Widespread drought means NW farmers cash in on strong grain prices

Originally published on July 30, 2012 7:25 am

CONNELL, Wash. – Drought that’s sizzling the rest of the nation has largely left the Northwest states alone. Furthermore, the Midwest’s farmers’ misfortune is actually benefiting farmers here. That’s because grain prices are raising because of the Heartland’s decimated yields.

Wheat stubble, grain elevators and whole lot of wide open -– that’s Connell, Washington.

There, I caught up with Dana Herron and his partner Craig Teel. The men run a grain seed operation. They sort, clean, treat and store pure grain for farmers’ future plantings.

This time of year is busy –- often more than 20 semi-trucks of grain offload each day. Massive rows of shiny silos hold next year’s promise of bread and noodles.

A worker bangs a tall surge bin with a rubber mallet. A crew is cleaning large batches of seed through a massive machine. And they want to get every last seed out before running the next batch of a different kind of grain.

Herron and Teel pride themselves on keeping their product pure. Herron says the last couple of years have been good to Northwest wheat and corn farmers.

But this year, “Mama’s going to get a brand new kitchen," he says with a laugh. "It’s not just pick-ups, families go on vacations and mama gets a new kitchen every now and then when things are good.”

Herron and Teel say they are sorry for the farmers who are experiencing a terrible drought right now –- it could be the Northwest next year.

Their area does have its own problems -– they had an early frost that took out some grain. But for most Northwest growing areas farmers are threshing above average wheat yields this summer.

Down the road a piece in Pasco, at SS Equipment sales are up 20 percent from about two years ago. Lots more combines, tractors, balers have been trundling out the door.

Todd Ray flashes a cautious smile in the back lot. He starts up a hulking new New Holland T8.275 tractor.

Ray’s the owner of 10 New Holland dealerships in Washington and Oregon. He says farmers are reinvesting in their operations with new equipment.

“But they’re being very careful," he says. "Because with the high impute costs right now, they are very concerned that if the commodity prices slip some they can go from being profitable to not very quickly.”

Up north in Spokane, Kent Fleishchman of Dry Fly distillery says he doesn’t mind paying a bit more for his 700,000 of grain this year. He likes it when Northwest farmers are doing well -– that ensures he’ll have a good supply into the future.

“We’re actually pleased when the market goes up," Fleishchman says. "That’s probably a bizarre thing for a lot of people to say but, we’re very pro-farmer here and when the markets are strong our farmers are prospering.”

He also says grain is one of the lower-cost inputs into his vodka, gin and wheat whiskey. Packaging and electricity play a bigger role.

These higher grain prices won’t reap profits for everybody in the Northwest: Eastern Idaho farmers are experiencing some drought, growers have higher fuel, tire and fertilizer costs and some growers have contracted their grain for a set price before the uptick. But overall, most Washington, Oregon and Idaho grain farmers appear to be quietly grinning and crossing their fingers for another year like this one.

On the Web:

Pacific Northwest Weekly Grain Summary Pt. 1:

http://www.ams.usda.gov/mnreports/jo_gr115.txt

Pacific Northwest Weekly Grain Summary Pt. 2:

http://www.ams.usda.gov/mnreports/jo_gr116.txt

Copyright 2012 Northwest Public Radio

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