Highly contagious rare virus kills W. Washington rabbit

A pet rabbit in Western Washington died of a highly contagious disease found only once before in the U.S., according to officials.

The 2-year-old, male European dwarf rabbit on Orcas Island was killed by rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus 2, the state Department of Agriculture said Monday.

The department has not discovered how the rabbit was infected, a spokesman said. It was the only rabbit on the property, he said.

The owner told the department the rabbit went to the San Juan County Fair last year, but has not traveled since then, the spokesman said.

The first symptoms of the disease can take up to nine days after infection to show, according to animal health officials. There is no vaccine.

The agriculture department asked owners to not take rabbits off Orcas Island. The virus infects European rabbits that are popular to exhibit at fairs.

The rabbits shed the virus in feces and urine. It can be spread from rabbit to rabbit, but also picked up and carried by biting insects, birds, rodents and by contaminated clothing and equipment, according to officials.

The disease does not infect humans or other animals, officials said.

A few cases of a related strain — rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus 1 — were documented in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010. The strain was first detected among non-native European rabbits in China in 1984 and killed some 9 million rabbits there.

The new variant surfaced in Europe in 2010. Canadian authorities found the disease among European rabbits running wild on Vancouver Island in March 2008.

The previous documented case of the 2 strain in the U.S. was among four pet rabbits in Ohio in September 2018. The source of the infection was not found, according to a USDA report to the World Organization for Animal Health.

The virus is extremely contagious among domesticated and wild rabbits, according to a 2016 report by the Center for Food Security and Public Health and Iowa State University.

The disease is so widespread in Europe that it’s damaged the ecosystem by depriving endangered species of prey, according to the report. In Australia, the virus has been used to control the population of wild, non-native rabbits.


As El Nino fades, winter forecast a ‘crap shoot’

The Pacific Ocean along the equator cooled in June and is expected to be at normal temperatures in a month or two, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Thursday.

The cooling and rapid demise of an El Nino system was unforeseen a month ago by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. The drop in sea-surface and subsurface temperatures leaves long-range weather forecasters with no strong clue about the months ahead.

“The bottom line is that it’s pretty close to a crap shoot for this fall and winter,” Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond said. “The deck isn’t stacked one way or the other.”

A weak El Nino formed in February. A month ago, NOAA said there was a 66% chance it would stay through the summer and a 50 to 55% chance it would last through the winter.

One forecasting model used by NOAA even predicted a moderate, rather than weak, El Nino in the coming winter. El Nino winters are generally warmer than usual in the Northwest, and less snowpack accumulates for use in summer irrigation.

In a turnabout, NOAA now says the odds favor neutral conditions, beginning next month and continuing through the winter. “Neutral means things are more more up in the air,” NOAA climate scientist Michelle L’Heureux said.

Last month’s outlook, a 50-50 chance that El Nino would stick around, reflected uncertainty about the course of atmospheric conditions. In the past month, the conditions fell in line with a weakening El Nino, according to NOAA.

“It was very difficult for us to predict what was going to happen,” L’Heureux said. “This situation now is not as opaque.”

In the mid-Pacific along the equator, the stretch that most influences seasonal forecasts, the sea-surface temperature cooled in June to 0.6 degrees celsius above normal from 0.7 degrees celsius above normal. The threshold for an El Nino is 0.5 degrees celsius above normal.

Subsurface temperatures were above average at the beginning of June and returned to near average by the end of the month.

As El Nino fades, the chances of an La Nina forming rise, though it’s still a long shot. NOAA estimated the chance of a La Nina prevailing by December at 16%. Last month, the chance was only 6%.

La Nina, a cooling of the sea’s surface, generally means colder Northwest winters.

In the meantime, less precipitation continues to be seen in Washington. The U.S. Drought Monitor reported Thursday that 55% of the state is in severe or moderate drought, nearly unchanged from the week before.

Assistant State Climatologist Karin Bumbaco said more of Central Washington is drying out, but still not in a drought.

