Friday, August 20, 2010

Eastern Washington Wheat Crop

Winter wheat southeast of Connell. The ridge in the distance is Rattlesnake Ridge.

The New york Times had an article on wheat farming in Colorado in light of the drought impacting Russian wheat HERE.  The drought in Russia along with problems in India and Australia have pushed prices upward. Hence, wheat farmers will be getting a good price. And the question of planting more wheat is being raised.
Eastern Washington has had a huge bumper crop this year. A cool moist spring gave the winter wheat a big boost and the rare combination of a large crop combined with high prices. There is some variability in the price depending on protein content. For some farmers the protein content will be lower due to the high yields dependening on the fertility of the soil and how much fertilizer was applied in the fall.
New York Times' Kirk Johnson posted a blog on the concerns about growing wheat on the plains HERE. And Timothy Eagan wrote about the dust bowl and wheat/sod busting in The Worst Hard Times. This got me thinking about comparing the climate in eastern Washington with that in southeast Colorado where the NYT article was centered.
For Washington State I picked Connell as it is located on the western driest part of The Palouse (as well as being near some family wheat growers). The NYT article centered on Springfield, CO, but the weather record in Lamar in a similar setting  40 miles to the north is more complete. Connell's average rainfall is 9.75 inches compared with Lamar at 15.24 inches. But it's when the rain falls that makes all the difference as can be seen in the following two charts:

Comparison of rainfall by month between Lamar, CO and Connell, WA
Note that the difference on the precipitation scales.

Lamar gets more rain, but the bulk of the rain takes place in the summer. Connell's scant rain falls in the winter and into early spring. Rainfall (and snow) during the cold and cool weather of winter and spring stays in the soil and is used by the wheat as it begins growing as the weather warms. Dryland wheat farmers in eastern Washington plant winter wheat. They plant the seeds in the fall to take advantage of the winter precipitation. Hence, even though Lamar may get more rain, the timing of that rain is not as favorable for wheat as the lower rain fall in Connell.
I also looked for extreme dry periods. For Washington State I looked at Pullman as its records goes further back than Connell. Pullman's average rain is a bit more than Lamar 18.98 inches compared to 15.24 inches. Pullman's driest year was 11.81 inches in 1944 and Lamar's 7.67 in 1937. One thing was clear looking at the Lamar data; the Dust Bowl and Depression era was very dry with all years below average and most more than a third below average. Lamar has not had a sub 10 inch year since 1981. Pullman during the same period had fairly average rainfall with the Depression era rainfall not much different than the range over the past decade.

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