Storm damages crops in Central Washington

Severe thunderstorms damaged alfalfa, corn, dry beans and possibly other crops throughout Central Washington the night of Sept. 15.

Growers and fieldmen were assessing damage the next day. A lot of fourth-cutting and some heavy third-cutting alfalfa was on the ground from Pasco northward and was damaged by rain, said Ben Schaapman, a Quincy grower.

“There were a lot of double-raked windrows, ready for baling, everywhere and it was blown around and got wet,” Schaapman said. “We have to let it dry today (Sept. 16) and there’s a 30 percent chance of more rain tomorrow.”

More rain would lessen the quality that already might be sliding into feeder hay and costing growers $40 to $50 per ton, he said.

“I shut my swathers down Friday in anticipation of the storm, trying to minimize the loss,” he said. “A neighbor said his field corn was OK, but another said his dry bean windrows blew all over the place.”

Brian O’Shea, field department manager at Quincy Foods, said sweet corn was damaged in the Quincy area and moreso near Moses Lake and Othello.

“The east end of the Royal Slope, some was knocked down pretty hard,” O’Shea said. Dry bean and alfalfa windrows were blown around, he said.

National Weather Service alerts warned of hail and winds up to 70 mph, but Schaapman, O’Shea and Ryan Flanagan, George and Quincy area vineyard manager for Wahluke Wine Co. and Milbrandt Vineyards, said they heard no reports of hail.

Milbrandt Vineyards began wine grape harvest Sept. 9 in the Quincy area and will finish the first week of November with the last half of October being the heaviest, Flanagan said.

Picking machines usually run through the night but shut down for the rain the night of Sept. 15, he said. Wind dried the vines and grapes enough that harvest resumed the next morning, he said.

Wind blew down some apple trellises and damaged some apples in McDougall & Sons orchards in Mattawa and Quincy, but not significantly, said Scott McDougall, company co-president in Wenatchee.

Storm damage six weeks earlier north of Orondo and May 21 near Quincy was more significant, he said. Half the company’s fruit on 700 acres in the Quincy area was damaged by hail May 21, he said.

With Too Much Rain in the South, Too Little Produce on the Shelves –

With Too Much Rain in the South, Too Little Produce on the Shelves

FORT VALLEY, Ga. — Peaches, the gem of the Southern summer, are just not so sweet this year.

The tomatoes in Tennessee are splitting. Tobacco in North Carolina is drowning. And watermelons, which seem as if they would like all the rain that has soaked the South, have taken perhaps the biggest hit of all.

Some watermelon farmers in South Georgia say they have lost half their crop. The melons that did survive are not anywhere as good as a Southern watermelon ought to be.

“They are awful,” said Daisha Frost, 39, who works in Decatur, Ga. “And this is the time of year when they should be the bomb.”

Day after day, the rains have come to a part of the country that relies on the hot summer sun for everything from backyard tomato sandwiches to billions of dollars in commercial row crops, fruit and peanuts.

While the contiguous United States as a whole is about only 6 percent above its normal rainfall this year, Southern states are swamped. Through June, Georgia was 34 percent above normal, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center. Both South Carolina and North Carolina were about 25 percent above normal. Alabama’s rainfall was up 22 percent.

The weather is a particular shock because more than two-thirds of the region was abnormally dry or suffering a drought last year.

Although the total cost to farmers has yet to be tallied, agricultural officials in several states in the Deep South predict severe losses this year that could be in the billions of dollars.

“Nobody’s ever seen it this wet this long,” said Randy Ellis, a Georgia farmer who grows wheat and watermelons, the latter of which end up at East Coast grocery stores.

He usually pulls about 60,000 pounds of melons from an acre of land. This year, he said, he barely got 30,000 pounds. What is worse, the cooler, rainy weather meant the crop was ready after the important Fourth of July window, when prices are at their peak.

Standing water has made cornfields look like rice paddies in some parts of the rural South. Mold is growing on ears of corn, and in some fields entire stalks have toppled. Late blight, a funguslike pathogen, is creeping into tomato fields early and with unusual vigor.

Even though the Georgia pecan crop will not be harvested until fall, there are already worries that the rain will bring on a rash of the fungus commonly called scab disease. Experts are predicting that the crop could be about 15 million pounds lower this year.

There are a few pluses. Irrigation costs are down, and the rain has been surprisingly good for the look of Georgia peaches.

Here in the part of central Georgia where Duke Lane Jr. grows 30 varieties on about 10,000 acres, his fields have already taken on as much water to date as they usually do in an entire year.

“This is something that has never been on our radar,” he said.

