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.

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.


Value of Washington organic farm crops rising, acreage shrinking |

KENNEWICK, Wash. (AP) — For the first time, people seek out Gary Middleton to buy his organic fruit.

That’s something that has taken Middleton, who farms about 100 acres of organic apples, cherries and blueberries near Eltopia, about 13 years to accomplish, and is among the reasons he plans to continue to stay organic.

The number of organic acres farmed in the state is dropping, from almost 105,000 in 2009 to an estimated 88,100 in 2012, according to a recent study by Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.

But the value of the state’s organic crops is rising.

It grew by 20 percent from 2010-11, to $284.5 million, the study said. That’s the highest value in seven years.

Eastern Washington counties accounted for about 82 percent of that value.

Some of the drop in acreage may be because farmers have realized the amount of work, expense and challenge involved with farming organically, said Middleton of Middleton Organic Orchards.

Organic agriculture is more labor-intensive, requiring hand thinning and hand weeding, he explained. At the peak, when blueberries and cherries are harvested simultaneously, he’ll need about 250 people.

Organic prices have to be high enough to cover those increased costs.

“I love being an organic farmer, but it still comes down to economics,” he said.

Organic farmers don’t use herbicides, and are limited in the pesticides and fertilizers they can use.

Middleton uses compost for fertilizer, which requires more planning when it comes to nutrients. It doesn’t deliver as much nitrogen as fast as synthetic products.

But organic agriculture seems a good fit for stewardship of the land, he said. He’s noticed that the beneficial insects, including bees and ladybugs, have increased.

Most of the blueberries still were green last week, although a few showed a hint of a bluish-purple hue.

Middleton’s irrigation system was going on and off in a 15-minute rotation to cool his apples and blueberries and to suppress sunburn.

The blueberry and cherry harvests will likely start around the end of this month, Middleton said. Blueberries will be color-picked by hand, with the same bushes picked three to four times.

Middleton’s goal is to serve an “elite” fresh market, with stores like Costco and Whole Foods carrying his blueberries, he said.

Blueberry harvest can last a month, and cherry harvest can last for about 14 days, he said. His cherries, like others in the area, were hit by frost damage, slashing the expected yield.

After those harvests are complete, Middleton and his crew will move on to the Gala, Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples. Frost also might affect those yields, but he said the blueberries seemed to come through the cold — which dropped as low as 23 degrees — just fine.

Increasing yields from fruit trees could be a part of why the value of the state’s organic crops continue to grow, said David Granatstein, a sustainable agriculture specialist at WSU’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources.

Granatstein completed the WSU study with Elizabeth Kirby, a sustainable agriculture research associate.

It’s also possible that some fruit that was sold as conventional because of better prices is now being sold as organic, Granatstein said.

Sales and prices of organic crops continue to increase, suggesting that the market is not saturated, he said.

Grant County continues to lead the state in organic production with about 22,000 acres and a 2011 crop value of $87.8 million, up about 37 percent from the year before.

Benton County has the second most acreage, at about 7,800 in 2012, down about 10 percent from the year before. The 2011 crop value was about $25.8 million, up 17 percent from the previous year.

Franklin County had an estimated 3,200 acres in 2012, a 2 percent drop. Yet value climbed by nearly 37 percent to $18 million.

Organic acres and sales for other area counties were:

* Adams County, relatively unchanged at about 2,500 organic acres in 2012, with value growing by nearly 37 percent to more than $6 million in 2011.

* Walla Walla County, down by 4 percent to about 2,200 acres in 2012, with value up 10 percent to $22 million.

* Yakima County, up 5 percent at about 5,700 acres in 2012, with value increasing 23 percent to $23.4 million in 2011.


1st cut Alfalfa in PNW

WARDEN, Wash. — For a while it looked like Columbia Basin growers might actually get first-cutting alfalfa put up this year without rain. But the rain came the night of May 20 and lingered for several days, shutting down harvest for about a week.

Growers around Pasco got about half their crop baled and off their fields before the rain but were caught with most of the rest on the ground, said Shawn Clausen, a Warden grower and board member of the Washington State Hay Growers Association.

Some 60 miles to the north, around Warden, the crop is later than Pasco. Only 10 to 20 percent was cut before the rain, Clausen said.

