indicate it is about 66 percent sand, 25 percent silt and 5 percent clay "just like material from a big dust storm. "

Most reports are the ash is non-toxic and little more than a ''weak fertilizer.''

However, it still raises some of the following concerns among farm experts:

* Dairy farmers in the Columbia Basin and Yakima Valley are running out of storage space for milk on their farms as many milk trucks cannot travel the country roads. Also, milk processors in Sunnyside and Moses Lake report their storage facilities are full because their products cannot be delivered to larger distributing centers like Spokane. Some farmers say they will have to start dumping milk if it isn't picked up soon. Some others said a small .amount already has been dumped.

* Some pesticides will not be effective on plants coated with the ash.

* Farm machinery could be damaged if air filters are clogged with ash.

* There are reports some wheat and hay crops have collapsed from the weight of the ash in the Lind and Ritzville areas, where up to 7 inches has been reported on the ground.

* The first cutting of the hay crop is on and farmers are worried the quality of the crop could be affected by ash in the bales. There is some concern the animals will not eat hay covered with ash.

The extension service is suggesting that farmers allow cut hay to dry and turn it with a rake to knock most of the ash out of it before baling.

* Some worry that the ash will be dampened by a spring rain or light irrigation and form a "cementlike" crust on the ground or on plants.

Young spring wheat, corn and other late-seeded crops could be affected by ground crusting.

Fruit trees, wheat, and other crops near Yakima and Lind could be smothered or break under the weight of the cement-like coating.

Extension agents recommend that crops be irrigated thoroughly to remove all ash from the plants. A moistening from spring rains could cause further problems, they said.

Some hardier crops such as potatoes are not expected to be vulnerable to ground crusting, said Bill Foeppel, Franklin County extension agent.

* Apples, pears and other fruits may be susceptible to "russetting," a scar which develops from any deposit on undeveloped fruit. Golden Delicious apples may be most susceptible to that damage, Foeppel said.

* Young corn plants could be hurt by even the slight acidity of the ash and moisture on the crowns, he said.