While the record-breaking temperatures have subsided, ongoing drought conditions continue to impact local agriculture.
On Wednesday, July 14, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought emergency which only excluded the Seattle, Tacoma and Everett metro areas. This declaration means water supply is expected to be below 75% of an average year, and water users could face undue hardships.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 68% of the state is currently experiencing a drought and 33% of the state is experiencing an extreme drought.
The drought this year is unique, says Amber Betts, a spokesperson for the state Department of Agriculture.
“What the general consensus is that it’s a pretty rare type of drought,” Betts said. “We got enough snowpack, that was pretty good. But we didn’t see enough rain, so we are particularly being impacted in our dryland producing areas.”
Dryland farming is a type of agriculture that does not rely on precipitation. Instead, plants are nourished through the moisture in the ground.
“That means it’s particularly bad for our drylands producers, and they’re going to see reduced crop yields,” Betts said.
The crops most impacted by the drought are wheat, grass, hay and garbanzo beans.
Paul Katovich, the CEO of Highline Grain Growers, said wheat farmers are seeing similar issues with their crops. The grain co-op has nearly 3,000 members in Eastern Washington.
The white wheat produced in the Pacific Northwest is unique, Katovich said. This wheat is used to make crackers, cookies, cakes and other baked goods in Asia, where consumers are more sensitive to textures and higher quality products.
Katovich said there could be difficulty in fulfilling orders of soft white wheat to international buyers, due to their higher quality standards.
“So when we have quality problems, then we have problems servicing those contracts with our overseas buyers,” Katovich said. “This is the weirdest start, and probably the most difficult year I’ve seen in my career.”
The temperatures and lack of moisture have increased the amount of protein in wheat. Katovich said generally, the lower the protein content the better.
Customers with less stringent standards will go elsewhere to buy their wheat. Katovich said this is less of a concern due to their low yield of crops since farmers are seeing up to a 50% decrease in their crop yield this year. Even if there was a demand for lower quality wheat, they would be unlikely to be able to service those orders.
Betts said farmers are having difficulty growing enough hay to feed their cattle. Some producers have started to purchase feed for their animals in June or July, which is earlier than they would in a typical year, Betts said.
“Providing feed for cattle is more challenging this year and has resulted in moving cattle to areas with better grazing, selling cattle, and when possible buying feed,” Betts said.
Brad Haberman, vice president of the Washington Farm Bureau, said the drought gives other grasses and weeds a chance to grow, which impacts the quality of timothy hay grown in the region.
And with reduced quality, buyers from Japan, Korea and Taiwan who typically buy hay from Eastern Washington may go elsewhere, Haberman said.
“They want clean timothy, and they want straight timothy. They don’t want other grasses contaminating it, or other weeds,” Haberman said. “They want to get what they’re paying for, and you can’t blame them too much. By the time it’s shipped there and everything, it’s pretty expensive.”
Hay that is contaminated or of lower quality could sell for up to $100 a ton cheaper, Haberman said.
“It will reduce the price for the farmer, but if [buyers] need more hay, they will look to other markets,” Haberman said.
But with the heat wave, the amount of water it takes a farmer to irrigate fields has increased.
“Normally, you can irrigate a field and then shut the water off for a couple of days,” Haberman said. “But the way it’s been with this weather, you have to keep the water on constantly going over it to keep it from drying out.”
Haberman said the drought could impact the second cutting of timothy hay, which occurs in late August and early September.
“It might mold a little bit faster than we want it to, because of the heat,” Haberman said. “So, time will still kind of tell with that.
Nighttime cherry harvest; sun nets for apples
On the hottest days last month, laborers who normally start picking cherries at 4 a.m. began at 1 a.m., armed with headlamps and roving spotlights to beat the daytime heat that threatened their safety and made the fruit too soft to harvest.
The region should still produce a roughly average-sized cherry harvest, but not the bumper crop initially expected, said B.J. Thurlby, president of the Northwest Cherry Growers, a grower-funded trade group representing top cherry producer Washington and other Western states.
“We think we probably lost about 20% of the crop,” Thurlby said, adding that growers simply had to abandon a portion of the heat-damaged cherries in their orchards.
The heat wave’s impact on Washington’s $2 billion apple crop — the state’s most valuable agricultural product — is uncertain, as harvest is at least six weeks away. Apple growers are used to sleepless nights as they respond to springtime frosts, but have little experience with sustained heat in June.
“We really don’t know what the effects are. We just have to ride it out,” said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission.
Growers have been protecting their orchards with expansive nets that protect fruit against sunburn, and by spraying water vapor above the trees. Apples have stopped growing for the time being, Fryhover said, but it is possible the crop may make up for lost time if weather conditions normalize.
Reuters contributed to this report.