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Western Washington growers build a grain economy


Capital Press

TOLEDO, Wash. -- Wheat breeder Stephen Jones has high hopes for growing grain west of the Cascade Mountains, and what he has seen so far encourages him.

"It's really hopping in the (Puget) Sound area," he said. "In Whatcom and Skagit counties, in the San Juans and Whidbey (islands), pretty much every county sees a viable grain economy."

By refocusing their operations on the local economy instead of commodity markets, growers are succeeding. With the high cost of feed and the volatility of markets, he said, "The timing is just right."

One challenge for growers is stripe rust, but breeders are developing lines suited for the wetter climate.

"The shift in varieties is a healthy thing," said Jones, who also director of Washington State University's Research and Extension Center at Mt. Vernon.

Eric Oberg, who grows wheat, barley, oats and dry peas near Mount St. Helens, has been dealing with the unique West Side challenges for 10 years. Because he has well-drained soil, he can get his planting done earlier than many others in the region. If a grower has to plant too late, he said, "You can lose your whole crop."

"Now my challenge is rain," he said, pointing to cracks in the ground near a field of barley. He has seen his share of too-hot summers and summer-long rains.

"Western Washington is different every year," he said.

He has learned how swathing can help dry down the grains if he sees a cool fall coming. And timing the harvest is critical, trying to get in under the wire before the rains come back, he said.

On the East Side, he said, growers can harvest into December.

Elk are also troublesome. They love to eat the oats, and they knock down other grain on the way to the oats. A herd of 40 animals can destroy 10 acres overnight, he said. They also limit where he can grow certain crops.

"The herd needs to be knocked back to get them healthy," he said. "I've seen some of them with missing feet or bloody stumps. And the hunters are limited in what they can take."

Oberg also faces challenges common to growers everywhere.

"With fertilizer and fuel prices going through the roof, farmers are making the same profit margin they did in the 1940s. It takes as much as $100,000 to make $160,000," he said.

He harvests between 500 tons and 600 tons off the 300 leased acres he farms. All that goes into feed that he mills, blends and bags at the farm and sells direct to his customers in 1-ton bags.

"It's taken a long time to build a customer base of 150 to 200 people, and they stretch from Portland up past Seattle," he said.

The key to Oberg's success is diversification, he said. "I want to see what grows better on this side (of the Cascades). I'm trying safflower, and we'll see what happens."


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