Ore. farmers wary of GMO wheat

Commodity's value faces uncertainty

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PENDLETON, Ore. -- Tyson Raymond answered his cellphone from out on the tractor, where the Helix, Ore., farmer half-jokingly says he will live for the next couple months.

The summer wheat harvest is coming, which means plenty of long days ahead for local growers such as Raymond. Approximately one-third of Oregon's wheat comes from Umatilla County, which last year produced 16.9 million bushels on 248,300 acres.

Umatilla County routinely leads the state in harvesting soft white wheat, a crop worth more than $472 million in 2012 -- considered an average year for the industry. Naturally, when an Eastern Oregon farmer recently discovered genetically modified wheat not approved for growing in his field, the news hit Raymond with a mix of surprise and disbelief.

"My first thought was that it's not possible. It doesn't exist. It's not out there," Raymond said Thursday, talking over the noise of his tractor engine. "You know, intuitively, the market doesn't want stuff like this around right now."

Between 85 and 90 percent of Oregon wheat is exported, the majority of it to Asian markets that make it very clear they do not want genetically modified food. Japan and South Korea already suspended some wheat orders, and the European Union is also calling for more rigorous testing of U.S. shipments.

Narrowing the market makes the value of wheat uncertain. Raymond, immediate past president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, said the goal moving forward is to reassure customers that the product meets their standards.

Locally, Raymond said much of Umatilla County's economy is tied to agriculture, and not all farmers have the flexibility to plant anything other than dryland wheat.

"It's a big deal," he said. "A large part of this area lives and dies by the wheat market."

So far, the market has resisted overreacting, with wheat futures prices hovering just under $7 per bushel -- down from last year's average of $8.25 per bushel.

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service launched an investigation after a farmer, who wishes to remain anonymous, reported finding wheat plants resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, marketed by Monsanto Co. under the brand name Roundup.