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FARMER'S TOOLBOX

UNHARVESTED

Fall's wet, cool weather threatened to leave crops in the field

November 2019
By Trista Crossley


In “normal” years, by mid-October, most of Eastern Washington’s wheat has been harvested, and growers are wrapping up winter wheat seeding. Unfortunately, this year is anything but normal.

As October rolled around, there were reports of thousands of acres of spring wheat and chickpeas (also called garbanzo beans or garbs) still to be harvested across Eastern Washington, especially in the Palouse region. The culprit is moisture. Thanks to a cooler summer and regular rain showers that began in August and extended through October—not to mention an early October snow storm that set snowfall records at the Spokane, Wash., airport—the opportunities for wheat, especially spring wheat, and garbanzo beans (garbs) to reach the required level of dryness to be harvested were scattered and unpredictable.

At the beginning of October, Clint Myers, a grower from south Spokane County, was sitting on nearly 500 acres of spring wheat that was still too wet to harvest.

“We just haven’t had a real hot summer. August was pretty cool. There was a stretch of about 10 days where it was kind of hot, barely into the 90s. Then it cooled down, and September was unseasonably cool the whole month. With those cool temperatures, it’s hard for crops to mature and ripen. We go about every three or four days and catch a shower that slows it down,” he said. “The tough deal now is that local co-ops and elevators are trying to work with growers. They’ve raised the (acceptable) moisture levels from 12.5 percent up to 14 percent, but there’s still wheat out there wetter than that.”

Even for growers who were able to get their wheat harvested, the cool, wet weather raised the likelihood of quality issues.

“We are fortunate enough that we have home storage with aeration,” Myers said. “We can put the wetter wheat in storage, turn on the fans and dry it down. It still might have sprout and falling numbers issues, but at least we can get it dried to a level the elevator will take. Unfortunately, many growers don’t have any home storage. They have wheat or garbs that need to be cut, but even if they can cut it, there’s no one to take it.”

A similar situation exists with garbs—with an added complication. For many farmers, especially in the Palouse, winter wheat typically follows garbs in their rotations. But how do you plant your winter wheat if your garbs are still on the ground?

Beans not so dry
At the beginning of October, Todd Scholz, vice president of research and member services for the USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council and a grower from Colfax, Wash., said 50 to 60 percent of the garb crop—approximately 60,000 acres—was still not cut in the Palouse, which encompasses Northern Idaho as well as Eastern Washington. Once again, moisture was the biggest problem, with most elevators only accepting garbs that were between 13 and 14 percent moisture. Scholz said he had talked to the Washington State Department of Agriculture’s inspection service, which reported they were seeing samples with moisture percentages in the high 20s.

“One of the problems of growers is we are used to having a dry crop and generally don’t store it ourselves,” Scholz said. “There’s no farm storage for pulses. Processors are responsible for making sure the crop doesn’t spoil or explode or whatever else it might do. Our situation is pretty dire, pretty worrisome. The other thing is we need to plant winter wheat in the ground right now. Of course, moisture may be delaying our planting too, but having a crop (already) on the field makes it even more complicated.”

Fortunately, when Wheat Life checked in with Scholz several weeks later, the situation was greatly improved. Scholz reported that thanks to dryer weather and actions taken by local processors to set up drying facilities, it appeared that approximately 90 percent of the garbs in the Palouse were going to get harvested, albeit much later than normal.

“Generally they are coming in at a good quality, considering,” he explained. “And yields are average or better.”

One bright spot in the situation is that other areas that grow garbs, such as Canada and Montana, are also running into weather-delayed harvest and quality issues. Scholz said he’s heard that some processors are advising growers to harvest their crop if they can because a supply shortage may make the crop more valuable than it would be if destroyed, especially if the garbs are high quality.

“Hopefully, those opportunities will arise, but farmers are going to lose that opportunity if they don’t harvest them,” he said.

Gary Bailey, a grower near St. John, Wash., and chairman of the Washington Grain Commission, was one of those growers who, as of early October, had a garb crop preventing him from planting the last of his winter wheat.

“We have 155 acres of garbs that have never, on a moisture basis, gotten dry enough to cut. We are a week away from the final insurance day, and it doesn’t look like they are even going to be close by then. So what we are doing right now is we are trying to figure out what our insurance policy provides for us. How we can move on to get this crop cleared to plant our fall wheat?” he said.

A question of crop insurance
That date Bailey is referring to is the end of insurance period, which for garbs, was Oct. 15. For spring wheat, it was Oct. 31. After those dates, if a grower hasn’t filed a claim with their insurance company, they have no insurance coverage, said Gretchen Strasser, president of Haight Crop Insurance in Spokane.

In general, producers have two options when it comes to dealing with crops that are likely to be poor quality. They can harvest the crop and hope to find an elevator or co-op that will take it, or they can destroy the crop. The first step, Strasser said, is to contact the insurance company and have the crop appraised by a loss adjustor. Sometimes, if a grower thinks they can get the crop harvested, the insurance company will allow for an extension of time to harvest it. On the other hand, if harvesting the crop is not an option, a producer can accept the insurance loss and destroy the crop in some way, usually by plowing it under or seeding another crop into it.