Recent rain in Western Washington stopped conditions from worsening, but did not pull the region out of drought, she said. “If you look at the long-term picture, the drought is not over.”

Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency in about half the state in May. No area has been added to the declaration since then.

NOAA will release a new three-month outlook July 18. When neutral sea temperatures prevail, forecasters often base their predictions on recent climate trends.


FDA reworks ‘added sugars’ label for honey, maple syrup, cranberries

The Food and Drug Administration has revised nutrition label guidance for honey, maple syrup and cranberry juice, responding to complaints that a previous proposal would sour consumers on those products.

In a statement Tuesday, the FDA said it was taking another try at conveying that pure honey and pure maple syrup add sugar to diets, without implying that producers mix in additional sugar.

The FDA also moved to inform consumers that cranberry products sweetened with sugar may still have less sugar than naturally sweet fruit products.

The honey and maple syrup industries were especially alarmed by FDA’s plan to require labels to report naturally occurring sugar as “added sugars.” Producers complained the FDA was mangling words.

Under the FDA’s new guidance, honey and maple syrup labels will still report “total sugars,” but the “added sugars” line will be stricken.

Another line will give the “daily value for added sugars” to help consumers keep daily sugar intake within dietary guidelines. The FDA suggested labels have footnotes explaining what that means.

Here’s the FDA’s example: “One serving adds 10 (grams) of sugar to your diet and represents 20% of the Daily Value for Added Sugars.”

The footnote assumes a 2,000-calorie per day diet.

Washington commercial beekeeper Tim Hiatt of Ephrata said he was a little surprised that the FDA retained any mention of “added sugars.”

“It’s a bit of a nanny state overreach,” he said. “People, if they want to, should be free to eat a lot of honey or maple syrup.”

Still, he said, “to me, as a honey producer, it’s a step in the right direction. … It’s probably something we can live with.”

Cranberry products have added sugar. But the FDA will allow nutrition facts labels to include a footnote informing consumers that the sugar was added because cranberries are naturally tart.

“Our intent with this additional information is to help American consumers more easily understand how certain sweetened cranberry products can be part of a healthy dietary pattern,” according to a statement from Susan Mayne, the director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.

Besieged with complaints and some mockery about about its use of the words “added sugars,” the FDA last year agreed to reconsider its nutrition label guidance. The 2018 Farm Bill further quashed the proposal by prohibiting the FDA from requiring the “added sugars” declaration on single-ingredient sugars, honey, maple syrup and agave.

The Sugar Association, a trade group, said it supported the FDA’s treatment of cranberry products. But it said other healthy products such as yogurt and high-fiber cereal also could benefit from such a disclaimer.

The association also said that “daily value for added sugars” may confuse consumers.

The FDA should have “consumer-tested” the label before finalizing the guidance, Sugar Association President and CEO Courtney Gaine said in a written statement.

“We have no idea if this information serves as a constructive tool that enables people to follow the dietary guidelines and is not information that is misleading,” Gaine stated.

The FDA said Tuesday it will push back the date that honey, maple syrup and cranberry products have to comply with the guidance by one year to July 1, 2021. The guidance is part of an overhaul of nutrition labels on foods due to take effect next year.


Washington looks to fund drought-relief projects

The Washington Department of Ecology began taking applications Tuesday from irrigation districts, conservation districts and other public bodies to relieve drought hardships.

Ecology has $2 million to distribute before the end of the summer. Agencies in watersheds where drought has been declared can apply for up to $350,000 to benefit crops and livestock, but must match the grant dollar for dollar.

Agriculture-related projects such as leasing water, deepening wells, installing pumps, and repairing leaky pipes or canals could qualify, according to Ecology.

Agencies with projects to help city water systems, and fish and wildlife also are eligible to apply. Projects must be a cost-effective and effective response to a hardship caused by this drought, according to Ecology.

