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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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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.

In the fall of 2015, the Washington State Department of Ecology (Ecology) approached WSDA and asked them if they would be willing to do an assessment of the drought’s impact. Kelly McLain, a senior natural resource scientist with the WSDA who was the lead author on the study, said her agency has a dual mission to protect the state’s natural resources while still promoting and supporting agriculture.

“We don’t have a regulatory dog in the fight when it comes to drought,” she explained. “We have a unique relationship with growers where we can reach out and get data from irrigation districts and commodity groups, relationships that many other agencies don’t have.”

Because much of the final data wouldn’t be available for many more months, WSDA decided to release an interim report at the end of December, giving Ecology and other agencies something they could present to the legislature if necessary. A final report will be released at the end of 2016.

Agriculture in Washington state is a pretty big deal. It contributes more than 160,000 jobs and averages 13 percent of the state’s total economic profile. There are more than 300 crops grown throughout the state—second only to California—that are exported around the world. In 2013, crop production value exceeded $10 billion, while food processing brought in another $15 billion.

“The ripple effect of drought in agriculture is huge,” McLain said. “Other agencies didn’t understand why we didn’t have all the data yet. They said, ‘If apple harvest is done, why can’t you get apple numbers?’ Well, harvest is only one part of the equation. Farmers will be marketing those apples until May. We won’t know the final impact until later. The final report will be much more detailed, much bigger in scope with many more numbers.”

McLain said she expects WSDA and other agencies to use the final report to better plan and prioritize projects in the future. The data should allow better estimates of financial needs and more effective drought planning. It will also help clarify what “drought mitigation” might look like in different crops.

“Is drought mitigation simply making more water available?” she asked. “Is it shade cloth to keep fruit from getting burned? Is there work we need to do with the federal farm bill to have more protection? This study will help policy staff and decisions makers at all agencies have a better feel for what’s needed.”

WSDA collected the data by meeting with various state commodity groups to record yield and quality information. They also worked with irrigation districts and did windshield field-based surveys. Price data was generally collected from the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). Finally, the agency asked growers to complete an online survey.

The interim report was limited to four major commodity groupings: fruit, field crops, animal feed crops and dryland crops. It was divided into four major regions: western, central, Columbia Basin and eastern. Because data is not yet available, livestock, dairy and nursery products were not included. In addition, actual loss estimates were only available for several specific commodities, including wheat, apples, blueberries and red raspberries. McLain said the final report will include numbers for most of the other 300 crops grown in Washington. She said the most surprising thing about the results of the study was the fact that the drought was felt in every corner of the state.

“Western Washington and Eastern Washington were equally impacted on every acre, not on dollars, but on every acre,” she explained. “That’s not something that people are used to. This was a statewide drought, not a regional drought, and that shows in the data.”

The numbers

Wheat. As most dryland farmers know, 2015 was the second drought year in a row. According to the report, the final harvest for all wheat crops in the state in 2015 was 111,540,000 bushels, 22 percent below the reported five-year average of 142,237,000. Using NASS’s five-year price average of $6.92 per bushel, the estimated known loss at this time is approximately $212.4 million. Besides lower yield, however, the 2015 crop was plagued by heat-shriveled kernels and high protein levels which can affect the marketability of the crop.

Apples. Apples are the number one crop in Washington with 180,000 acres and a 2013 crop value of $2.19 billion. Late summer harvest totals were 118 million boxes, down 7 million boxes from early summer harvest estimates. Using a 2014 marketing year average price of $.309 per pound (one box equals 40 lbs), those missing 7 million boxes represent an estimated loss of $86.52 million.

Blueberries. The 2014 crop value of Washington’s blueberry harvest was $112 million. According to growers, the drought impacted yield, size and quality of their berries. Preharvest estimates were 112 million pounds; final harvest totals were 104 million pounds. Using NASS’s five-year price average, the industry lost approximately $10.56 million.

Red Raspberries. Most of the red raspberry acreage is located in Skagit and Whatcom counties, and growers there reported both size and quality impacts from the drought and extreme heat. Based on a 26 percent crop loss at an average price of $.735 per pound, the industry lost approximately $13.9 million.

Although both crops were harvested earlier than normal, cherries and pears reported few yield impacts due to the drought.

Survey results

The online survey was a chance for WSDA to reach out beyond the commodity groups and hear from individual growers. McLain said they had more than 450 growers take the survey with all parts of the state well represented.

“Commodity groups are great for getting the average,” she said. “But we were hoping that if we reached out to growers, they could tell us how the drought and heat impacted them personally.”

In the survey, 28 percent of respondents provided information about dryland crops, which included wheat, barley, peas and lentils. Dryland crops showed the greatest losses with more than 76 percent of respondents reporting at least a 26 percent reduction in yield due to drought and extreme heat.

Sixty-four percent of all respondents agreed that the drought or high temperatures impacted the quality or the marketability of their crop.

The online survey also asked growers about the total economic impact of the 2015 drought. The majority of respondents estimated that the drought would cost them at least $10,000 with some estimating losses of more than $200,000.

The survey is still available at surveymonkey.com/r/2015drought, and WSDA will continue to pull data out every couple of months. McLain said they are considering doing a separate survey specifically for livestock and dairy. The interim report is available on WSDA’s website at agr.wa.gov/FP/Pubs/docs/104-495InterimDroughtReport2015.pdf

“Hopefully, the 2015 drought is far behind us,” McLain said. “If the snowpack holds, we won’t have a repeat of last year’s drought, but 2015 will still have drought impacts. Drought is not a one-year thing. There are ripple effects on yield and quality that we will still feel on the 2016 crop. That’s an important message to get out.”