Bailey said he had filed a claim with his insurance company and was waiting for the loss adjustor to appraise his garbs. He said he was likely to destroy them rather than try to harvest them.

“It doesn’t make any sense to harvest them just to dump them in a pile,” Bailey explained. “We can get rid of the crop cheaper than harvesting it. If the beans are out of condition, which I suspect they are, they aren’t worth anything. So why spend the time to harvest them when you can’t get rid of them?”

As is normal for crop insurance, Bailey couldn’t make any decisions until after the visit by the loss adjustor. He hoped that visit happens sooner rather than later so he could move forward with getting his seeding done.

Unfortunately, destroying the crop rather than harvesting it sets up more potential problems for farmers to deal with. With both wheat and garbs, producers will have to deal with the plant mass left on the field as well as any volunteer plants. Most farmers will likely turn to chemical or mechanical methods to do that, which could incur additional input costs.

“Let’s say the adjuster says this is what your insurance is going to look like and you can do whatever you want with this crop. We move on, and we get that done, and it could settle in and rain and rain and rain. My point is, the longer you wait, the less (winter wheat) crop you are going to have,” he explained. “We are fortunate that this is a pretty small portion of our operation. I really feel sorry for some of those guys closer to Pullman that that’s their winter wheat ground, and they can’t get those garbs off.”

Besides the end of insurance date, there’s another date winter wheat growers need to keep in mind in this situation—the final planting date by which winter wheat must be planted if a grower has elected the winter coverage endorsement. That date varies by county, but in Whitman County it is Nov. 15, while in Spokane County, it was Oct. 31.

“You can still plant after that date, and it (the crop) would still be insurable, it’s just not covered under the winter coverage endorsement,” explained Ben Thiel, director of the Risk Management Agency’s (RMA) regional office in Spokane.

If a farmer planted winter wheat and lost the crop, without the winter coverage endorsement, in order to maintain insurance, the farmer would have to replant (most likely spring wheat). Crop insurance would provide a payment to help with replanting costs. If a producer has the winter coverage endorsement and they lose the winter crop, they are eligible for either a replanting payment or an indemnity. As Thiel put it, the winter cover endorsement “… gives you the ability to get an indemnity payment for the loss of a winter crop before the spring final planting date.”

Thiel said RMA is hearing from growers and insurance companies that adverse weather is severely affecting this year’s crops, “…resulting in farmers being unable to mechanically harvest their crop or that harvested production has been or potentially would be rejected by the buyer or elevator because of moisture levels.”

Thiel said he understands the concerns expressed by growers about wanting to get their winter wheat planted on the garb acreage, adding that if a producer believes they have an insurable cause of loss, they should file a notice of loss and talk to a loss adjuster about what options there may be with the current crop.

“As far as the next insurable crop, the small grains policy for wheat doesn’t require that they should have planted winter wheat. We don’t dictate or know what farmers’ intentions are with winter wheat. Since either winter or spring type is insurable, if they are unable to plant winter wheat, they can still plant spring wheat,” he said.

Loss adjustors are sent out by the insurance companies. Thiel said the loss adjustors will visit a field to inspect the crop and work with the producer to identify available options, such as intentions to harvest or not; perform an appraisal; and take samples (if applicable) for grading. If a producer needs to destroy the crop and can’t wait for the appraisal, they can contact their insurance company and discuss arrangements to leave representative sample areas that the loss adjustor can appraise. The appraised potential production is what is used as a yield on a producer’s actual production history in cases where the crop would go unharvested. If a producer destroys the crop without an appraisal or leaves no sample areas, the associated acres would have a yield of zero for the actual production history. Thiel advised producers to consult with their insurance companies before taking any action to destroy the crop to help avoid negative outcomes.

“RMA is listening to farmers about harvest and crop condition concerns,” Thiel said. “We are attempting to do more field visits to obtain first-hand observations of harvest challenges and crop damage. I appreciate meeting with insured producers on their property and letting them show me and explain in their own terms the challenges they face. RMA is communicating with grower organizations to understand the magnitude of the issue and the areas impacted and in turn, keeping leadership within RMA abreast of the situation. RMA is also working with the insurance companies to address their questions to help facilitate consistency of the loss adjustment process.”

Thiel also said the RMA regional office has been contacting agricultural commodity buyers to help insurance companies identify possible alternative places for farmers to take their harvested crops.

Myers, the south Spokane County producer who was still waiting to harvest the last of his spring wheat, said all the old timers talk about 1977 or 1978 as the last time the year was so wet that a large number of crops were left unharvested.

“We were dying for some rain last year. There was a two-month stretch where there was no rain recorded in September and October. This year is the exact opposite,” Myers said. “We are going to get our wheat cut and get it dried down to a percentage that we’ll be able to sell. The value is to be determined. We are not going to make any money, but hopefully we’ll break even.”

Editor’s note: As of press time, there was no estimate of how many acres of wheat was still left unharvested across Eastern Washington.