Farmers struggle with higher costs, labor shortages

But if they can get their products to market, there are more consumers than ever.

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A lady bug clings to ripening wheat. Wheat is still the lucky lady of the Walla Walla Valley as the big cash crop. File photo

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With the sun and the day gettingold with the evening, workers harvest a field of onions along Stateline Road. File photo

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Rolling fields of wheat, in various stages of broken light from sporadic clouds overhead, stretch in quiet layers. File photo

Variety, efficiency and cost control help local farmers stay profitable, which helps the whole area’s economy.

Walla Walla County is fortunate in having a wide array of agricultural products, said John Fouts of the Washington State University Cooperative Extension office.

Because of the high cost of farming and often a lack of pricing power, growers have to find ways to increase efficiency as much as possible.

"Wheat farmers use GPS to be more efficient," Fouts said. The GPS allows them to seed, use herbicide and fertilize more accurately. The costs of production rose then didn’t come down, while the recent price increase in wheat didn’t last.

However, changes in agriculture along with shifts in crops and farmers happen here constantly.

"Wheat is still king," Fouts said. "It’s our number one crop and always will be. That’s the nature of the county. This year both the yield and quality is above average."

Other top crops include hay and apples.

"There’s a huge apple orchard in the county. We also have one of the largest concord grape vineyards, used for juice, maybe in the world, just east of Burbank. There’s also lots of potatoes grown here."

Blueberries, strawberries and vegetables, like Walla Walla Sweet Onions, add to the variety of the crops produced in the county.

Fouts said the numbers of livestock have gone down. Crops such as wine grapes have been added while asparagus and green peas have been scaled back, although he said green peas have rebounded quite a bit.

He said there is an increase in small scale vegetable farms due to the success of the farmers market.

"The main thing is to improve efficiencies, keeping costs down. Certain times of the year labor is tight. I think the growers like to keep good steady employees. Variety is also a key. Wheat isn’t just wheat, there’s different types: soft white, winter or spring wheat. Variations are susceptible to different diseases. The growers mix wheat and peas, keep the cash flowing and cover the ground.

"That breaks up the disease cycle. I always tell people that farmers are the best gamblers and conservationists. They maintain and keep the soil because they want their children and grandchildren to be able to farm."

He said he had been on many USDA assignments in other countries, and Americans have such a quality abundant food supply that it is easy to take it for granted. "Seeing other countries, you really start to appreciate just having food, water and electricity."

With thousands of acres in operation at Broetje Orchards, based outside of Prescott, streamlining is an ongoing process. Controller Dennis Sundberg said, "They are looking at hand-held computers in the orchard to scan the tickets out there instead of coming in here to do it. We upgrade the technology we need. You’ve got to keep up or you’re left behind."

At the Klicker Store, Ron Klicker said retail sales of produce are going well. The challenge comes from actually getting the produce to sell,.

"Most of my growers are having a fair season," he said. "Except for cherries, that was a bust. Too many of them. We are also one to 10 days late on just about everything, although most yields have been good. Then that 100 degree weather hurt everybody. Everybody lost crops from that."

Klicker said the future for agriculture looks like continued tight profit margins. "For commodities, those big crops with lots of tonnage, prices haven’t gone up as much as costs. This year, lots of prices are stagnant, and the costs are up. Except for fuel, the one bright spot. Prices are up and labor is the worst — that’s the story I’m getting from my growers."

If the growers can stay in business to harvest a crop, there is a market for the produce.

Klicker said, "The buying public is there. Much more than ever they are looking for local products and are willing to pay for value-added products. Those prices are still flat but the demand is still there. There’s a strong demand for local products."

"The hardest part is getting enough from fewer and fewer producers. Labor is phenomenally difficult to find. I thought it would change with the economic woes but it’s not. I’m hearing the same story from everybody. They can’t find anybody who actually wants to work."

At Northwest Grain Growers Administrative Manager Bruce Bond said, "The crop is very good. We had about 80 percent cut when we had our rain. That slowed them down for a few days."

In spite of that delay, the season looks good, which helps everyone. "When farmers do well, the local economy does well. Right now the soft white wheat is around $4.60, not bad, but it’s not like it was," Bond said.

Reflecting the importance of the farmers’ part in our economy, the current trend at the Walla Walla Valley Farmers Market includes a surge in produce sales for growers and an increase in growers wanting to participate, Executive Director Aimee McGuire said. "We have a lot more farmers at the market this year. It’s up about 10 to 15 percent. It’s very profitable for family farms; the ones here are doing well. They want to be here, because they are actually going to move some produce."

As far as guessing what’s in store for agriculture, McGuire agreed with Fouts and added, farming may become very polarized, you’re either a large operation or very small.

"It’s either huge, huge — like 800 acres — or two acres. It will be interesting to see what happens in the next few years."

McGuire sees more partnerships forming. "It keeps the products going and keeps people working. We have more farmers calling to participate, and our farm sales are way up. Our farmers overall are doing well."

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