Wheat farmers want harvest of answers

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Portland -- With the wheat harvest set to begin within a week, farmers are pressing for a resolution of the federal investigation of genetically modified wheat plants found growing in eastern Oregon.

Japan and South Korea, the two largest buyers of soft white wheat grown in Oregon, Washington and Idaho, have suspended wheat purchases. Both countries reject genetically modified food, and do not want to buy transgenic wheat.

That leaves Oregon growers wondering if they'll have problems selling this summer's crop, valued annually at $300 million to $500 million. Questions about storing and shipping wheat remain unanswered, and growers don't know if they'll have to pay for tests to prove their wheat is not genetically modified.

Oregon wheat industry representatives told the U.S. Department of Agriculture in mid-June that foreign buyers want direct communication regarding the investigation. The agency appears to be responding by sharing more information with customer nations than it had before, said Blake Rowe, chief executive of the Oregon Wheat Commission.

Part of the USDA's job, Rowe said, is to help farmers maintain good relations with customers.

"It's an absolutely vital thing that needs to happen quickly," he said.

Japan and South Korea wanted more information than the USDA released in news releases and website postings, Rowe said. When customers representing 50 percent of the market ask for direct communication, he said in a June 20 letter to the USDA, "You pick up the telephone and find out what they need and how to address their concerns."

Rowe believes Oregon farmers will be allowed to truck grain from their fields to port silos, but it's unclear whether the export markets will accept shipments.