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Published June 04, 2010, 09:12 AM

Cool, wet spring slows some E. Washington crops

TRI-CITIES, Wash. — The cool and wet late spring has hurt hay crops, curtailed asparagus harvest, caused some anxiety for cherry growers and pleased wheat farmers across the region.

By: Kevin McCullen, Tri-City Herald

TRI-CITIES, Wash. — The cool and wet late spring has hurt hay crops, curtailed asparagus harvest, caused some anxiety for cherry growers and pleased wheat farmers across the region.

Recurring rainstorms have prompted farmers either to leave the season’s first cutting of hay still standing in their fields or scramble continually to dry product that already has been cut so it can be baled.

Asparagus yields are down overall by about 25 percent because of the cool weather, and growers so far have been able to pick only about half of the amount they would have in a typical year, said Alan Schreiber, executive director of the Washington Asparagus Commission.

Yields of Chelan cherries, an early season variety, are expected to be down in much of the region in part because of persistent rainfall that can cause ripening cherries to split.

Still, the overall cherry crop shows promise, particularly if the weather warms in coming weeks and rainfall diminishes, said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Washington State Fruit Growers Commission.

But the elements have been kind to wheat growers, particularly in Adams, Franklin and Walla Walla counties, creating an “almost ideal spring for wheat development,” said Brett Blankenship, president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.

“This is one of the coldest and wettest late springs I can recall,” said cherry grower Pat Sullivan of Pasco. “I was talking to some other growers the other day — we’ve been around here 20, 30 or 40 years — and no one can recall anything this strange.”

Precipitation in the Tri-Cities totaled 1.51 inches during May, which was 0.84 inch above normal. Precipitation for the year has reached 4.4 inches in the Tri-Cities, which is 1.23 inches above normal and follows what was a warm and dry early spring.

The rainfall regionally also has helped improve the water outlook.

Flows over Lower Granite Lock and Dam on the Snake River now are projected at 61 per-cent of average from April to September — up from a projection in the mid-50s — and at 67 percent at The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River.

But the rain has taken a heavy toll on hay farmers. More than 70 percent of the first cutting in Franklin County alone has been affected, said Bruce Clatterbuck, executive director of the USDA’s Farm Service Agency in Franklin County. FSA offices around the state are monitoring the impacts of the weather and asking farmers who have suffered crop damage to report it.

“We’ve cut 8 percent of our hay,” said Terri Hayles, a Franklin County hay grower. “Normally at this time of year, we’d be close to done by now with our first cutting,” she said. “But we can’t cut it because of the rain, and the stuff we did bale we’re selling at about 35 percent of the cost we’d normally sell for.”

Longtime hay grower Chepp Gauntt of Kennewick said he has been more fortunate than others because he has the equipment and work force to cut and bale during short windows of dry weather. But he said hay that should have been cut two weeks ago remains standing, “and the hay left standing will be heavier, but not as high a quality.

“It’s been pretty tough on guys. I flew (my airplane) Monday and could see field after field in the same condition. ... I’d say less than 50 percent of the hay north of Basin City has been cut,” Gauntt said.

Ultimately, Gauntt said he thinks the dearth of hay from the first cutting — which is prized because of its higher protein content — could lead to a shortage of quality hay and a decrease in tonnage.

Hayles also grows asparagus, a crop that also has been adversely affected by the weather.

She said the harvest in a typical year is completed by June 20, but it is behind this year be-cause of cooler temperatures, rainfall and a windstorm that battered the crop in late May.

“We have the potential to catch up some if the weather cooperates, but there just aren’t enough days left to pick,” Schreiber said.

Rain and cooler temperatures have pushed back the harvest of early cherry varieties in the region, although Sullivan said he is just a few days late.

Sullivan and other growers also have been forced to use helicopters to hover over their orchards to knock rain water off ripening varieties in a bid to prevent them from splitting. He said so far he has sustained little damage, “and most of the fruit is great.”

The cool weather also has pushed back the development of bing cherries, Thurlby said, and the first harvest of bings is not expected until around June 16-17.

“So we have some time to get this turned around so we don’t have to worry about splitting,” he said.

Rain was forecast again Friday in the region, followed by a drier and warmer pattern into next week, according to the National Weather Service.

But while the cool and wet has dampened other crops, it was a boon for the region’s wheat fields.

“Wheat farmers are smiling ear to ear. They are loving it,” Clatterbuck said.

Storm systems that brought rain to dryland farms in the region last month provided young wheat with sorely needed moisture to grow, Blankenship said.

It also replenished soils in fields in summer fallow, setting it up for a healthy crop when planted again this fall, he said.

He and other growers are confident of potential yields “that are average or better” at harvest in early to mid-July, Blankenship said.

But for others in agriculture, a dry spell would be welcome.

“Warm weather would be a godsend right now, so let’s hope for a warm week,” Thurlby said.