So far, Gov. Jay Inslee has declared a drought emergency in 27 watersheds. The watersheds are expected to have drought-related problems and less than 75 percent of normal water supplies during all or part of the summer.

Most of the watersheds are west of the Cascades, though some are in Eastern Washington. Ecology will convene a meeting of water-supply managers from throughout the state on Friday to review whether more watersheds are facing shortages.

The drought declaration could be expanded later this month.

According to the federal U.S. Drought Monitor, Washington is the driest of the West’s 11 states. Some 43% of Washington is in a “moderate drought,” while another 27% is abnormally dry. About 30% is in good shape at the moment.

“We’re coming out of a mediocre snowpack winter with lower-than-normal precipitation,” Ecology drought coordinator Jeff Marti said in a written statement. “We’re seeing some of the driest conditions in the northwest part of the state, while locations in the southeast have experienced recent flood watches.”

Some irrigators with junior water-rights have been curtailed in the Chehalis, Methow and Okanogan watersheds.

Projects will either qualify for money or won’t, according to Ecology. Applicants won’t be competing against each other, and grants will be awarded to eligible projects until the money is gone, according to Ecology.

The watersheds, known as Water Resource Inventory Areas, covered by the drought declaration are:

Chelan, Colville, Cowlitz, Deschutes, Elwha-Dungeness, Entiat, Grays-Elochoman, Kennedy-Goldsborough, Kettle, Lower Chehalis, Lower Skagit-Samish, Lower Yakima, Lyre-Hoko, Methow, Naches, Nooksack, Okanogan, Queets-Quinault, Quilcene-Snow, Skokomish-Dosewallips, Sol Duc-Hoh, Stillaguamish, Upper Chehalis, Upper Skagit, Upper Yakima, Wenatchee and Willapa.

Washington’s last drought emergency was in 2015.


Drought declared in 24 more Washington watersheds

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency Monday in 24 watersheds, making public agencies in about half the state eligible for drought-relief grants.

Summer water supplies in the watersheds are expected to be less than 75% of normal, according to the Department of Ecology. The governor declared an emergency in three other watersheds in early April.

“As the climate continues to change, we must be proactive in taking steps to plan for those impacts,” Inslee said in a written statement.

The drought declarations are the first in Washington since a statewide drought in 2015.

Ecology reports the snowpack is melting fast and on Monday was the sixth-lowest in the past 30 years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that June, July and August will be warmer than average in Washington.

Lawmakers have set aside $2 million for projects to help farms, fish or water systems. The Department of Ecology plans to begin taking applications for projects in early June.

The grants could fund projects such as drilling emergency wells, trucking in water, leasing water and buying conservation equipment, according to Ecology.

The watersheds named in Monday’s declaration are on both sides of the Cascades and cover all or parts of 23 of the state’s 39 counties. The watersheds are:

Chelan, Colville, Cowlitz, Deschutes, Elwha-Dungeness, Entiat, Grays-Elochoman, Kennedy-Goldsborough, Kettle, Lower Chehalis, Lower Skagit-Samish, Lower Yakima, Lyre-Hoko, Naches, Nooksack, Queets-Quinault, Quilcene-Snow, Skokomish-Dosewallips, Soleduc, Stillaguamish, Upper Chehalis, Upper Skagit, Wenatchee, and Willapa.

On April 4, an emergency was declared in the Methow, Okanogan and Upper Yakima watersheds in Central Washington.

According to a May 8 Ecology analysis, the driest watersheds were projected to have 62% of normal summer water supplies.

Water supplies are near normal in central Puget Sound and above normal in southeast Washington.

Drought conditions have been growing, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Some 34% of Washington was in a “moderate” drought on Thursday, compared to 10% two weeks earlier.

Through the end of the April, 2019 has been the 15th driest on record in Washington. Records go back to 1895. March was especially dry, the fourth driest March on record. Some parts of the state, notably the Palouse and Blue Mountains, have been wet, however.


