WAWG year in review 2019/20

Another year, another 12 months of advocating for the Washington wheat industry. Here’s some highlights and a look what the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) has been up to for the last 365 days.

July 2019

Farmers begin signing up for the Market Facilitation Program (MFP). The program, administered by the Farm Service Agency (FSA), will provide $14.5 billion in direct payments to producers who have been negatively impacted by retaliatory tariffs on their products. Payments are based on a county rate multiplied by a farm’s total plantings and will be made in three tranches. The payment for nonspecialty crops in Eastern Washington counties averages just more than $21.50 per acre. County rates across the nation range from $15 to $150 per acre.

Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acres that are set to expire this year can be extended for one more year, as long as the current contract is 14 years old or less. FSA continues to work on implementing regulations from the 2018 Farm Bill, which include the requirement to hold a general CRP sign-up every year.

On the state legislative front, WAWG engages with several work groups during the interim period, including the Snake River Dams Stakeholder Work Group, the Sustainable Farming Work Group and the Environmental Justice Task Force.

For the second year in a row, WAWG joins the Washington Grain Commission (WGC), Washington State University (WSU), the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) and other commodity groups in celebrating Washington state agriculture in the nation’s capital. The group visits with most members of the state’s congressional delegation and then holds a Taste of Washington reception featuring products from the state’s agricultural industry. While back east, WAWG leaders also meet with several U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) agencies about MFP payments and farm bill implementation.

Trade has been grabbing headlines all year, especially the importance of passing the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). In support of the regional trade pact, the Motorcade for Trade launches an RV tour that has two stops in Eastern Washington, including a stop at the Berg Family Farm in Benton County, for a roundtable discussion with ag industry leaders.  

WAWG celebrates a win when FSA selects Benton County for a pilot program that looks at yield discrepancies in the Agriculture Risk Coverage-County program. Dryland wheat farmers in the county see their reported yields drop from 82 bushels to 36 bushels, meaning many of them qualify for an additional program payment.

Investigation continues into the June 2019 discovery of genetically engineered (GE) wheat plants growing in Washington state with the confirmation that the plants were developed by Monsanto to be resistant to glyphosate. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service announces a test kit that will identify the event will be made available to the industry’s trading partners. This is the second time GE wheat plants have been found in Washington fields—the first time was in 2016. There are no GE varieties of wheat being grown commercially, and there is no evidence that GE wheat has entered into the food supply.

In the southern part of Eastern Washington, combines start rolling as harvest 2019 gets underway.  

August 2019

WAWG is one of the sponsors of a watery legislative tour that focuses on the importance of the Snake River dams, especially to agriculture. More than 3 dozen legislators take a boat ride from Kennewick up to Ice Harbor Dam. While on route, they hear an overview of the Snake River System from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers representatives and see a barge in the process of being loaded at Tri-Cities Grain. They also hear from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research fisheries biologist on West Coast salmon recovery and orca health. Once at the dam, the group has the opportunity to go through the navigation lock and then see where the turbines are housed. They also get a brief overview of the fish ladders and the steps Bonneville Power Administration is taking to help salmon move past the dam.

September 2019

WAWG’s executive director, Michelle Hennings, takes part in a stakeholder interview held by a consulting team hired by the Washington state governor’s office to talk about the potential impacts of breaching the lower Snake River dams. She tells interviewers that wheat growers are “completely opposed to any action regarding the dams that would negatively impact our ability to move grain to the ports in Portland and Vancouver.” Wheat growers are confident that dams and salmon can co-exist, and they believe breaching the Snake River dams will not have a noticeable impact on the Puget Sound orcas.

After months of negotiations and uncertainty, a trade agreement is reached between the U.S. and Japan that keeps U.S. wheat on a level playing field with Canadian and Australian wheat. Canada and Australia had begun to see reduced tariffs on wheat imported to Japan as part of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Locked out of the agreement, U.S. wheat imports would have become less and less cost competitive to the point that Japan’s flour millers would have no other choice than to buy the lower cost wheat from the CPTPP member countries.

October 2019

The majority of the 2019 wheat harvest is wrapped up, and by most accounts, it was successful. Yields are average to above average, and quality is good, despite cooler temperatures at the end of July and rain in August and September that raised fears of low falling numbers. Unfortunately, for those farmers who are lagging behind in harvesting their crops, there are more clouds on the horizon…

…Actual literal clouds. And rain. And snow. A wetter-than-normal fall means there are fewer opportunities for the last of the spring wheat and a whole lot of chickpeas to dry out enough to be harvested. And because winter wheat usually follows chickpeas in farmers’ rotations, that means a delay in winter wheat planting. Fortunately, the weather dries up for a short time in late October, and most farmers are able to work with local elevators to harvest and dry their crop.

