Valley awash in Fields of gold

In Walla Walla Valley agriculture wine gets the glamour, but in a good year like this one wheat shows why it's king of local crops.

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By dawns early light a lone farmer stands in the open doorway of an idling combine Thursday morning, August 11, 2011 in half-harvested wheat fields just south of Walla Walla, Wash. near Stateline Road. A very late harvest has finally hit full speed in the Walla Walla valley with heavy yields reported. (AP Photo/Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Jeff Horner)

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Combines get off to a dusty start as engines fire up for an early morning cutting of wheat off Mill Creek Road. September 18, 2011

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A dusty harvest afterglow settles over empty wheat fields and farms west of Powerline Road just before dusk in early September. September 18, 2011

WALLA WALLA -- As the saying goes "rain makes grain," and this year was no exception for Walla Walla County wheat farmers.

Despite a delayed start and an outbreak of stripe rust, this year's wheat harvest finished on a high note in both Walla Walla County and elsewhere in Washington state with above-average yields.

This year's plentiful harvest combined with poor yields coming from the drought-striken Plains region is expected to push Washington state into the No. 2 spot for wheat production nationwide, second only to Kansas.

Canada also had wheat crop problems as well, but for the opposite reason: flooded fields drenched by heavy rains well into the planting season.

In years past, Washington was ranked sixth in the nation for wheat production, behind Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, Oklahoma and Montana.

According to a Seattle Times article, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expected Washington's winter wheat yields to be 72 bushels per acre, one bushel short of the state record from 2000.

The good harvest is expected to not only benefit growers, but the entire economy of the Walla Walla Valley.

"Oh yes, there's a trickle-down effect all over the community," said Tim Larkin, president of Tumac Machinery, which supplies farm implements.

The influx of cash from a good harvest spurs purchases of everything from new farm equipment to bottles of wine.

"There's no question the Valley's going to benefit from it," Larkin said of the wheat harvest.

But on the downside, as autumn arrived prices were starting to decline from previous highs.

Although official figures will not be available until later this fall, Washington state remained on track to produce about 160 million bushels of all types of wheat this year.

If the forecast holds true, it would be an increase of 13 million bushels from last year's total of about 147 million bushels.

Cool temperatures and wet spring weather pushed the start of this year's harvest back to mid-August, but the wet weather made for better than average yields.

Dave Gordon, general manager of Northwest Grain Growers in Walla Walla, said that local farmers were reporting yields about 10-15 percent above last year's wheat crop.

Nat Webb, a Walla Walla County farmer and chairman of the Washington Grain Alliance, said that harvest yields "were generally quite good" throughout Walla Walla County and elsewhere.

He and others noted that areas with traditionally lower yields reported well-above average harvests while other areas were also above average, but not exceptionally so.

Or as Scott Yates, grain alliance communications director, said: "Walla Walla County is one of those schizophrenic areas. By and large the areas which get high yields didn't see the big bumps that other, drier, areas did."

Last year Walla Walla County farmers harvested about 14.5 million bushels of wheat, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. Columbia County's 2010 winter wheat harvest was reported at 5.3 million bushels and Garfield County's was 4.2 million.

The bulk of that was soft white wheat, which represents 78 percent of Washington state's wheat acreage. That variety is used for pastries, cookies, crackers and doughnuts. It's also popular in Asia for making noodles. Other varieties are hard red winter, hard red spring, white club and hard white wheat.

But while this year's harvest is one of the best in years, Webb noted that farmers were also keeping a worried eye on prices which were dropping even as the final loads from this harvest were being brought in from the field.

Although the per-bushel price rocketed up almost 60 percent between April and mid-August, from $4.16 per bushel to $6.70 and higher before starting to drop since then. As of Sept. 26, the price had gone down to $5.84 per bushel.

By then, however, the last of the spring wheat harvest was nearly finished and many producers were already at work seeding next year's crop.

As of mid-September farmers in Walla Walla, Whitman and Adams counties had averaged 10 percent complete on winter wheat planting, according to USDA figures.

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

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