Climatologists: Northwest can expect warm summer

The El Nino that was too late and too weak to have much influence last winter may stick around and grow stronger by next winter, according to the Climate Prediction Center.

On the other hand, it may just fade away.

A new outlook by the center forecasts above-average temperatures for May, June and July in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Northern California.

The precipitation forecast, however, is more complicated. The odds favor a drier-than-normal spring in Western Washington and northwest Oregon. Odds are tilted toward above-normal rainfall in most of Idaho, Eastern Oregon and northeast California. Elsewhere, it’s a toss-up.

El Nino figures prominently in the forecast. Since last fall, surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean along the equator have been higher than usual.

Not until February did the warm water link up with the atmosphere to cause a weak El Nino, which generally leads to above-average temperatures in the Northwest.

The El Nino looked puny in March, especially in Eastern Washington. Average temperatures were 6 to 12 degrees below normal, according to the Office of the Washington State Climatologist.

Looking ahead, the Climate Prediction Center projects there is a 65% chance the El Nino will stick around through the summer and a 50 to 55% chance it will persist through the fall.


Researcher seeks urban opportunities

Blue tomatoes! Mild habanero peppers! Never heard of such things? That’s the point, says Washington State University Extension agricultural specialist Justin O’Dea. They’re novel and just might fill a niche.

O’Dea works in a fast-growing county across the Columbia River from Portland. The county has the same rich soil as the Willamette Valley, but the farmland has been broken up for homes. Half the county’s 1,978 farms are less than 10 acres, according to the just-released 2017 Census of Agriculture.

O’Dea said he sees no reversing the trend toward smaller-acreage farms. Therefore, his goal is to help growers maximize per-acre returns with high-value crops for local consumption and processing.

“The challenge is to turn urbanization into an economic opportunity,” said O’Dea, 40. “One thing we’re not short on the westside (of the Cascades) is urban markets.”

WSU Clark County Extension operates on the county-owned 78th Street Heritage Farm, once the county poor farm. Homes and businesses surround the 79 acres of open space. A native New Yorker, O’Dea came here in mid-2017 to test growing crops that could help small farmers thrive financially.

“I’ll try to make the mistakes here instead of the farmers doing it,” O’Dea said.

Too late?
Clark County Farm Bureau President Bill Zimmerman said he hopes it’s not too late.

“If we had a county agent like Justin 30 years ago, 40 years ago, we’d be in a lot better shape,” Zimmerman said. “We really are impressed with what he’s doing.”

O’Dea, whose grandparents farmed in New York, came West to Washington to go to college. He graduated in 2003 from The Evergreen State College in Olympia. He earned a master’s degree in land resources and environmental sciences in 2011 at Montana State University.

For the five years before joining WSU, O’Dea was back in New York working for the Cornell Cooperative Extension in the Hudson Valley.

O’Dea said he was attracted to WSU in part because of his background in working with grains and the research being done at WSU’s Bread Lab in Mount Vernon.

To test growing varieties of grain, O’Dea has planted 1.6 acres of wheat, barley and rye. The varieties are from WSU, Oregon State University and a private company.

County farmers may be well situated to supply grains for craft brewers, craft distillers, craft malt houses and artisan bakers, he said.

Three Clark County farmers grew wheat in 2017 and one grew barley, according to the census. Nevertheless, O’Dea said the climate is good for grain — ample rain, but dry summers.

O’Dea also plans to try growing crops that overwinter well and can be harvested in the late fall and early spring, exploiting a demand for year-round local fresh produce. He said he will start with organic kale.

Also, he said he will try growing a variety of strawberries and vegetables, such as the blue tomatoes and mild habanero peppers, indoors and outdoors.

Value-added options

“I’m trying to give examples of ways farmers could diversify and link up with value-added opportunities,” O’Dea said.

According to the 2017 census, on average farms in Clark County that year lost $4,844.