Enrollment for FSA’s Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) programs opens.

WAWG takes part in a career showcase in Ritzville, Wash. The event is organized by the Adams County Development Council. Thirty-three businesses discuss career options with students from the area’s sixth through twelfth grades.

Marci Green, WAWG past president, becomes one of the faces at snakeriverfaces.com. Full color print ads appear in west side publications and on Facebook. The effort is a way to combat misinformation and criticism of the Columbia-Snake River System and is sponsored by the Pacific Northwest Waterways Association (PNWA).

November 2019

Many county wheat grower groups start meeting to discuss resolutions prior to the 2019 Tri-State Grain Growers Convention. Hennings and WAWG lobbyist Diana Carlen attend as many as they can to update growers on issues and legislative priorities.

The 2019 Tri-State Grain Growers Convention is back on Washington wheat growers’ home turf, taking place in Spokane at the Davenport Grand Hotel. Approximately 500 growers, agency representatives and industry supporters gather to hear top notch speakers; establish guidance on industry concerns; and learn the latest on herbicide resistance, 2018 Farm Bill programs and other topics of interest.

It isn’t all education and updates at the convention. There is also lots of awards and recognition to give out. Whitman County is named WAWG county of the year, and Mike Miller, a grower from Ritzville and a Washington Grain Commissioner, is named WAWG member of the year. Jeffrey Shawver, a grower from Franklin County, wraps up his year as WAWG president, handing the gavel over to Ryan Poe, a grower from Grant County. Howard McDonald of Douglas County moves up to vice president, and Andy Juris of Klickitat County steps into the secretary/treasurer position.

Wheat growers also welcome two new Washington wheat ambassadors for the upcoming year. High school seniors Spencer Miller of Ritzville and Gunnar Aune of LaCrosse give short presentations at the state’s awards banquet at the convention. For the next year, Miller and Aune will learn how WAWG advocates for the industry and will take part in the association’s annual trip to Olympia to meet with legislators.

WAWG’s leadership team attends the fall conference of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) in Sante Fe, N.M., to take part in committee meetings and discuss national issues.

Growers learn that thanks to high yields, Eastern Washington wheat growers who elected the ARC-County option will not be receiving a payment for their 2018 wheat crop.

December 2019

After several years of one-year extensions, the first CRP general sign-up under the 2018 Farm Bill—and the first general sign-up since 2015—finally arrives. According to FSA records, there are nearly 190,000 acres expiring in Washington in 2019, with another 195,000 expiring next year. The general sign-up runs through Feb. 28, 2020.

However, there’s some bad news for Douglas County CRP acres. Because of a rule change in the 2018 Farm Bill, the county’s SAFE acres are no longer exempt from counting towards the county’s CRP acreage limit, which puts the county roughly 43,800 acres over their cap. That means farmers in that area will not be able to participate in this general sign-up. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and FSA state leaders put their heads together and come up with a way to save some, but not all of those acres under NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

The U.S. House of Representatives passes the USMCA with bipartisan support by a vote of 385 to 41. The bill now heads to the Senate. 

The much-anticipated draft report on breaching the lower Snake River dams, commissioned by the governor’s office, is finally released for public comment. Hennings urges growers and industry stakeholders to submit comments, saying “…we believe this study was an unnecessary duplication of the ongoing federal environmental impact statement process and that the $750,000 appropriated for the study would have been better used elsewhere. We are appreciative that the study consultants reached out to stakeholders on the east side of the state, because it is that population that will have to shoulder the impacts if the dams are breached.” The report doesn’t make any recommendations on whether or not the dams should be breached, only summarizing the views of those who were interviewed.

January 2020

The U.S. Senate passes the USMCA by a vote of 89 to 10. Less than two weeks later, the president signs the agreement into law. Wheat growers across the nation heave a sigh of relief, but there’s more good trade news on the horizon…

… When the U.S. and China sign Phase One of a trade agreement. China agrees to purchase and import, on average, at least $40 billion of U.S. food, ag and seafood products annually over the next two years. China also agrees to implement a transparent, science- and risk-based regulatory process for the evaluation and authorization of products of agricultural biotechnology and to abide by its current WTO obligations on the transparency of its domestic support measures and wheat, corn and rice tariff-rate quotas.

