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Celia VanHollebeke (9 months old) enjoys her first handfuls of dirt while visiting her grandfather, Butch VanHollebeke, at his farm in Kahlotus.
Photo taken by Amy VanHollebeke

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FARMER'S TOOLBOX

A spoonful of sugar helps medicine go down

A new Spokane Conservation District program aims to take some of the sting out of buffers

February 2017
By Trista Crossley


For many producers, buffers are a foul-tasting medicine they have to swallow in order to protect water quality. One group is hoping that a spoonful of sugar makes the practice go down a little easier.

In November, the Spokane Conservation District (SCD) began accepting applications for their new commodity buffer program, which aims to compensate producers for the value of the crops the buffers displace. The idea was hatched several years ago when employees of the SCD were meeting with other conservation districts and producers about how to work with regulatory agencies on the practices producers were being asked to implement.

“Buffers are the big talk out there, so we had been brainstorming, and we came up with this concept of needing to pay the producers what the value of that land truly is,” explained Ty Meyer, SCD ag manager. “For a regulatory agency or anyone else to ask producers to set aside their most productive ground when prices are low is a very tough thing.” See more


POLICY

Retirement comes calling

After more than seven years, FSA's Judy Olson steps down

February 2017
By Trista Crossley


For the Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) Washington state office, January brought more than just a new year. It brought a vacancy in the top spot as Judy Olson, state executive director since 2009, retired.

Olson is well known to the farmers of the Evergreen State, especially wheat farmers. Before her time at FSA, she was the Eastern Washington director for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) for more than a decade. Before that, she served as president of the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG), and before that, she was the first female president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) in 1990/91. But even before all those titles, she was a Whitman County farm girl who wanted nothing more than to raise crops.

“Agriculture has been my whole life. I’m a fourth-generation farmer myself. Some of the oldest memories I have are walking out across the fields in February and March with my dad to see the condition of the winter wheat,” she said. “I remember jumping across erosion ditches that were part of the wheat-fallow rotation we had and hearing him talk about how bad those were. As the wheat grew bigger and we did the spring planting of crops, I could hardly wait to get home from school, change into pants and see if I could ride a tractor. Agriculture is in my blood.” See more


POLICY

Covering crop insurance

Convention panel discusses threats to farmers' safety nets

January 2017
By Trista Crossley


Folklore says things happen in threes, so perhaps its no surprise that an expert in defending crop insurance has identified three areas where the program is likely to come under fire.

Tara Smith, vice president of federal affairs with Michael Torrey & Associates, a governmental affairs firm in Washington, D.C., that represents the crop insurance and reinsurance bureau, said private sector delivery, means testing and cuts to the premium discount are the areas she expects to see targeted in the coming year.

“I think as we look at the budget process and the appropriations process next year, we see three big buckets where you could end up seeing attacks to crop insurance, because, for better or worse, this isn’t our first rodeo. We’ve seen these attacks on crop insurance in the past, so we sort of know where those hits are going to come,” she explained. See more


POLICY

The ties that bind

Eastern Washington legislator works to defend small businesses, agriculture

January 2017
By Trista Crossley


Although Washington Sen. Judy Warnick isn’t primarily a producer, she has deep ties to the agricultural industry, and she’s known throughout the state as a stalwart champion of farmers.

Warnick (R-Moses Lake) first entered public service in 2007 when she was elected as a state representative for the 13th District. In 2014, she ran to fill the state senate position being vacated by Janéa Holmquist Newbry. Warnick easily won the seat with more than 80 percent of the vote. The 13th District includes all or parts of Grant, Kittitas, Lincoln and Yakima counties. Warnick and her husband, Roy, own a small business in Moses Lake, and it was that business, she said, that propelled her to first run for office.

“A lot of regulatory issues that the government decides impact our small businesses. That was the first thing that got me interested in state government and going over to Olympia to advocate for small businesses,” she explained. “Since I’ve been there, I’ve realized how the ag community is really impacted as well. We are in need of legislators that understand what farming is all about.”

Warnick’s ties to Washington agriculture began with her maternal great-grandparents who homesteaded in the late 1800s near Edwall. That farm remained in the family until the 1980s, and Warnick, herself, grew up on a small farm in Deer Park. Besides their small business, the Warnicks also own a farm in Grant County that they lease out. That background, Warnick said, gives her a connection to agriculture. She referenced a drawing she has hanging in her office of her uncles bringing in grain in horse-drawn wagons in the 1920s. See more


RESEARCH

The down low on GMOs

Examining some of the science behind genetic engineering

December 2016
By Trista Crossley

Can you pick out which of these plants are genetically modified according to the definition used by U.S. regulatory agencies?

