Up and down year for wheat ends on upswing

Farmers locally and statewide see a solid year helped by disastrous fires that burned many fields in Russia.

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ALMOTA, Wash. - Solid prices and government subsidies have combined for a strong year for wheat farmers in Washington state.

The Spokane Spokesman-Review reports that 147.8 million bushels were harvested, up from 123 million bushels last year.

"I think a lot of us are feeling pretty good right now," said Ritzville, Wash., farmer Curtis Hennings.

Walla Walla County farmers also joined in the bounty. "We had a better than average harvest, especially on winter wheat," said Dave Gordon, general manager for Northwest Grain Growers. Yields were especially good in the northern areas of the county around Clyde.

The flip side were spring wheat crops. Cooler weather in May and June delayed progress of those crops and consequently yields were down this year, Gordon said.

The majority of the wheat harvested in the county, about 85 percent, was soft white wheat, Gordon said. The remaining varieties are hard red winter wheat, which forms about 8 percent of the total harvest, and dark northern spring wheat, which amounts to about 7 percent.

Much of Washington state's wheat has been sold abroad, the Spokesman-Review reported. Wheat farmers throughout the U.S. have benefited in foreign markets after wildfires in Russia earlier this year burned many fields.

This led the Russian government to limit wheat exports.

Washington farmers were ready to respond, said Tom Mick, chief executive of the Washington Grain Alliance. The proof is in ports along the Snake River south of Colfax.

The industry estimates that the value of Washington's wheat crop should shoot past $750 million this year. That figure is not a record, but it's a healthy one.

"We're very happy with the crop," Mick said. "We had good numbers and good quality."

Moreover, farmers in the region received about $70 million in government subsidies last year. The money is a direct payment to farmers based upon historical acreage and yields. This year's figures aren't out yet, but should be similar, said Chris Bieker, a Farm Service Agency spokeswoman. Other federal programs pay farmers for land conservation.

Yields were high this year as well, among the best ever.

Glen Squires, vice president of the grain alliance, said the yield for winter wheat topped 69 bushels per acre, while the spring crop yielded an average of 52 bushels, for a combined average of 64 bushels of wheat to the acre. In the past decade, average yields have been as low as 53 bushels per acre. Last year's average was 55.

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