Annual meeting goes virtual, business gets done

The Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) hasn’t let pandemic-induced social distancing stop it from continuing its work of advocating for the Washington wheat industry. 

Early last month, more than 50 members virtually took part in WAWG’s annual meeting to hear state and federal agency updates and to review WAWG’s resolutions for the upcoming year. A special guest was Martin Barbre, administrator of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Risk Management Agency (RMA).

“All things considered, I’m very pleased with how the annual meeting went,” said Michelle Hennings, WAWG’s executive director. “We had participation from all the major state and federal agencies, and members were able to have a robust discussion on our resolutions. We are going into the 2021 legislative season with clear priorities from our members and a road map to help direct our advocacy efforts. Thank you to all those who took time to join the meeting.”

Barbre kicked off the meeting with some Washington state small grains crop insurance facts, including:

  • In 2020, more than 2.07 million wheat acres (92 percent of all planted wheat acres) were insured, with the average coverage level at 81 percent;
  • $594 million liability insured;
  • 98 percent of acres enrolled with buy-up coverage under either a revenue or yield plan of insurance;
  • In 2020, 51,000 barley acres (75 percent of all planted barley acres) were insured, with the average coverage level at 80 percent;
  • $11 million liability insured; and
  • As of Nov. 30, 2020, $8.5 million had been paid out in claims to wheat producers and $37,000 to barley producers, not including claims yet to be finalized.

Ben Thiel, director of RMA’s Spokane Regional Office, reviewed some proposed crop insurance changes, including establishing enterprise units by cropping practice or type and issuing replant payments for winter wheat that is damaged before the fall final planting date. WAWG supports both proposed crop insurance changes. Thiel said that if everything goes according to the plan, those changes will be implemented for the 2022 crop year.

Jon Wyss, state executive director of USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), told attendees that county FSA offices have once again been closed to the public, and all FSA business is being done remotely. He reminded producers of upcoming sign-up deadlines, including the general Conservation Reserve Program (Feb. 28), Conservation Reserve Program Grasslands (April 23) and Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage programs (March 15).

Speaking of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), Wyss said 32 producers in Douglas County that couldn’t participate in the last CRP sign-up because the county was over its acreage cap were able to get temporary funding through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Wyss said that funding looks like it will be available for 2021.

“If we can get through this year (2021), we’ll get into farm bill negotiations and can fix that Douglas County issue in the next farm bill,” he said.

Rounding out the USDA agencies, Roylene Comes At Night, state conservationist for NRCS, reviewed her agency’s activities over the past year and addressed staffing and workload issues. In 2020, NRCS helped producers implement conservation practices that:

  • Improved soil quality on 337,521 acres of cropland;
  • Improved water quality by applying conservation practices to 638,010 acres of land; and
  • Protected 303,178 acres of grazing and forest land.

The state office obligated approximately $42 million dollars in conservation work in 2020, nearly double their normal yearly amount. The state office approved 236 new Environmental Quality Incentive Program contracts, obligating nearly $21 million. They approved 80 new Conservation Stewardship Program contracts on 219,500 acres for $13.5 million, and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program got $7.8 million in funds.

Looking ahead to 2021, Comes At Night said the agency was approved for an additional 1,500 employees, and she’s hoping some of those will come to the Washington state office. Although CRP is technically an FSA program, NRCS provides technical assistance as well as assistance with conservation planning and practice implementation. NRCS staff are required to do a physical review of all expiring CRP contracts on top of the agency’s own obligations, creating a huge workload for NRCS employees. Comes At Night said she is working with FSA to try to streamline some of those requirements as her employees start reviewing expiring 2022 CRP contracts.

Derek Sandison, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA), said it’s been a rough year for certain segments of the state’s agricultural industry as the nation’s restaurant and food service sectors shut down. He estimated that the potato and potato processing industry has lost almost $1 billion, and some agricultural products haven’t received any federal assistance to date. Worker housing and worker protection were big issues in many of the state’s agricultural sectors, and processing plants had to retrofit their operations. At the beginning of the year, WSDA, like so many other agencies, struggled to provide personal protection equipment to those who needed it.

“We did our part in terms of keeping commerce moving, but it’s been a struggle,” Sandison said. “We expect, probably even with the vaccine, we are going to feel these impacts going into the next growing season.”

Sandison also touched on trade and retaliatory tariffs. The WSDA is still trying to determine how the Biden Administration will handle trade.

Josh Tonsager, vice president of policy and communications for the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), gave a federal policy update. NAWG was working on a letter that will be sent to the Biden-Harris transition team about the association’s priorities and some of the issues the wheat industry is dealing with. Some of NAWG’s priorities for 2021 include ag appropriations, ag research funding, COVID-19 relief, pesticide regulation, trade agreements and the farm economy.

Carbon is also likely to be an issue in the next administration, and Tonsager said NAWG is working to establish a policy directive to help guide the association’s efforts in case a voluntary carbon market is established.

Carbon is also likely to be a big state issue. Diana Carlen, WAWG’s lobbyist in Olympia, said a carbon tax or a low carbon fuel standard is back on the table as the legislature will be looking for additional sources of revenue to make up a $2.5 billion projected five-year deficit.

The state’s 2021 Legislative Session will be almost completely virtual, Carlen said. Legislators will be asked to limit the number of bills that are introduced, and bills that will be considered will need to address either racial equity, the COVID-19 response, economic recovery or global climate change.

After hearing state and federal updates, meeting attendees reviewed WAWG’s 2020 resolutions and modified them as necessary. A full copy of WAWG’s 2021 resolutions can be found here.

The 2020/21 Wheat Ambassadors, Grace Hanning of Centerville, Wash., and Julia Klein of Ritzville, Wash., were introduced and awarded college scholarships. Hanning will receive $5,000, and Klein will receive $4,500.

The following names were drawn for the Legislative Action Fund prizes:

  • Wheat Rolling Pin – Paul Enyeart
  • WAWG Yeti Tumbler – Peter Robison
  • Wheat Cutting Board – Aaron Gfeller
  • Amazon Gift Cards – Willard Lange and the Whitman County Wheat Growers
  • AirPods – Stan Schwartz
  • Smart TV – Whitman County Wheat Growers
  • Blackstone Griddle – Barry Buth

Finally, a proposal was made and passed to keep the same slate of WAWG officers for the following year. Ryan Poe of Hartline will remain president, while Howard McDonald of Coulee City will remain as vice president, Andy Juris of Bickleton as secretary/treasurer and Jeffrey Shawver of Connell as past president.

The next WAWG board meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Jan. 12.