1) Grapefruit mutagenized with thermal neutrons;

2) The fusion of cells from two different plant species to generate a hybrid with both sets of chromosomes;

3) Doubling the number of chromosomes in a cell/species; or

4) Reduced expression of a specific gene in a species through silencing.

Despite all four sounding like something that would happen through genetic modification (GM or GMO for genetically modified organism), only the last one would actually fall under the definition of a GM plant according to most U.S. regulatory agencies (and to much of the public as well). The other three options are classified as conventional breeding techniques despite the fact that in breeding, conventional or otherwise, DNA is being modified. That idea was one of the main points of the presentation given by Joseph Kuhl, a plant molecular biologist from the University of Idaho, at the 2016 Tri-State Grain Growers Convention last month.

Kuhl’s presentation, “The Dilemma: The Science behind GMOs,” focused on what GM crops are and how they fit with conventionally bred crops. Among other topics, he talked about different types of genetic engineering, common ways researchers insert DNA into cells and his belief that GM products are misunderstood.

“One point I really want to make is that GMO plants and animals are not defined by what they are or what traits they carry, they are defined by the process through which they are generated. It is the method of breeding that is used to generate them that has given rise to this term GMO,” he said. See more


POLICY

Crop insurance fight goes on

WAWG joins with Oregon, Idaho grower organizations, industry supporters and legislators to ask RMA to waive reporting rule in some low falling number cases

November 2016
By Trista Crossley


For many producers, finding out they had low falling number wheat was only the first punch in a double whammy. The second blow landed when they brought their elevator receipts to their crop insurance agents. It turns out that those falling number discounts from the elevators were going to be counted against growers’ actual production history, even if no crop insurance claim was made.

“Things are tough in the wheat industry right now,” said Michelle Hennings, Washington Association of Wheat Growers’ (WAWG) executive director. “With the price of wheat so low, many producers are already struggling to stay afloat. Then you add falling number (FN) discounts on top of low prices, plus getting dinged at the crop insurance level, and it hurts. For some farmers, the crop insurance issue might be the last straw because with the possibility of a declining actual production history (APH) from year to year, crop insurance becomes a less effective risk management tool.” See more


RMA explains falling number policy

Wheat Life reached out to the Risk Management Agency (RMA) to help clarify questions regarding RMA’s falling number policy. The questions and RMA’s answers are below. See More


FARMER'S TOOLBOX

LEASE LETDOWN

DNR terminates farmers' contracts early in wake of planned irrigation project

October 2016
By Trista Crossley


For many farmers in Benton County, the land they lease from the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is a vital part of their business plan. So when a group of five dryland wheat farmers in the Horse Heaven Hills were informed that their leases were being terminated early to make way for a large irrigated project, they felt like the proverbial rug had been pulled out from under them.

David Moon is the farm manager for G&D Moon Partnerships. He and his uncle, George, started hearing rumors about a planned DNR irrigation project in his area about six years ago, right after he renewed his 10-year leases on 1,200 acres of DNR ground. Moon, a 4th generation farmer, said his family has grown dryland wheat on these sections for more than 30 years. He said after those initial rumblings, he didn’t hear anything until last year when word on the street was DNR wasn’t allowing growers to renew Conservation Reserve Program contracts. See more


FARMER'S TOOLBOX

2016's harvest in photos

We spent time this summer traveling throughout Eastern Washington documenting the 2016 harvest season. Here's some of the photos we took:


See more photos from the 2016 harvest in Eastern Washington.


POLICY

A different perspective

The Washington Policy Center brings a credible, free-market approach to policy issues

August/September 2016

When it comes to agriculture and food, even the most scientifically solid argument can be choked by an emotional response to the messenger. Fortunately, Washington state’s farmers and ranchers just got a heaping spoonful of good fortune.

