Eastern Washington wheat harvest a mixed bag

Some wheat farmers are seeing huge yields, while others are getting more typical results.

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WALLA WALLA -- After a delayed start, the wheat harvest is in full swing throughout Walla Walla County.

After being pushed back by cool temperatures and wet spring weather, farmers have been at work to make up for lost time, reaping hundreds of acres across the county's rolling countryside. As of this week, the winter wheat harvest was ongoing and in some places nearly ended while spring wheat harvest was expected to be under way in the next couple of weeks. In Umatilla County, wheat harvest was also reported fully underway.

While some growers are reporting phenomenal yields, others say that while this harvest is no bust, it isn't setting records either.

"The crop is pretty decent, it's a little above average but a lot of stalks have fallen," said Curtis Coombs, a Walla Walla County farmer. Another farmer, Jay Nowogrosky, reported his harvest was "going fairly well, the yields are really good, but there's an exception to that where the (stripe) rust hit. That has hurt yields."

An outbreak of stripe rust hit millions of acres of wheat throughout Eastern Washington earlier this spring.

But some farmers said they are hitting the jackpot when it comes to this year's harvest. "My neighbors across the street got 154 bushels an acre," Nowogrosky said. By comparison, the average winter wheat yield in 2010 in Walla Walla County was about 81 bushels per acre, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service. The yield for spring wheat was about 65.5 bushels per acre.

Dave Gordon, general manager for Northwest Grain Growers, said he is also seeing an up-and-down pattern in this year's harvest.

"The yields are pretty erratic," he said last week. "Some are above, some are below, there's no clear reason." Two likely culprits are stripe rust and the unseasonably cool weather, including an arctic cold snap that struck last November.

Tom Mick, Washington Grain Alliance chief executive officer, said that while the winter wheat harvest is about half-finished in the Walla Walla County area, harvesting was still just getting under way in Dayton and Pomeroy, where about a third of the crop had been brought in as of last week.

In Whitman County, the USDA reported the winter wheat harvest was off to its latest start in 30 years with harvest limited to the west side of the county. Yields were reported as above-average in quantity and quality, though not record levels.

Contrary to previous years, Mick said "We're seeing an interesting phenomenon in that poorer soils are going above average (in yields) while better areas are normal or below-normal. It's kind of a mix."

The latest forecast is for Washington farmers to harvest about 160 million bushels of all types of wheat this year, Mick said. That would be the highest yield since the 2001-2002 harvest. The 2010 harvest was just under 148 million bushels, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Last year, Walla Walla County farmers reported harvesting about 14.5 million bushels of winter wheat, according to USDA statistics. The Columbia County 2010 winter wheat harvest was reported at 5.3 million bushels and Garfield County's was 4.2 million bushels.

The harvest comes at a time when wheat prices are rocketing upwards. Soft white wheat, the predominate variety grown in Eastern Washington, has increased in price almost 60 percent since last April, from $4.16 per bushel to $6.65 per bushel. The selling price for barley has gone up nearly 83 percent, from $115 a ton last April to $210 a ton as of Monday.

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