With Democrats in control in both the state House and Senate, carbon regulation, cap and trade and a capital gains tax are all expected to be on the radar for the 2020 Legislative Session. In this 60-day “short session,” legislators’ main task will be to pass supplemental budgets for the operating, transportation and capital budgets. The supplemental budgets are generally minor adjustments to the biennial budgets (passed in the 2019 “long session”) based on updated spending and revenue information.

WAWG officers and leaders’ first major advocacy trip in 2020 to Washington, D.C., coincides with NAWG’s winter conference. While on the Hill, wheat growers meet with almost every member of the state’s federal delegation or their legislative aides. They also meet with officials at NRCS, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the agency responsible for maintaining the Columbia-Snake River System), FSA, the Risk Management Agency and the National Agricultural Statistics Service. Priorities include supporting the 2020 full reauthorization of the federal Grain Standards Act; supporting timely implementation of the 2018 Farm Bill; supporting keeping the lower Snake River dams intact; supporting funding to maintain and improve Washington road, river and rail systems; and evaluating changes to conservation programs within the 2018 Farm Bill.

More than 30 growers and industry stakeholders meet with 60 legislators and agency staff during a busy but successful 2020 Olympia Days trip. WAWG’s top issues include preserving the lower Snake River dams, carbon regulations and transportation funding, especially for the short-line rails. 

While in Olympia meeting with legislators, WAWG lobbyist Diana Carlen, WAWG President Ryan Poe and WAWG Past President Marci Green testify during a House Rural Development, Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee public hearing in support of a bill that would compensate growers if the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) terminates a lease early under their higher and better use clause. The bill, which is supported by DNR, ultimately fails to pass the Senate Ag Committee due to a misunderstanding, but the sponsor, Rep. Chris Corry (R-Yakima), is determined to bring it back next year.

The Agricultural Marketing and Management Organization (AMMO), in conjunction with Washington State University Extension, sponsors three farm bill education workshops this month to help growers understand the differences (and their options) between ARC and PLC. More than 155 growers and landlords brave snowy weather to attend the sessions. The takeaway is that the PLC program looks to be the most attractive option for the next two years for most growers.

An independent evaluation commissioned by PNWA determines that the removal of four lower Snake River dams would cost the U.S. more than $2.3 billion over the next 30 years; lead to significant additional carbon emissions that contribute to climate change; and jeopardize health, safety and livelihoods in already economically fragile local and regional economies.

Mitchell Powers becomes the newest member of the WAWG state board. He is the sixth generation on his family’s dryland wheat farm and cattle ranch near Bickleton in Klickitat County.

At the beginning of the month, the world starts hearing reports out of Wuhan, China, about a new, highly contagious virus that causes pneumonia-like symptoms. The first U.S. case of COVID-19 is confirmed in Washington state by the middle of the month. On. Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declares the outbreak a global public health emergency as more than 9,000 cases are reported worldwide. Travel restrictions from China to the U.S. are put in place.

February 2020

AMMO sponsors three education workshops this month, covering a diverse set of topics. Lesley Kelly, co-founder of Do More Agriculture, a nonprofit organization, addresses the general well being of farmers and provide tips to help farmers address physical and mental health stress. Eric Snodgrass, an atmospheric scientist for Nutrien Ag Solutions, provides a weather update that focuses on how high-impact weather events influence global agriculture productivity. Kevin Duling, the founder of KD Investors, looks at world supply and demand for wheat, especially soft white wheat, and discusses what marketing tools may best fit each situation. Lastly, QuickBooks expert Cassi Johnson discusses budgeting, payroll, reconciling and creating reports in QuickBooks to help producers better navigate the software and realize its full potential.

WAWG participates in the Spokane Ag Expo where visitors spin a wheel to answer a wheat-related trivia question and are entered to win a television. The winner of the television is Meghan Kulm of Lind, Wash. 

Also at the Spokane Ag Expo, Spokane County wheat grower and WAWG past president Marci Green is awarded the Excellence in Ag Award for her contribution to agriculture in the Inland Northwest.

A long-term care center on the west side of Washington state becomes a hotspot of COVID-19 cases. Gov. Jay Inslee declares a state of emergency.

The Columbia River System Operations draft environment impact statement (EIS) is released by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Power Administration and the Bureau of Reclamation. To the relief of the industry, it rejects breaching the four lower Snake River dams as the best alternative to restoring endangered salmon runs, instead, arguing that modest changes to the Columbia River System would increase salmon survival while providing the least impact to electrical generation, transportation, greenhouse gas emissions and farmers’ production costs. WAWG encourages growers to leave comments on the draft EIS.