The Washington Policy Center (WPC), regarded by the public, legislators, stakeholders and the media as an organization that can be relied on to research and report on issues from a nonbiased, fact-based standpoint, recently created a position to investigate Washington’s agricultural issues and policies. The agricultural research arm joins six other key areas of research focus including education, environment, government reform, health care, small business and transportation. Chris Cargill, WPC’s Eastern Washington director, took a moment to answer some questions about WPC’s mission and its new ag position. See more


FARMER'S TOOLBOX

Conservatively speaking

The latest CRP general sign-up saw a 40 percent drop in Washington state's acceptance rate. What happened?

August/September 2016
By Trista Crossley


For some Eastern Washington producers, the latest conservation sign-up left them holding dust instead of a new contract.

In the past few years, Washington state has averaged a Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) acceptance rate of about 90 percent, but for the 2016 general sign-up, that rate plummeted to approximately 50 percent. In fact, several counties had no acres accepted. The pain was felt across the U.S., where the average acceptance rate was 23 percent. According to the Farm Service Agency (FSA), which administers CRP, Washington state had the highest number of acres accepted at 116,000. The next highest state was Colorado with 48,000 acres accepted.

“I think there are areas in the state that have natural resource concerns and need CRP in their business plan,” said Nicole Berg, Washington Association of Wheat Growers’ Natural Resource Committee chair. “So when a county doesn’t get anything in CRP, especially when it’s land that’s been in CRP before, I think we really need to take a step back at the state level and figure out a way to get this conservation tool back into those farmers’ toolboxes.”

For Berg, one of her biggest concerns is land that is highly erodible and hard to grow crops on didn’t get accepted into the program.

“CRP did a lot for air and water quality and to take that tool away is not in the best interests of Washington state,” she explained. “That those lands didn’t get back in with a resource issue like that gives me great concern.” See more


FARMER'S TOOLBOX

Finding a way to farm

A letter, luck and some strategic planning helped Harrington couple

July 2016
By Trista Crossley


Josh Steward didn’t know what to expect when he wrote the letter as a sophomore in college. All he knew was that he wanted to farm, and the letter seemed like a place to start.

“At the beginning of my freshman year in college, I tried some different routes (to get into farming) but they didn’t work out,” he explained. “I thought, well, I have nothing to lose, so I wrote a letter to Jim Els explaining our situation.”

The situation was that Josh, who grew up in Odessa, Wash., and Katie (his future wife), who grew up in Harrington, Wash., both came from families involved in dryland wheat farming, but neither one of them were in a position to inherit land or join a family operation. Josh knew of Jim Els, a farmer outside Harrington, who was getting close to retirement and knew there was some question whether the Els’ children were interested in taking over the farm.

“Jim wrote back saying he still had a couple years left,” Josh said, adding that at the time, wheat was selling for $15 a bushel and farmers were generally making enough money to make farming worthwhile. “But there was some positive information in his response that made us think he might consider it someday. Then in 2010, he called and actually offered to lease his land to us.” See more


RESEARCH

Growers get high marks

A large part of a successful variety trial is the location of the test plots

June 2016
By Trista Crossley


Choosing which new wheat varieties to test is only part of the recipe for a successful variety testing program. The other part is choosing where to test them, and for that, growers play a central role.

“I couldn’t do this without them, and I’m grateful for their cooperation,” said Ryan Higginbotham, Washington State University (WSU) Extension specialist who runs the Cereal Variety Testing Program. “The variety testing plot program really revolves around farmers being willing to host (test plots) and working with us to find a good trial site. They really play an important role in what we are trying to do.”

Higginbotham works with 30 growers who host, among other crops, winter and spring wheat trials on their land, covering all the rainfall zones in Eastern Washington. He’s got some landowners who’ve hosted a test plot for more than half a decade, as well as a few who are hosting for the first time. His aim, he said, is to make hosting a test plot “business as usual for the farmer.” See more


FARMER'S TOOLBOX

Dollar Signs

Public vs. private financing is a point of contention for a group of irrigators in the Odessa Subarea

June 2016
By Trista Crossley


Although the Columbia Basin Project was conceived as a public works program, a group of landowners is advocating the use of private funds in the latest project.

The Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association (CSRIA) has had private financing in place since 2014 to begin building pumps and pipelines that will bring surface water from the East Low Canal (ELC) to current deep well irrigators in the Odessa Subarea. The entity responsible for the construction and maintenance of the project, the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District (ECBID), however, maintains that this is a public project and should be financed with public money. The irrigation district plans to use 30-year tax exempt municipal revenue bonds for financing.

