The year 2023 started out with hopeful signs for grain farmers in the Pacific Northwest, said the executive director of the Washington Grain Commission.
“Overall growing conditions, we had a really long winter and a late spring,” Casey Chumrau said. “We started to see the emergence (of plants) a little later than normal but we got good moisture in late spring. Those first few weeks out of dormancy saw an improvement in crop conditions.”
But in April, that moisture shut off and the region drifted into drought conditions.
“It got really hot with higher temperatures than normal,” Chumrau said. “Combined with no precipitation that really degraded the crop conditions as we went throughout that growing season.”
Chumrau said wheat production in 2023 was about 25% lower than the year before.
As of Nov. 30, the U.S. Drought Monitor continued to rank the eight counties in southeastern Washington and north central Idaho as abnormally dry to moderate to severe drought.
Chumrau noted the much-needed precipitation of the latter part of November.
“But we’re certainly in an expensive deficit and still need additional moisture,” she said. “Once the ground is frozen a lot of moisture doesn’t penetrate. We will need a good snow cover and (gradual) thaw before spring to get some moisture to penetrate.”
Farmers are also waiting out lower wheat prices, depressed by a number of factors, including global supply and better-than-expected production from Ukraine and Russia.
“They’re able to export more than we expected,” Chumrau said. “Russia has continued to have really significant crops and export at really low prices, so our prices have come down.”
Added to the mix is inflation and the strength of the U.S. dollar that makes buying wheat from this country more expensive. Chumrau said these factors have caused some farmers to hold onto their wheat for the time being, hoping for higher prices down the road.
“It’s been kind of a struggle about how to pull out the supplies and get them to the market,” she said. “The dollar is really strong, which makes it challenging for customers to manage that risk and fluctuation.”
Although Mexico is the No. 1 buyer of U.S. wheat overall, most of that comes from the Midwest where hard red wheat used in baking bread is grown.
The Philippines, China, Japan and Korea remain the steadfast customers of farmers in the Pacific Northwest. The soft white wheat and club wheat grown in the region is used in making noodles and pastries.
Yemen also has been a customer under the U.S. Aid program.
“We’ve also seen big purchases from Chile this year, so we’re happy to see those really big numbers.”
For 2024, growers will be keeping a wary eye on the precipitation in the early part of the year. Chumrau said even though it’s predicted to be an El Nino year, some forecasters say the weather may not be as extreme as expected.
“Washington is very diverse with a lot of micro climates. Some areas had good fall conditions and some reported the best conditions they’ve seen in decades.
“Others were just ‘dusting it in’ — meaning planting in dry fields,” she said.
“Most areas would welcome additional precipitation and really good soaking rains and a good snow pack so we can come into the spring in good condition as we come out of dormancy.
“We hope El Nino is mild and we can get the snow and rain that we need.”
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