“My pessimistic view is you’re seeing the end of agriculture in Clark County, at least production agriculture,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman, whose farm sells fruits and vegetables directly to customers from a roadside store, said every time a farmer retires, a developer buys the land. Water is in demand, too, and agriculture hasn’t fared well under county rules, he said.

Zimmerman said his store was “grandfathered” in and exempted from new county building and zoning laws that would be impossible for him to meet. “If I had to start from scratch, I couldn’t afford to do it,” he said.

Still, he said, there are all these residents close by, and they eat.

“If people can do direct marketing and cut out the middle man, it can be quite an opportunity,” Zimmerman said.

O’Dea said the county is in a “time of transition and reinvention.”

“It is as risky as it is exciting,” he said. “Clark County is tricky. We lack the (agricultural) benefits of a low population, but we have all these local markets.”

 


Ag census shows drop in farms, acres and income

U.S. agriculture gained farmers in 2017, but lost farms, acres and income compared to five years earlier, according to the Census of Agriculture released April 11.

The average farmer got a little older, and fewer farms were owned by families or partners. Most lost money.

There were more young farmers. There was, however, a decline in farmers of prime-working age. The number of farms under 10 acres and more than 2,000 acres increased, while there was a decrease in mid-sized farms.

“We are pleased to deliver Census of Agriculture results to America, and especially to the farmers and ranchers who participated,” Secretary of Agriculture Sony Perdue said in a written statement. “We can all use the census to tell the tremendous story of U.S. agriculture and how it is changing.”

Conducted by the USDA every five years, the census attempts to survey every farm that produces at least $1,000 worth of goods in a year. More than one-third of the farms surveyed reported sales of less than $2,500.

The census provides a nationwide look, and also state and county level information. Yakima and Grant counties in Washington were the ninth and 10th, respectively, top producing counties in the U.S. in 2017. California was the top producing state, followed by Iowa, Texas, Nebraska and Kansas.

The USDA counted 2,042,200 farms in 2017, 3.2% fewer than 2012 and 7% fewer than 2007.

The USDA identified about 900 million farm acres, 1.6% less than in 2012 and 5.7% less than in 1997. The loss over 20 years totaled 54.5 million acres.

The number of farms under 10 acres increased by 22%, while the number of farms over 2,000 acres increased by 3.5%.

Categories in between lost farms. The drop was particularly steep in farms between 50 and 179 acres, with a decline of 10.9%. For farms between, 180 to 499 acres, the drop was 8.9%

The size of the average farm in 2017 was 441 acres, compared to 434 acres in 2012 and 418 acres in 2007.

Farms produced $388.5 billion worth of goods in 2017, down 1.5% from the $394.6 billion sold in 2012. Other farm-related income, such as agritourism, totaled $16.8 billion, while government payments were 8.9 billion.

Production expenses declined by 1% to $326.4 billion from $328.9 billion.

Net farm income was $87.9 billion, down from $92.3 billion in 2012. The figures were not adjusted for inflation.

Slightly more than half the farms, some 1.1 million, reported losing money. The average loss was $20,997.

For the farms that made money, the average gain was $125,754. In all, per-farm net income averaged $43,750, a 2% drop over five years earlier.

Family farms are still dominant, though the number declined to 1.75 million, a drop of 4.2% from the 1.82 million family farms in 2012.

Corporations — both family- and investor-owned entities — owned 116,840 farms, up 9.4% from 106,716 in 2012. The number of farms owned by partnerships declined to 130,173 from 137,987.

The number of farms owned by trusts, estates, associations and Indian tribes increased to 44,081 from 35,654.

A trend toward fewer but bigger dairies continued. The USDA counted 54,599 dairies, down 14% from five years earlier. Over that time, the number of milk cows increased by 3.1%. The number of dairies in 2017 was less than half the 125,000 diaries counted in 1997.

The average farmer got one year older over the five years between censuses. In 2017, the average age was 57.5, compared to 56.3 in 2012.

