Wheat growers eye turmoil in Egypt

The country buys huge amounts of wheat, but isn't a predictable market for local growers.

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Wheat growers know that in a world economy, what happens in Egypt doesn't stay in Egypt.

That's why Eastern Washington wheat growers, including those in Walla Walla, are keeping a close eye on the turmoil in that county, said Tom Mick, chief executive officer for the Washington Grain Alliance.

"Egypt is the biggest swing market in the world," Mick said. The country purchases about 10 million metric tons of wheat annually with different amounts coming from different world markets.

Mick said growers are concerned about what type of government will be formed if and when Egypt's current crisis is resolved. A pro- or anti-American administration could play a major hand in how much the country imports from the U.S. in coming years.

In 2003 Egypt and Yemen together accounted for 42 percent of Washington's wheat exports. "Two years later it was 12 percent," Mick said. "In this market year, Egypt will account for 20 percent of wheat exports from the Pacific Northwest," and much of that comes from Washington.

So far this year Egypt has imported about 340,000 to 400,000 metric tons from the Pacific Northwest, Mick said.

Another factor in play now is the shutdown of the Columbia-Snake River transport system. That started in December to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to replace lock gates on three dams as well as make major repairs and perform maintenance at other dams.

Prior to the shutdown, Mick said wheat buyers who had storage capacity were urged to buy stocks to avoid being pinched while others arranged to have wheat shipped by rail to Portland for export. But growers didn't anticipate the increased demand from the Middle East as governments seek to stabilize food prices in the face of rising wheat prices.

"We live in a world economy," he said. "Whatever happens elsewhere affects us here as well."

Andy Porter can be reached at andyporter@wwub.com or 526-8318.

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