Politics, weather and inflation put pressure on Washington AG

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Pam Lewison is torn when winter gives way to spring.

She is delighted by the sweet smell of freshly plowed fields, the green down in the orchards, the newborn cattle.

She is less thrilled with the daunting challenges facing Washington agriculture in 2022. The state’s 35,300 farms and ranches collectively raise more than 300 commodities.

Lewison, director of the Agriculture Initiative at the Washington Policy Center, which is based in the Tri-Cities, worries that the state legislature has taken a “combative” stance toward agriculture.

This, along with weather, water availability, fertilizer and fuel prices, supply chain challenges, access to shipping and rising labor costs are all top of mind this year.

But she is nothing if not hopeful in the spring.

“Farmers are optimistic and realistic. They see what is, but still hope for what can be,” said Lewison, who grows beans, field corn, alfalfa and teff, a high-protein, low-carb hay crop.

Washington farms produced $9.6 billion in 2016, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture, the most recent comprehensive federal assessment of the value of agriculture. The census takes place every five years.

The US Department of Agriculture is preparing for the 2022 census. Operators who wish to participate and who do not receive surveys from the National Agricultural Statistics Service can register at agcounts.usda.gov/static/get-counted.html .

The Washington Farm Bureau calculates that agricultural production coupled with more than $20 billion in food processing and manufacturing revenue translates to 12% of the state’s economy.

The Washington Department of Commerce calls it the second largest manufacturing sector in the state behind aerospace.

Lewison worries that inflationary pressure on fuel and fertilizer costs, coupled with increased regulation and in particular the phasing in of new overtime wages by 2024, could force some operators out of the industry.

“There’s a lot of pressure,” she said. “I think we’re at a point where the domino effect will happen with people making tough choices about things that cost more and the dollar is worth less.”

She sees a legislature disconnected from agriculture. She is particularly concerned about the Riparian Buffers Bill, which requires trees and protective areas along streams and rivers.

She expects it to arise in the 2023 session. The proposal notably exempts urban but not rural areas from the rules.

“Just because we farm and live in a rural area doesn’t mean we should be the only ones bearing the burden of saving the fish or the environment,” she said. She called on voters to voice their support for farmers and ranchers.

Much of 2022 is still unknown, from the weather to the impact of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Here are some of the highlights of what’s happening in Washington agriculture, as reported in this year’s edition of Focus Agriculture + Viticulture magazine from the Tri-Cities Area Journal of Business.

Apples

Nothing says “Grown in Washington” more than a fresh, shiny apple. The $2.2 billion industry is Washington AG’s largest by far. For 2021 and now 2022, the story mainly revolves around the weather.

The heat dome that set in over the Pacific Northwest in June 2021 is causing a moderate decline in production, according to Todd Fryhover, chairman of the Washington Apple Commission. The state counted 122 million bushels, down from its usual 130 million or so.

Fryhover said unusual snowfall in April could lead to a similar outcome in 2022.

Potatoes

The first shipments of fresh U.S. potatoes entered Mexico on May 11, 2022, completing a long-running campaign to open up the market beyond a narrow zone along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Mexico’s Supreme Court voted to end an embargo in 2021, but actual deliveries have been slow to start. This spring, US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack met with his counterpart and set the deadline for May 15.

Mexico imported $60 million worth of fresh potatoes in 2021. That is expected to rise to $150 million, according to the National Potato Council, led by Pasco farmer Jared Balcom.

“This is an important time for the U.S. potato industry,” he said, calling Mexico a “vital market.” Balcom digs deeper into the potato industry in a column on page 26.

Washington is second only to Idaho when it comes to growing potatoes – over 10 billion pounds. Up to 90% of the harvest is sold to processors such as Lamb Weston and turned into frozen fries and other potato products.

Exports

There is good news and bad news for exports.

The value has increased in 2021, but only due to inflation and rising prices. Shipping volumes plummeted when the Northwest Seaport Alliance – the ports of Seattle and Tacoma – took an unwelcome turn. In May 2021, more shipping containers remained empty than full, thanks to the unfavorable economy of ocean vessels.

Before the pandemic, Washington’s ports were balanced, a point of pride, noted Melanie Stambaugh, communications director for the alliance.

In Seattle, the port has created a yard near the wharf on the waterfront for storage containers filled with AGs on the theory that being able to move them quickly to ocean-going vessels will get them on their way. The US Department of Agriculture covers the deposit fee – $200 for regular containers, $400 for refrigerated. A similar effort is planned at a site near the dock in Tacoma.

The Northwest Seaport Alliance plans to report on the success of the initiative this summer.

Grapes

Washington grape growers harvested 179,600 tons of wine grapes and 103,000 tons of juice grapes in 2021. The bad news: The grapes were hit by the heat wave, resulting in smaller bunches.

The good news? The weather conditions in September and October were ideal for ripening, resulting in better quality fruit.

The smoke, which has plagued some, but not all, recent summers, is a growing threat to grapes and has prompted the formation of a special task force to assess its impact on grapes and wine, and potential measures for l ‘mitigate. A team of West Coast researchers has received a federal grant of nearly $8 million to study the question in 2021.

Cherries

Cherries were another crop hard hit by the late June heat dome. The notoriously fragile fruit shrunk in time by over 100 degrees. Fortunately, much of Washington’s crop had been harvested before the real heat set in, said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

Cherry growers harvested more than 18.6 million 20-pound cases of cherries in the Northwest — Washington and Oregon — in 2021.

DeVaney said labor remains a challenge in 2022, as does the off-season snow in April, which came around the same time fruit was tying up in orchards across the region.

He said that could lead to a potential reduction, but not annihilation, barring more undesirable weather events before harvest begins, typically early to mid-June.

Wheat

Washington is the nation’s fourth largest wheat producing state with more than 2.2 million acres in production – 1.8 million acres planted with winter varieties in the fall and the remainder with spring varieties during the warm months.

Nationally, wheat ranks third among US field crops, after corn and soybeans.

Washington exported nearly $962 million worth of wheat in 2021, a whopping 43% increase attributed to the Phase 1 trade deal negotiated with China under the Trump administration.

Winter wheat production will increase by 60% in 2022, based on
May 1 conditions, additional acreage and yields of 67 bushels per acre, up from 42 in 2021, USDA estimates.

Oregon and Idaho will also see increases, of 35% and 28%, respectively.

But drought, trade issues and input prices (fuel and fertilizer), as well as foreign competition for customers, pose long-term challenges for wheat farmers in the region.

Most wheat grown in Washington is exported. Like most other agricultural products, it must be shipped on ocean-going vessels, a constant challenge for agricultural exporters.

Exports from US Wheat Associates projects will fall 21% in 2021-22 from the 2020-21 cycle, based on USDA export data.

Looking ahead to May, the USDA expects prices to hit a record high in 2022-23 – $10.75 a bushel – thanks to tight supplies, but the overall trend is reduced production.

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