Tough row to hoe

FILE — Combines harvest wheat in the Tammany area in July. 2021 was a difficult year for farmers in Idaho and Washington, who were faced with disadvantageous weather and market conditions.

A little fall rain goes a long way toward germinating optimism among farmers who seeded more winter wheat this fall than in the previous year.

Idaho farmers put 7% more winter wheat in the ground for the 2022 crop and Washington was up 3%, according to the recent annual crop summary from the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Mark Heitstuman, Washington State University extension educator for Asotin County, said moisture in September and October helped farmers get crops into the ground following a disastrous summer of high temperatures and drought.

“It all depends on the area but a lot of the winter wheat is looking pretty good at this point,” Heitstuman said Thursday. “If it continues — normal moisture through this spring and late May and early June — I think the crop will be average or above average in most places.”

According to NASS Idaho growers seeded 760,000 acres of winter wheat for the 2022 crop, up 7% from 2021 and an increase of 6% from 2020.

Washington winter wheat growers seeded about 1.80 million acres of winter wheat for harvest in 2022. That’s up 3% from the area seeded in 2021 but the same as 2020.

Doug Finkelnburg, University of Idaho extension educator for Nez Perce County, said seeding in the area happened at about the normal time and emergence of the young crop was even.

“It’s too soon to tell, but from what we’re seeing it looks like there will be no major problems” with the winter wheat crop, Finkelnburg said.

It’s still a little early to determine whether the area has fully recovered from last summer’s drought. But Finkelnburg said the precipitation over the past few weeks has been encouraging. And the cold snap in December, he added, wasn’t prolonged enough to injure the young plants.

Soft white wheat and club wheat, which is used primarily to make noodles and pastry, is the variety most commonly grown in north central Idaho and southeastern Washington. About 85 percent of the local crop is exported to other countries.

Other varieties of wheat that are used to make bread are largely grown in the Midwest. NASS reported the area seeded with hard red winter wheat is expected to total 23.8 million acres this year, up 1% from 2021. The largest increases in planted acreage are expected to be in Kansas and Texas, while the largest decreases are in Colorado and New Mexico.

According to NASS, the production of all wheat varieties in Idaho in 2021 totaled 31.7 million bushels, down 32% from the previous year. Average yield was estimated at 45 bushels per acre, a decrease of 19 bushels per acre from 2020.

In Washington, all wheat production totaled 87.2 million bushels, down 48% from 2020. Yield was estimated at 39.1 bushels per acre, a loss of 33.3 bushels from the year before.

Hay producers also had a hard time of it last summer, with many local growers reporting yields slashed by 50% or more from the year before.

NASS reported that all hay harvested in Idaho totaled 1.24 million acres, down 5% from 2020. All hay harvested in Washington totaled 710,000 acres, up 3% from 2020.

Heitstuman said the recent snow cover, especially in the higher elevations, helped protect the emerging winter wheat crop from freezing.

And the increase in winter wheat plantings did not surprise him, Heitstuman said, with the price of wheat nudging $10 a bushel or higher at the Port of Portland.

That market likely inspired some growers to seed ground that had lain fallow last summer because of the drought, he said.

“I would expect with some moisture some ground that will be seeded (this spring) that weren’t seeded last year,” Heitstuman said.

Hedberg may be contacted at khedberg@lmtribune.com.