Still, the peaches are bigger than usual and shaped perfectly. He had a single peach on his desk that weighed more than a pound.

But even though those peaches look good, the water has diluted the sugar content.

“The flavor is just not there,” said Doris Westmoreland, who works at Lane Southern Orchards. “It’s like having a mouthful of cotton.”

The rain is doing more than compromising quality and bringing on disease. Some fields are so wet that farmers have not been able to get equipment into the fields to harvest.

“With fruit and vegetables, you’ve got to hand-harvest it when it’s ready,” said Charles Hall of the Georgia Watermelon Association. “If you can’t get to it, you lose it.”

Some farmers report wheat sprouting before it can be harvested, and peanut farmers in Alabama, who rely on heavy applications of chemicals, have missed crucial application windows because fields have been too wet to navigate, said Randy Griggs, the executive director of the Alabama Peanut Producers Association.

Peanut harvest usually begins in late August and runs into September, so there is hope that fields might dry out by then.

But Jake Crouch, a climatologist at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., is not hopeful.

“Whenever we get in a pattern like this, we kind of stay in the status quo,” he said. “When we’re hot and dry, we stay hot and dry. When we’re wet, we stay wet.”


Hay family weathers the storm |

KITTITAS, Wash. — At about 3 p.m. the Charltons’ yellow Labrador retriever, Rocky, began howling.

Moments before, their son, Jonathon, 13, had come into the house and said the birds had stopped singing.

It was Saturday, June 29. A lot of timothy hay had just been cut in the Kittitas Valley, all around the Ellensburg area, in what looked like the start of good weather after several days of rain.

“I took Rocky into the mud room and couldn’t figure out why he was so traumatized,” Teddy Charlton said. “I went on Facebook and someone said they couldn’t believe the rain 15 miles southwest of us.”

Her husband, Mark, came in. He had just told a swather operator to stop cutting hay. Clouds had grown big and dark. It was hot. The wind blew.

Then the rain came in buckets, bringing hail with it. A neighbor, Linda Clerf, recorded 1.31 inches of rain in 30 minutes. The wind blew the roof off a barn in the valley and knocked apart hay bales.

Mark closed a window shade and told Teddy not to watch. She was crying in the knowledge the storm could spell severe crop loss.

Hay is big business in the West, which produces one-fifth of the nation’s hay crop. Last year’s crop was valued at nearly $4 billion in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California. A single storm can damage a cutting of hay, costing growers up to $100 a ton in a few minutes.

This was one of those storms.

The Charltons’ other son, Michael, 21, ran into the house. A falling tree limb had struck him in the face and broke off one of his front teeth. Two large limbs pierced the roof and trees blew down at the north end of the house.

Lightning struck a neighbor’s house, setting it on fire. Mark was among the volunteer firefighters who responded.

Later, the Charltons found window screens from their house hundreds of feet away in their horse pasture, blown there by the wind.

Rain damage to hay was extensive throughout the valley. A neighbor, Rob Weber, said 75 percent of the first-cutting hay was damaged. Mark Anderson, 48, president and CEO of Anderson Hay and Grain, an Ellensburg exporter, said it was the worst damage he’s seen in the valley in his lifetime. The overall crop damaged was “a huge percentage,” Anderson said, but the extent varied widely from one field to another.

“It becomes our job at being really good at marketing and finding homes for hay and finding the most money we can for growers, given market conditions,” he said.

A silver lining for cattle ranchers was that a lot more feeder hay was available at low prices, Weber commented wryly.

Ten days later, on July 9, the Charltons had recuperated from the storm. They and their crew had harvested and stacked all the timothy hay that was browned and damaged. They had about five days remaining in one of their latest first-cuttings ever. The hay was now greener but also overmature.

Family pulls together

For the Charltons, as for many hay growers, the operation centers around the family. Each member plays a key role, along with the hired hands.

The day started with Mark checking fields. The Charltons’ daughter, Amber, 18, and crew member Matt Shields moved tractors and fluffers — also called tedders — from one field to another. Michael and hired hand Garth McCaleb ran harobeds picking up bales from the day before. Mark operated the squeeze, a large forklift, stacking 56, three-tie, 100- to 120-pound bales at a time in a shed.

“All the weather’s been a game changer, and what’s normally premium this year might not be,” Mark explained. “There can be over $100 (per ton) swings on price, and that’s the concern.”

The Charltons usually produce about 4,000 tons of first-cutting timothy and 1,500 to 2,000 tons of second-cutting on 1,000 acres, including 300 acres 35 miles to the east near George.

Much of the area’s timothy hay is exported to Japan. Exporters and Japanese customers had been sampling quality at numerous ranches for days. It’s a matter of how much they will take and at what price, Mark said.

