Sunday, December 5, 2021
Dec. 5, 2021

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Hit by fire, Washington wheat farmers ponder approach to crops


WATERVILLE — This year’s wheat harvest was mostly already in storage on Labor Day when the Pearl Hill Fire started its wind-driven run through Douglas County.

The fate of next year’s crop remains to be seen, said Paul Katovich, CEO of Highline Grain Growers, which provides grain warehousing and seed supplies to ranchers from Wenatchee to Spokane. The no-till strategy used by most farmers in the Douglas County area relies on residue left in the fields to boost soil health. That, combined with a summer fallow rotation where crops are planted every other year, builds up moisture content to boost crop yield.

The fire wreaked havoc on both those strategies.

“Losing that residue sets the growers back substantially in terms of soil health,” Katovich said, in addition to destroying the just-planted seeds.

The dilemma facing those whose fields were consumed by fire is whether to reseed now and hope sprouts can break through the soil before the cold weather hits, or wait and reseed in the spring.

“They need the wheat to be up and growing before winter,” he said.

It’s not an easy call.

“This isn’t good spring wheat country,” he said. “There’s typically not enough moisture for spring crops.”

Even before the fire — the second fire Mansfield-area wheat farmers fought this year — conditions weren’t ideal. Last year saw a light snowpack and little spring rain.

The old-timers are comparing conditions this year to those of 1977, he said, a historically bad crop year.

“You know it’s bad when you have to go back more than a generation to compare,” he said.

On the upside, the hard frosts signaling winter’s descent have not yet arrived, giving some hope that Mother Nature might cooperate with a reseeding plan.

“We’ve usually already had a hard freeze by now. It’s been cooling at night, but not freezing. Once cold days and nights arrive, the temperatures drop off. Days get short fast.”

Katovich said, next year’s crop worries aside, the bigger concern with the fire is the safety of the families in wheat country.