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Washington drought losses estimated at $336 million — and counting

The Washington State Department of Agriculture has made a preliminary assessement of farm losses caused by the 2015 drought. A final report is due in one year.
Don Jenkins

Capital Press

Published on January 4, 2016 10:36AM

Courtesy of Melissa Hansen, Washington Dept. of EcologyIrrigation equipment sits idle on fields in the Kittitas Reclamation District in Central Washington in early September. The Washington State Department of Agriculture has made a preliminary assessment of crop and livestock losses due to the 2015 drought.

Courtesy of Melissa Hansen, Washington Dept. of EcologyIrrigation equipment sits idle on fields in the Kittitas Reclamation District in Central Washington in early September. The Washington State Department of Agriculture has made a preliminary assessment of crop and livestock losses due to the 2015 drought.


OLYMPIA — Washington farmers lost at least $336 million to the drought last summer, a preliminary estimate likely to climb as more figures on yields and prices became available, according to a report by the state Department of Agriculture.

The report estimated specific dollar losses for only a handful of crops — wheat, apples, blueberries and red raspberries.

Losses for other commodities, including Washington mainstays such as potatoes, milk and cattle, will be tallied later as information becomes available, according to WSDA.

The report suggests the drought affected most growers. Nearly two-thirds who answered a WSDA survey said the quality or marketability of their crops suffered in the state’s first drought in a decade.

“I suspect in the final report the losses will be higher,” WSDA spokesman Hector Castro said. “This early report confirms what a lot of people knew. The drought caused a lot of harm for farmers around the state.”

The early look also surveyed field-by-field drought damage in the Kittitas Reclamation District, a major producer of Timothy hay in Central Washington.

The district suffered $11.4 million in damage, according to the report.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation supplied growers with 47 percent of their normal water allotment, but that was only part of the problem, irrigation district’s manager, Urban Eberhart, said Thursday.

Record heat scorched fields, allowing more drought-tolerant grasses to take hold. The result will be lower-grade hay in 2016 and 2017, said Eberhart, himself a hay farmer.

The shortage of water in October also threw farmers off their field rotation schedules, he said.

“We had a water year unlike any other water year we’ve had before,” Eberhart said. “The heat played a tremendous factor.”

A field survey of damage has not yet been completed for the 72,000-acre Roza Irrigation District in the Yakima Valley, where farmers also received less than half their normal water supplies.

WSDA will issue a final report one year from now on the drought’s impact on Washington’s farm economy, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture calculated was worth $10.1 billion in 2014.

“This is an incomplete picture, and we know that it’s an incomplete picture,” Castro said. “We’re not through counting yet. A lot of commodity groups are not counted because the information wasn’t available.”

The report’s findings include:

• Wheat production was particularly hard-hit. The harvest was down 22 percent from the average yields over the previous five years. At recent prices, the lower yields could cost farmers $212.4 million. In 2014, USDA reported Washington’s wheat crop was worth $715 million.

• The apple industry estimated the drought or extreme heat reduced production by 280 million pounds. Based on 2014 prices, the lower yields represented a potential loss of $86.52 million. Apples were a $1.9 billion business in 2014.

Early harvest varieties were most affected by water shortages and heat in the Yakima Valley. Apple growing regions to the north in Chelan, Okanogan and Douglas Counties were hurt less by the drought.

• Blueberries, grown primarily in northwest Washington, also lost production to the heat. Based on estimates from growers, the drought reduced yields by 8 million pounds, causing a loss in income of approximately $12 million.

• Red raspberries, also grown in the northwest corner of state, suffered a 26 percent decline in production. The lower yields cost farmers an estimated $13.9 million.

• Cherries and pears, two of Washington’s top 10 crops, were harvested early because of high temperatures in Central Washington and the Columbia Basin. The crops, however, sustained little damage.

• Some 460 growers were asked whether the drought and heat impacted the quality or marketability of their crops. About 65 percent said they had.

• One-third of growers said they spent money for drought-relief measures such as cloth shades, sprinklers or more efficient irrigation equipment.

The preliminary assessment did not try to put a figure on how much farmers spent to cope with drought.



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