March 2020

The 2020 Legislative Session comes to a close as legislators pass budgets in the final days that cut planned spending in order to set money aside to deal with COVID-19. In the end, cap and trade legislation and a low carbon fuel standard fail to gain enough traction to make it to the governor’s desk. 

At the beginning of the month, thanks to COVID-19, professional sports organizations suspend the rest of their seasons or cancel tournaments. A few weeks later, Gov. Inslee bans gatherings of more than 250 people then lowers the limit to no more than 50 people. All K-12 schools are closed, and churches, restaurants and bars are closed for sit-down service. On March 23, the governor announces a statewide stay-at-home order to last for at least two weeks, except those involved in “essential services,” including agriculture. Two days later, all state parks and state lands are closed. These actions are repeated in nearly all 50 states. Flour flies off the shelves as people start baking more at home, unemployment spikes and millions get comfortable staying six feet away from everybody else. Meanwhile, farmers continue preparing for spring planting.

WAWG complies with the state’s stay-at-home order by closing the office doors and having the staff work remotely from home.

Congress passes a $2 trillion stimulus package that provides credit for struggling industries, a boost to unemployment benefits and direct payments to Americans.

WAWG conducts a survey to understand the impacts members are seeing due to COVID-19 and the social distancing measures currently in place. Eighty percent of wheat growers are moderately to highly concerned. Possible disruptions to labor appear to be the largest concern at this point, with 59 percent of respondents saying they’ve had no issues or disruptions with USDA offices and programs.

USDA announces they are accepting more than 3.4 million acres into CRP as a result of the general sign-up. In Washington state, more than 283,000 acres were offered with 277,533 accepted, a 98 percent acceptance rate.

April 2020

On April 2, the stay-at-home order is extended through at least May 4.

Wheat farmers throughout Eastern Washington are smack in the middle of spring fieldwork. It’s beginning to look very dry in the central part of the state.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announces the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP), a $19 billion relief program that will provide critical support to farmers and ranchers, maintains the integrity of the U.S. food supply chain and ensures every American continues to receive and have access to the food they need. WAWG and NAWG start digging into the details to figure out how CFAP will work for wheat farmers.

WAWG submits comments on the Columbia River System Operations draft EIS, strongly supporting the preferred alternative and rejecting any notion of breaching the lower Snake River dams.

AMMO pairs with NRCS to host an online webinar that covers changes being implemented at the agency in response to the 2018 Farm Bill. 

May 2020

WAWG holds its first state board meeting via Zoom since the stay-at-home orders were put in place. Leaders discuss what’s been happening and review the association’s proposed 2020/21 budget.

WSU cancels all crop variety testing tours and field days. Festivals and celebrations across Eastern Washington are also canceled as social-distancing measures remain in effect.

Gov. Inslee lays out a plan to slowly start reopening the state, county by county, based on the number of new COVID-19 cases in each area. People are asked to wear a mask in public and to practice social distancing. Large gatherings are still prohibited.

USDA finally releases its rules for CFAP eligibility. Three classes of wheat—soft red winter, hard red winter and white wheat—have been deemed not eligible. Commodities had to have experienced a 5 percent or greater price decline during two, five-day periods from mid-January to mid-April. WAWG and NAWG immediately point out that while those classes of wheat didn’t show a five percent decline when looking at only those two time periods, over the entire time frame, they saw declines of between 8.5 and 10 percent. The organizations argue that USDA should take price volatility across the entire January to April time frame into account.

Kevin Gaffney, Wheat Life’s long-time ad sales manager, retires after 30 years contributing to the magazine, beginning as a freelance writer. Lance Marshall, from Clarkston, Wash., will take his place.

Growers in Benton and Klickitat counties watch their fields continue to dry up as rainfall in that region remains far below normal.

June 2020

WAWG submits comments to USDA arguing that all classes of wheat should be eligible for CFAP.

In it’s final state board meeting before the summer break, WAWG leaders report, via Zoom, that the 2020 crop is doing well in most counties, pass a 2020/21 budget and discuss why white wheat wasn’t eligible for CFAP.

For the first time ever, Wheat College goes online. Approximately 50 growers log into Zoom to listen to Peter Johnson, a Canadian agronomist, talk about managing wheat for high yields.

As of mid-June, it’s estimated that nearly 8 million people worldwide have been infected with COVID-19 and nearly 450,000 have died.