A little bit of normalcy heading into 2022

By Michelle Hennings
Executive Director, Washington Association of Wheat Growers

The last six months have been interesting here at the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG). I feel like a little bit of normalcy is starting to set in as we’ve been having some in-person meetings, which has been quite refreshing. I think this will be our new normal, both virtual and in-person meetings, but it’s important to note, from my perspective, nothing beats an in-person meeting and having that face-to-face communication. 

This year’s harvest was a big challenge for most. Washington state experienced a severe drought that devastated the crop in both quality and quantity. We had a challenging time getting the state to declare a drought. They declared a drought on groundwater availability but were slow to recognize drought caused by inadequate rain. We made sure the governor’s office was aware of what was happening in Eastern Washington, and they finally came around. This year shows how important crop insurance is to our farmers, and strengthening crop insurance is one of our top priorities in the 2023 Farm Bill.

We also advocated heavily for WHIP+ funds to help address the protein issues that occurred due to the drought. Congress has voted to fund WHIP+ for 2020 and 2021, and now the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is looking at how to implement it. There’s currently no timeline for when farmers can apply, but be sure to keep checking with your local Farm Service Agency office for updates. Since the WHIP+ disaster program is fairly new, USDA is asking for input. WAWG submitted comments on some of the issues we saw with the program for 2019, so we are hoping they make the application process easier for farmers. 

The 2023 Farm Bill will be here before we know it, and planning and advocacy efforts are already taking off. We are working hard to have a seat at the table to be able to provide input to those that are writing the legislation. Some of the things we are focusing on include improving and maintaining USDA programs; if and how climate regulations will be implemented through conservation programs; maintaining farm bill safety programs; and increasing the wheat reference price in the Price Loss Coverage program. Farmers are being targeted more than I have ever seen before. It’s always a challenge to educate the public about the industry that feeds the world and where food comes from. 

We’ll be traveling to D.C. in January for the national winter meetings and are planning to visit with our federal legislators in person. I can’t wait! We need to continue developing relationships and our networking as we haven’t had much of an opportunity to meet with members of the new administration yet. Besides the farm bill, we’ve got many other issues on our list of priorities, such as trade, climate and research funding.

The lower Snake River dams have taken up a lot of my time lately. In the 17 years I have worked for WAWG, the current situation is the most alarming I’ve seen. We’ve had a Pacific Northwest representative propose removing the dams and spending billions to rebuild our transportation infrastructure, followed by one of our congressional senators teaming up with our governor to study dam removal. We’ve been successful at defeating dam-removal proponents who litigate against the federal environmental impact statement, but now, we have members of Congress talking about dam removal. This raises a big concern as Congress is key to preserving the dams. 

WAWG is advocating heavily for the dams by joining with other, like-minded organizations and forming coalitions with more lobbying power than we have ever had. We want to be proactive and not reactive to the situation. I think it’s critical that agriculture speaks with one voice on this issue. After all, removing these dams won’t just affect the Pacific Northwest. Wheat, corn and soybeans from the Midwest also move down the river system, and those growers will also likely see an increase in transportation costs, especially rail rates, if the dams are removed.

Another issue we are watching is the rising cost of inputs. Although the wheat price looks good right now, what happens if the price drops? Will input prices go down as well? We are hearing that supplies of fertilizer and seed are becoming scarcer, and there is concern about having enough of both in the spring.

Looking towards the 2022 Legislative Session in Olympia, the state legislature will yet again be holding committee meetings virtually. This was very frustrating last year as committees only allowed a minute or two for people to testify. In many cases, it was difficult to clearly explain in the allotted time why a certain bill was going to negatively affect a farming operation. Additionally, the committee chairman was able to choose who testified, and there was no interaction between the person testifying and the committee members. While we appreciated that we didn’t have to travel to Olympia to testify, this system is flawed, and we felt like legislators weren’t listening to the public. 

While we are still waiting for more details, next year’s session sounds like legislators can be on campus, but there will be very limited public access. In that case, we are working on strategies to educate legislators and providing them with information on wheat farming so they can make sound decisions without us having access to their offices. 

I’m calling out to our WAWG membership for farmers who would like to volunteer to be an “expert” on an issue they’re passionate about. This would include providing examples from your farm, testifying on the issue and educating others on that topic. If you are interested, please contact me at michelle@wawg.org. If the thought of testifying in front of a committee worries you, we’ll work with you to provide your testimony. Wheat needs to tell their story, and I can’t stress enough how important this is. We have some very big challenges ahead of us, and we’ll need a big team to make sure we can get our message across to those to whom farming is a mystery.