Northwest wheat harvest shifts into gear
Cool, wet weather pushed harvest back nearly two weeks
By MATTHEW WEAVER
PATERSON, Wash. -- The combines Woody Simmons and Markus Smith drove were filled to the brim with wheat.
They stood in a sunny field near Prosser, Wash., the morning of July 18 and traded easy quips with their boss, Berg Farms partner Nicole Berg-Tobin, while they waited for a truck to collect their haul so they could get back to work.
The Bergs began harvesting their hard red winter wheat July 16, and as Berg-Tobin directed a combine into position so the automatic steering could pick up a new row, the onboard computer estimated an average yield of 50 bushels per acre.
Not bad, considering the region's yields are usually in the 30s, Berg-Tobin said.
Her brother, Matt Berg, said harvest is at least two weeks later than normal due to the cool, wet weather.
"Global warming," he said with a bit of a chuckle. "It's kind of early to see what's happening yet, but it looks pretty good."
The first stirrings of the 2011 wheat harvest began in the Pacific Northwest the week of July 11, by all accounts at least a week and in some places as much as two weeks later than usual.
David Gordon, general manager of Northwest Grain Growers in Walla Walla, Wash., said he knew of one farmer in the region who began harvest July 15, but most are 10 to 14 days behind due to the weather. He said most of the harvest will likely get under way by Aug. 1.
More will be known about the crop as harvest progresses, Gordon said. It's not certain what impact widespread stripe rust and cold weather had on yields, he said.
"Under normal conditions, the later the harvest, the better the yields," he said. "That means it didn't run out of moisture as it was ripening."
Moving forward, Gordon looks for warmer weather. Too much heat might damage spring wheat crops, he said, but "not much can damage the winter wheat crop at this point."
As of July 15, Walla Walla prices were about $6.50 per bushel, down from the peak earlier in the year but up from $4 the same time last year, he said.
"We've lost about $1.50 in the market, but that's historically a good price," Gordon said.
Prices dropped with the news that weather had improved in Russia's wheat-growing region and the nation had lifted its wheat export ban. But prices have steadily creeped upward as drought has continued in parts of the Midwest, potentially reducing the amount of wheat produced this year, Travis Jones, executive director of the Idaho Grain Producers Association, said.
"Some of that news is creeping into the wheat, grain and barley markets for sure," he said, noting he expects farmers will be able to make a profit.
Harvest has yet to begin in his state, but was getting closer in some areas, Jones said.
He expects an average yield for the state of 75 to 79 bushels per acre.
Craig Reeder, president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League and manager of Hale Farms in Echo, Ore., said his operation was one of the first to begin harvest in Eastern Oregon. Even as the combines rolled out the week of July 11, it was still a week to 10 days later than normal, he said.
Reeder expected yields to be 60 to 70 bushels per acre, up from the typical 30 to 40 bushels.
"That's very much an anomaly," Reeder said, pointing to the additional rain and good growing weather this year.
Stripe rust wasn't causing damage, Reeder said, noting he used a full fungicide program when the disease showed up.
"Prices are solid, but fertilizer's really expensive now," Reeder said. "But so far, this crop looks to be a good yield, a good quality and a really solid price."