“We’ll build our own pipelines, with our own capital,” said Darryll Olsen, a CSRIA board representative. “We believe you have to bring 21st century water resource management to bear on this problem just like you would anywhere else, and that means private sector financing.” See more


POLICY

Agriculture beginning to plan now for 2018 Farm Bill

June 2016
By Trista Crossley


Battle scars from the last farm bill debate have just barely faded, but according to industry representatives, it’s already time for agriculture to start thinking about the next farm bill, due in 2018.

“It didn’t seem like agriculture had a loud enough voice in negotiations on the last farm bill,” explained Michelle Hennings, executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG). “We need to bring all the commodities together and figure out what agriculture needs for the next one, which is right around the corner. We need to start telling our story now and educating decision makers in order to defend what we currently have and fight for any changes that should be made.” See more


POLICY

Drift Details

Ag group hopes to change the conversation about pesticide applications in Washington state

May 2016
By Trista Crossley


For the past few years, the pesticide application conversation going on in Olympia has been drifting in the wrong direction, but a group of agricultural stakeholders is making plans to put it back on course.

“The last three years, the House committee on health care has held work sessions on pesticide drift, and every time, the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) gets up and says the number of drift incidents that are exposing people to pesticides is not decreasing. This year, legislators came to me and said ‘you aren’t fixing your problem. You’d better fix it or we will fix it for you,’” explained Heather Hansen, executive director of Washington Friends of Farms and Forests (WFFF). “That’s the conversation we need to change.” See more


FARMER'S TOOLBOX

What the growers have to say about the plan to replace groundwater with surface water in the Odessa Subarea

Brad Arlt

Despite an estimated cost of $250/acre, Brad Arlt and his brother-in-law, DeWayne Kagele, are leaning towards accepting a water contract when surface water becomes available to their 2,700 acres of irrigated ground 20 miles east of Moses Lake. They are counting on being able to grow more high-value crops to offset the water costs.

“While we are okay with that price, it’s going to be pretty tough to manage,” Arlt said. “We are between a rock and a hard place. We need water, and electricity prices are sky high. We can’t afford to pay electricity on our deep wells anymore.” See more


FARMER'S TOOLBOX

Sticker shock?

Odessa Subarea groundwater replacement project moves forward, but some growers worry that the cost of water is too high

April 2016
By Trista Crossley


As progress on the Odessa Subarea groundwater replacement project flows forward and water contracts are being made available, some growers have expressed concern over high assessment fees. But figuring out how high is too high, like beauty, might be based on the eye of the beholder.

The Odessa Subarea straddles portions of Lincoln, Adams and Franklin counties in central Washington. The area’s main economic activity is agriculture—both irrigated and dryland—and food processing with an annual economic value estimated at close to a billion dollars. The problem is much of that irrigated agriculture relies on deep wells that tap into the Odessa Aquifer. Many communities within the area also rely on the aquifer for drinking water, but the aquifer has been drained to the point where wells are failing and what water is left has high sodium concentrations. Some studies estimate that at the current rate of decline, if no action is taken, 35 percent of the wells in the subarea could cease production by 2020. The state and federally approved solution is to expand the Columbia Basin Project’s (CBP) network of canals and pumps to supply surface water to groundwater-irrigated acres of the Odessa subarea that are within the CBP’s boundaries.

Work on the project began in earnest in 2006 when the Washington State Legislature directed the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) to find alternatives to groundwater in the Odessa Subarea. Ecology partnered with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), which administers the CBP and has final say over projects using CBP water and infrastructure, to develop a plan that delivers the most surface water to as many acres as possible in the most cost-effective manner. In 2013, Reclamation decided on an $800 million plan that uses Columbia River water pumped into Banks Lake to provide surface water to approximately 70,000 acres north and south of I-90 by expanding the East Low Canal and installing additional pumps and pipeline. The irrigation district most affected by the project, the East Columbia Basin Irrigation District (ECBID), took on the task of implementing the project. See more


FARMER'S TOOLBOX

Bidding bugs goodbye

State commission helps minor crops deal with pests, register pesticides

March 2016
By Trista Crossley


There’s another state entity in Washington that directs its efforts to putting out fires, only instead of flames, these fires are made of pests.

