By GEORGE PLAVEN
For the Capital Press
PENDLETON, Ore. -- Tyson Raymond answered his cellphone from on the tractor, where the Helix farmer half-jokingly says he will live for the next couple months.
The summer wheat harvest is coming, which means plenty of long days ahead for local growers like Raymond. Approximately one-third of Oregon's wheat comes from Umatilla County, which last year produced 16.9 million bushels on 248,300 acres.
Umatilla County routinely leads the state in growing soft white wheat, a crop worth more than $472 million in 2012 -- considered an average year for the industry. When an Eastern Oregon farmer recently discovered genetically modified wheat not approved for growing in his field, the news hit Raymond with a mix of surprise and disbelief.
"My first thought was that it's not possible. It doesn't exist. It's not out there," Raymond said Thursday, talking over the noise of his tractor engine. "You know, intuitively, the market doesn't want stuff like this around right now."
Between 85-90 percent of Oregon wheat is exported, the majority of which goes to Asian markets that made it very clear they do not want genetically modified food. Japan and South Korea already suspended some wheat orders, and the European Union is also calling for more rigorous testing of U.S. shipments.
By potentially narrowing the market, the value of wheat faces uncertainty. Raymond, immediate past president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, said the goal moving forward is to reassure customers that the product meets their standards.
Locally, Raymond said much of Umatilla County's economy is tied to agriculture, and not all farmers have the flexibility to plant anything other than dryland wheat.
"It's a big deal," he said. "A large part of this area lives and dies by the wheat market."
So far, the market has resisted overreacting, with wheat futures prices hovering just under $7 per bushel -- down from last year's average of $8.25 per bushel.
The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service launched an investigation after a farmer, who wishes to remain anonymous, reported finding wheat plants resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, marketed by Monsanto Co. under the brand name Roundup.
Monsanto field tested a variety of "Roundup Ready" wheat in 16 states, including Oregon, from 1998-2005. It discontinued the program in Oregon 12 years ago, and genetically modified wheat remains unapproved for commercial planting.
The company says it is working fully with USDA, and suggested the discovery of GMO wheat was likely the result of an accident or deliberate mixing of the seed.
A spokesman for APHIS said they have 15 investigators working on the case. There is no timeline, except the timeline of "getting it right."
Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Growers League and Oregon Wheat Commission, said the USDA is taking into consideration the harvest season set to begin by the end of June or early July.
"I think everybody is hunkered down, awaiting information from the investigation on what to do next," Rowe said.
Bruce Sorte, community economist with Oregon State University's Extension Service, said it is difficult to forecast how exactly the incident will impact Umatilla County without seeing an initial shock on wheat prices.
The wheat industry is a foundation of the local economy, Sorte said. He figures 12 percent of the economy, and 15 percent of full- and part-time jobs, could be disrupted by changes in wheat farming that lead to reduced hours and wages.
During the near-record year of 2011, Umatilla County harvested more than 21.6 million bushels of wheat. Morrow County ran a distant second at nearly 9 million bushels.
Grain farming is also the highest sector of part-time jobs, according to Sorte's model. From truck drivers to combine operators, and all the way down to people who provide food to the crews, the uncertainty ripples its way down the chain.
"You shake up the foundation of something like that with something like this, and you hope it doesn't cause any structural damage," Sorte said. "The strongest impact comes back and hits the suppliers, in terms of income."
Eric Orem, who farms 5,000 acres outside Lexington, agreed, saying a drop in wheat price could affect services like equipment dealers, fuel and fertilizer suppliers.
"When we don't make as much money, we're not spending as much money," said Orem, the Oregon Wheat League's secretary and treasurer. "It has the potential to affect a lot of people."
Orem anticipates the investigation will include new protocols for testing wheat as part of the effort to reassure customers the GMO case is an isolated one. Wheat growers find a way to adapt to change all the time, he said, and this is no different.
"If our customers want non-GMO wheat, that's what we are going to deliver," Orem said.
Tim Goad, who owns an 800-acre family farm outside of Pendleton near Wildhorse Resort & Casino, said he has confidence in the USDA investigation, but questions continue to stick in the back of his mind.
"What are you going to do with the product if you can't sell it?" Goad said. "Obviously, this came from a batch of seed somewhere. That's the real question, is how widespread this is. That's what they'll have to figure out."
All three growers said in interviews they believe the farmer who first reported the problem did the right thing coming forward immediately.
"There's the potential to catch this when it's extremely small, and extremely isolated," Raymond said. "I have full confidence in the system and the industry to get the problem solved."