“I’ve got maybe 250 acres down, probably 15 percent of my production,” he said on May 22. “The longer the rest stays up, the more over mature it gets and the feed quality goes down. Fiber goes up, protein goes down and dairies don’t want it.”

Then it becomes feeder hay for cattle and the price falls from the $200 to $220 per ton range down to $160 or $170, he said.

Growers with hay down had to leave it on the ground longer to dry before raking and baling. Rain and sun turned the top layer brown, lessening quality.

Clausen hoped to resume cutting May 24 or 25. The longer his down time the greater his harvest time crunch. It takes him about two weeks to get his 1,900 acres cut, raked and baled. He needed to get it done so growing time for second cutting wasn’t delayed.

First-cutting, with more growing time than later cuttings, usually has the best feed value for dairies, he said.

“Ideally, first-cutting is where 35 percent of your money comes in so when you miss that it’s tough to make it up on the next,” he said.

Rain appeared heavier to the north than in Pasco, said Chep Gauntt, a Pasco grower, who said he got half his 1,200 acres baled before the storm and sold to Zen-Noh Hay for export to Japan. Gauntt said he started early and thought this might be the year the first-cutting rain cycle was broken. First-cutting has been rained on in the basin for the past four years with 2010 the most devastating, he said.

North of Warden, near Ephrata, grower Duane Hubbard cut his entire 220 acres and only had three loads baled and under cover before the rain.

“I cut early with the thought I might get it out before it started raining this year. It didn’t work out so well,” he said.

Around Quincy and George, Ben Schaapman had 500 acres down with 320 baled before the rain.

“We’re OK. I’m not jumping for joy, but I’m not crying the blues, either,” he said. “We should do all right as low-quality export or low-quality dairy. It depends on how much more rain we get.”

Western Washington growers build a grain economy

TOLEDO, Wash. — Wheat breeder Stephen Jones has high hopes for growing grain west of the Cascade Mountains, and what he has seen so far encourages him.

“It’s really hopping in the (Puget) Sound area,” he said. “In Whatcom and Skagit counties, in the San Juans and Whidbey (islands), pretty much every county sees a viable grain economy.”

By refocusing their operations on the local economy instead of commodity markets, growers are succeeding. With the high cost of feed and the volatility of markets, he said, “The timing is just right.”

One challenge for growers is stripe rust, but breeders are developing lines suited for the wetter climate.

“The shift in varieties is a healthy thing,” said Jones, who also director of Washington State University’s Research and Extension Center at Mt. Vernon.

Eric Oberg, who grows wheat, barley, oats and dry peas near Mount St. Helens, has been dealing with the unique West Side challenges for 10 years. Because he has well-drained soil, he can get his planting done earlier than many others in the region. If a grower has to plant too late, he said, “You can lose your whole crop.”

“Now my challenge is rain,” he said, pointing to cracks in the ground near a field of barley. He has seen his share of too-hot summers and summer-long rains.

“Western Washington is different every year,” he said.

He has learned how swathing can help dry down the grains if he sees a cool fall coming. And timing the harvest is critical, trying to get in under the wire before the rains come back, he said.

On the East Side, he said, growers can harvest into December.

Elk are also troublesome. They love to eat the oats, and they knock down other grain on the way to the oats. A herd of 40 animals can destroy 10 acres overnight, he said. They also limit where he can grow certain crops.

“The herd needs to be knocked back to get them healthy,” he said. “I’ve seen some of them with missing feet or bloody stumps. And the hunters are limited in what they can take.”

Oberg also faces challenges common to growers everywhere.

“With fertilizer and fuel prices going through the roof, farmers are making the same profit margin they did in the 1940s. It takes as much as $100,000 to make $160,000,” he said.

He harvests between 500 tons and 600 tons off the 300 leased acres he farms. All that goes into feed that he mills, blends and bags at the farm and sells direct to his customers in 1-ton bags.

“It’s taken a long time to build a customer base of 150 to 200 people, and they stretch from Portland up past Seattle,” he said.

The key to Oberg’s success is diversification, he said. “I want to see what grows better on this side (of the Cascades). I’m trying safflower, and we’ll see what happens.”

B. regards

Felix (Kyung) Seo