Advocacy continues despite stay-at-home orders

By Michelle Hennings
Executive Director, Washington Association of Wheat Growers

WOW! What an interesting couple of months it has been. Our office may be closed, and you won’t have seen us at any meetings lately, but the leaders and staff of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) are still working very hard on behalf of Eastern Washington wheat growers. Like many of you, we are working from home and have switched to conference calls and Zoom meetings in order to get business done. I enjoy spending time with my family and working from home, but it has been a challenge to homeschool the kids and not get interrupted while working. I have a sign I put on my office door that says, “KEEP OUT—MOM IS ZOOMING.” 

One upside of having my kids home with no extracurricular activities is the opportunity they’ve had to spend more time helping out on the farm. We appreciate the extra hands, and they get to learn valuable life skills under the watchful eye of my husband. 

I do miss the face-to-face interactions with colleagues and farmers, however. It makes me feel somewhat removed having these meetings switched to conference calls and Zoom, so I wanted to reach out and give you an update on what WAWG has been working on during the pandemic. 

We have been in regular contact with our state and federal legislators, keeping them informed of issues impacting agriculture, monitoring legislation and keeping our grower members informed. Our members are spread out across a wide area, so we are using online surveys to check in with them. It’s no surprise that impacts of the pandemic on rural communities; access to labor, equipment and inputs; retaining markets; and the continued low cost of wheat are the top grower concerns. Thank you to those who have filled out the surveys; I’ve noticed they’ve become a common theme among organizations. 

We recently coordinated with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to hold a webinar to update growers on NRCS programs and deadlines, and we check in regularly with the other U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agencies. COVID-19 has caused unique challenges in the planning of grower programs, including this month’s Wheat College and the 2020 Tri-State Grain Growers Convention, which is scheduled for early December.

We are also working with our national organization, the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), to dig into the various federal relief packages to determine how wheat growers can benefit from them. While some growers were fortunate to get aid through the Paycheck Protection Program, we are also hearing from many that they’ve run into obstacles that range from applications being denied based on a farm’s business structure; unclear deadlines and qualification rules; and, of course, lack of funding. Even the institutions that are responsible for handing out the funding are having to deal with confusing federal rules and a backlog of applications. We’ve also learned that some banks are tightening their loan requirements, adding another item to worry about to growers’ lists.

We have also just learned that white wheat will not be included in the $16 billion Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP) because the class didn’t show at least a 5 percent drop in price during the dates selected by USDA. See more about that here.

Another issue we are hearing from D.C. is that depressed wheat prices existed before the pandemic and therefore can’t be blamed on COVID-19, making the wheat industry overall less qualified for pandemic relief. I look around at my neighbors, many of whom are struggling, and I don’t believe that is true. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a lack of water leaves everything stuck in the mud. We are working with NAWG to refute this claim and make it clear to our elected officials that everybody, regardless of the crop they are growing, has been negatively impacted in ways that will be felt for months, if not years.

We want to thank NAWG for their advocacy on behalf of the Washington wheat growers. The following are some of the other projects NAWG has been working on at the federal level during the pandemic:

  • They joined with other national organizations to ask Congress and the administration to consider the impacts of stay-at-home restrictions on the agricultural supply chain and workforce and worked with USDA and the U.S. Department of Labor to ensure that farmers would be considered essential workers.
  • NAWG joined more than 50 food and agricultural organizations in sending a letter to the Department of Transportation requesting additional emergency relief that includes all segments of the farm-to-fork supply chain to address disruptions.
  • In April, NAWG signed onto a letter sent to all governors suggesting actions states could take to aid the continued movement of food and agricultural inputs. Specifically, these efforts sought expanded emergency declarations and waivers related to trucker hour-of-service requirements to make sure producers had access to critical inputs going into the planting season.
  • NAWG worked alongside other national organizations in calling on Congress to provide funding through the Commodity Credit Corporation to USDA in order to provide funds to producers. NAWG also joined several organizations in sending a letter to Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue outlining the severe impacts the pandemic is causing throughout production agriculture with recommendations on how to help the industry recover.
  • NAWG wrote a letter to USDA demonstrating how wheat farmers should be eligible for CFAP that included $16 billion in direct payments for farmers and ranchers. 
  • NAWG has coordinated with U.S. Wheat Associates on its messaging to the administration on how it must work to ensure that commercial warehouses can store and efficiently transport wheat in top condition to meet overseas demand. NAWG has been very vocal about why farmers and food distribution industries are essential. As a result, export grain systems and Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) inspections have continued operating with little or no interruption.

I hope all of you are as well as you can be, and we can get back to our normal soon. Your WAWG leaders will continue working to ensure that the Washington wheat industry weathers this crisis. 

If you have any suggestions or need to discuss an issue, please call our office at (509) 659-0610 or email me at