WATERVILLE, Wash. — The sea of green wheat on the Waterville Plateau looks normal enough for this time of year.
But looks can be deceiving and this year’s crop has made farmers nervous right from the get go when it was planted last August.
Too much rain at the end of that month created a hard layer of mud that the wheat couldn’t grow through. It corked, that is bent over and died, subsurface.
“We had a lot more of that than usual. It was all across the Highway 2 corridor,” says Steve Thompsen, 52, a third-generation wheat farmer 10 miles east of Waterville.
He reseeded about two-thirds of his acreage in the fall and the spring, adding significantly to his expenses. He figures about a third of the plateau’s acreage was replanted compared to a normal 10 percent or less.
Next came a winter of virtually no snow.
The plateau is the highest wheat region in the state, running 2,600 to 2,900 feet in elevation. One would think at those heights it would see plenty of moisture. But it does not.
“It’s considered high desert country and we struggle for moisture a lot,” Thompsen said.
It gives extra meaning to the term dryland wheat farming. There is no irrigation. Two to three months of winter snowpack usually protects the wheat from winter kill and provides spring moisture.
But this winter there was no snow until mid-February and snow cover only lasted a couple of weeks.
It could have been devastating, Thompsen said. With no insulation from snow, sub-zero temperatures and several days of 20 to 30 mph winds can kill the wheat.
“That last happened in 1988 or 1989,” Thompsen said. “Everyone had to replant in the spring and it was a short crop.”
Growers were so concerned in December about that happening again, that many paid the extra on their crop insurance to activate replanting coverage.
“So many guys opted for it that some insurance companies cut if off before the normal cutoff date,” Thompsen said.
But the winter kill bullet was dodged. It didn’t get all that cold for very long and severe winds did not blow.
Now the farmers face a new worry. Lack of snow left the region five inches below normal for moisture, Thompsen said. Yields could suffer dramatically without April and May showers.
“Douglas County averages 45 bushels per acre. It could be more like 40 or even lower, but that could change if we get three to four inches of rain in the next month,” he said.
It’s always a battle in June between wheat farmers praying for rain on the plateau and cherry growers a few miles away down along the Columbia River and in the hills south of Wenatchee hoping to avoid rain cracking their cherries.
“My father-in-law was a cherry grower in Wenatchee. He blamed me when the rains came,” Thompsen said with a grin.
He started his weed sprays April 10. Roundup over fallow stubble and then moved into control of broad leafs like mustard and tumbleweeds over the new crop. He tows a 1,600-gallon spray tank and 90-foot spray boom behind his John Deere tractor, but he has to wait out wind, rain and the right temperatures for application.
Wind needs to be under 12 mph, temperatures between 40 and 80 and it shouldn’t rain for three hours after the spray. There can be days of waiting.
It all makes for an unsettling season. This year more than most.
But then, Thompsen said, that’s farming.