“I’m not in any hurry (to sell) until I get all my crop in and evaluate it as a whole,” he said.

Amber and crew mate Faith Mehal spent the morning and into early afternoon fluffing the top field — the highest elevation visible from the house.

Amber piloted an open 1963 Oliver tractor. No windshield. No cab. Bouncing along at 6 to 7 mph in what peaked as a 90-degree day, Amber said the breeze at that speed kept her cool enough. She said she liked the old Oliver for its maneuverability.

She explained the hay lays opposite directions every other row because of how the swather cuts it and that she fluffs going against the heads to leave even and clean windrows.

“If you go with it, it balls up on the fluffer,” she said.

The fluffers had to ensure adequate spacing between pairs of windrows for balers and harobeds.

At a break in the cool of the house patio, Amber said she’s excited to be heading to Washington State University in the fall, is thinking of law school and would like to be a lobbyist for a farm organization like the Farm Bureau. She’s currently beef ambassador for the Washington Cattlemen’s Association, which is giving her a scholarship and having her speak about the beef industry at elementary schools.

At mid-morning an army of eight pea combines and a bankout wagon, from Del Monte in Toppenish arrived and began harvesting 90 acres of green peas. It’s the first time the Charltons have grown the crop and, Mark said, probably the first pea crop in the valley in 30 or 40 years for lack of processors.

Time for optimism

Mark Charlton, 49, is a fifth-generation farmer whose ancestors — the Charltons and Schneblys — homesteaded where he farms, a few miles north of Kittitas. He graduated from WSU in 1986 in agriculture mechanization and has been farming 26 years.

In addition to the hay acreage, the Charltons have 500 acres at Kittitas of peas, oats and field corn and 600 acres of irrigated pasture and additional leased rangeland for a cow-calf operation of 600 mother cows, predominately Angus. They have nine horses used in herding cattle. They have four, year-round farm hands, including a herdsman and a mechanic.

“The stress of managing your risk through input expense is a lot more than it use to be,” Mark said. “Sometimes it seems crazy what we do.”

Like any farmer, he has a lot to juggle. Crops, cattle, marketing and finances. Changes in labor laws makes it hard enough to employ anyone under 18 that he no longer does it. Regulations, he said, are why larger operations are getting larger.

“The most pessimistic farmer is an optimist. He just doesn’t realize it, otherwise he wouldn’t be doing it,” he said.

Recent state legislative passage of the Yakima River Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan — developed by federal, state and local agencies — gives him hope, he said, for more stable water supply from the junior-water-right Kittitas Reclamation District.

“We’re always just a couple of droughts away from failure,” he said. “We got our first-cutting in the 2005 drought but our second was hurt.”

Teddy, short for Theodesia, 47, zipped along at 25 mph between windrows in her 2011 Jeep Wrangler to take lunch to Amber.

“I love my little Jeep,” she said, “it fits perfectly between the rows.”

Marked put a bow on its hood when he gave it to her on their 25th wedding anniversary on June 18.

Teddy spent her first 13 years on her parents’ cattle ranch in North Dakota. Then they moved to Kittitas for better weather and to be closer to doctors. Teddy had her own 9 acres, 28 heifers, was working and getting her degree in graphic design and painting at Central Washington University in Ellensburg when she met Mark.

“We had a whirlwind courtship. I didn’t know I was allergic to hay,” she said with a smile. She had a couple of episodes of anaphylactic shock before it was figured out. Jonathon is still treated for a hay allergy. Michael is less affected.

Teddy operated haying equipment in past years, but now fixes meals, runs errands and is Mark’s assistant.

Michael has been driving tractors since the sixth grade, is proficient in rodeo roping and branding and will be entering his senior year at WSU in agricultural technology and production management. He wants to ranch.

Jonathon is in his third year driving a baler and also has his eye on ranching.

In the shop, mechanic Kevin Tostenson, 31, was fixing a leaky fuel tank and broken timing chain on a 1968 Freeman baler. Except for a new swather and newer trucks, the fleet of equipment is mostly aged and keeps him busy.

“We started out with a tractor for each (haying) piece, but some of them found a spot in the shade,” he said.

Craig Saville, a new hire, arrived with his squeeze built from a 1996 garbage truck.

Fluffing took the morning and early afternoon. Mark checked the moisture content and deemed it acceptable to start baling about 3 p.m. Mark’s father, Paul, was part of the crew along with the rest of the family and hired hands running balers and harobeds until dark.

Back at the house, Teddy had a sirloin roast in salsa, a family favorite, waiting in a crockpot for when they were done.