The Washington State Commission on Pesticide Registration (WSCPR) was created through legislation in 1995 as a response to the tightening of pesticide registration requirements in the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act Amendments of 1988, which required that all pesticides had to be reregistered and meet new safety standards. Rather than spend the time and money to maintain those pesticide registrations, many companies instead elected to drop them, especially for limited-use pesticides and products intended for minor crops. WSCPR filled that gap, funding the research and studies necessary to reregister limited-use pesticides for use in Washington state.

“Washington is an intensely minor cropping state, third in the nation after California and Florida,” explained Alan Schreiber, WSCPR’s administrator since 1995. In fact, minor-use crops such as cranberries, spinach, lentils and chickpeas comprise more than half of Washington agriculture, even though they are produced on a limited number of acres. In 1999, the state legislature expanded WSCPR’s mission beyond pesticide registration to tackling any kind of problem that involved pests.

“We put out pest management fires,” Schreiber said. “If a crop has an unmet pest management need, we could help out. We can figure out a research solution. We can line up a lab, a scientist.” See more


POLICY

DROUGHT

State agency attempts to put a price tag on 2015 water shortage

March 2016
By Trista Crossley


A recently released report from the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) is attempting to put a price tag on how much last summer’s drought cost farmers.

Back in the spring of 2015, WSDA calculated that the drought’s worst-case scenario could cost the state $1.2 billion, a number touted by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee when he made a statewide declaration of drought in May. At that point, about one-fifth of the state’s rivers and streams were at record lows, the snowpack was nonexistent, and many areas of the state were already experiencing hotter-than-normal temperatures. By the last week of August, at the peak of the drought, 85 percent of the state was categorized as being in “extreme drought.” To add fuel to the fire, the state was experiencing wildfires on a historic scale, and exports were still recovering from a midwinter port slowdown. Agriculture, it seemed, was taking hits from all sides, and except for WSDA’s worst-case scenario estimate, the true impact of the drought was still up in the air. See more


POLICY

WSDA reworks pesticide rules

Stakeholder workgroup offers advice on potential changes

February 2016
By Trista Crossley


Editor’s note: Throughout this article, we use the term “pesticide” to include herbicides.

Rules and regulations seem to be the bane of growers, so when the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) announced they were planning on consolidating and simplifying the use-restricted pesticide rules, stakeholders took notice.

Joel Kangiser, policy assistant in the WSDA’s Pesticide Management Division, said the current rules are complex, confusing and out of date. In fact, some sections are so out of date that applicators can’t follow a pesticide label and still be in compliance with the rules. So even though the department hasn’t seen an uptick in problems or incidents involving use-restricted pesticides and sensitive crops, they’ve decided the time is ripe to review current regulations. See more


FARMER'S TOOLBOX

Will agriculture save the planet before it destroys it?

At the 2015 Tri-State Grain Growers Convention, Intrexon's Jack Bobo asked a question that had growers buzzing

January 2016
By Trista Crossley


Jack Bobo started and ended his 2015 Tri-State Grain Growers Convention speech somewhat provocatively.

Bobo is a senior vice president at Intrexon, a synthetic biotechnology company that owns, among others, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, which is the company behind the nonbrowning, GMO Arctic Apple, and AquaBounty Technologies, which raises GMO salmon. He began his speech by asking the question, can agriculture save the planet before it destroys it? He ended his speech with this statement:

“The next 35 years are not just the most important 35 years there have ever been in the history of agriculture…They are the most important 35 years there will ever be in the history of agriculture, and that’s why now matters.” See more


POLICY

A familiar face

Long-time political activist Mary Dye takes on a new role

January 2015
By Trista Crossley


Mary Dye might be (relatively) new to the Washington State Legislature, but with more than 20 years of political activism behind her, she’s already a name to be reckoned with in most Eastern Washington GOP circles.

Dye was appointed to fill Susan Fagan’s 9th District House seat last May and was re-elected in November’s general election.

From the time she was young, growing up in southeast Idaho, Dye said she’s loved all things agriculture. After graduating from the University of Idaho with an agronomy degree, Dye spent several years in Thailand with the Peace Corp before landing back in the Pacific Northwest as a fieldman for a crop development company. It was during this time she met her husband, Roger Dye, and became part of his family’s wheat farm near Pomeroy.

“They knew I was going to stick around when we had his and hers tractors. For a wedding present, he got me a new Morris HR 36 Culti-Weeder,” Dye said, laughing. See more