Some demographic numbers between the 2017 and 2012 censuses are not directly comparable. The USDA counted nearly 3.4 million farmers in 2017, up by 6.9% from the 3.18 million counted in 2012. Farms could report up to four operators in 2017, compared to three in 2012.

More farmers, 1.9 million, had a primary occupation other than farming in 2017.

There was a 10.8% increase in farmers 34 and younger, but there was a 16.8% drop in farmers between 45 and 54.

The census included new information about producers in farming fewer than 10 years. The USDA counted 908,274 “young producers,” with an average age of 46.3.

About 11 percent of farmers were military veterans. The average age was 67.9, more than a decade older than the overall average.


El Nino, a no-show so far, losing steam

The weather has yet to be influenced this winter by a warmer Pacific Ocean and likely won’t be impacted in a major way, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports.

Federal climatologists reduced the chances that an El Nino will form in January or February to 82 percent, down from 96 percent a month ago. If an El Nino does occur, it will be weak, according to NOAA.

“Significant global impacts are not anticipated during the remainder of the winter, even if conditions were to form,” the agency stated, in its monthly outlook on sea-surface temperatures along the equator.

The temperatures guide seasonal forecasts. For months, a warmer-than-average ocean between Ecuador and Indonesia has led climatologists to predict odds are high the Northwest will have a mild winter. In some past El Nino winters, snowpacks that supply summer irrigation have been smaller than normal. Washington’s “snow drought” in 2015 was during a strong El Nino.

This year, the warm ocean has not yet triggered the atmospheric conditions that eventually warm the northern tier of the U.S., according to NOAA. As a result, the sea-atmosphere system has remained neutral.

The sea and atmosphere are most likely to act together in late winter and early spring, according to NOAA, but by then the ocean may not be warm.

After months of warming, ocean-surface temperatures are cooling down toward neutral conditions.

The equatorial Pacific has cooled to 0.7 degree celsius above normal, down from about 1 degree above normal the month before. Climatologists classify temperatures within 0.5 degree celsius of normal as neutral.

By March, the chances an El Nino will prevail are 66 percent, down from 70 percent in last month’s outlook, NOAA forecasts.

In a 90-day period that ended Jan. 5, average temperatures in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Northern California were slightly above normal, except for the southeast corner of Oregon and the southern end of Idaho, where temperatures were slightly below normal, according to NOAA.

The region also received slightly less precipitation than normal.

NOAA was to issue a new three-month weather outlook Jan. 17.


Warm, dry winter predicted for Northwest

Odds are high that the Pacific Northwest will be warmer than average the next three months, and current drought conditions are expected to persist, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists said Dec. 20.

Temperatures in Oregon, Washington and Northern California have been generally above average recently. That trend is expected to continue in January, February and March as an El Nino forms, according to NOAA.

“Western snowpack is generally behind average, particularly the farther west you go,” NOAA climate scientist Deke Arndt said. “The Cascades have quite a bit less snow on them than is typical.”

NOAA updated its seasonal outlook for U.S. temperatures and precipitation. More than anywhere else in the Lower 48, the odds favor above-normal temperatures in Western Oregon and Western Washington, according to NOAA. Odds in the rest of the West also lean toward higher-than-usual temperatures.

The odds favor a drier-than-average winter in Oregon, Washington, Northern California and the Idaho Panhandle, with the rest of the West having equal chances of wet, dry or average precipitation.

Nearly 90 percent of Oregon and nearly 33 percent of Washington were in some stage of drought, the U.S. Drought Monitor reported Dec. 20.

“Persistence (of drought conditions) is forecast for the Pacific Northwest,” NOAA meteorologist Brad Pugh said. “That’s related to the low snowpack currently over the Cascades and also the seasonal outlook for drier than normal conditions.”

In Oregon and Washington, snowpacks in the Cascades ranged Dec. 20 from 95 percent of normal near the Canadian border to 39 percent in northern Oregon, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Pugh said an El Nino has yet to influence the weather. Sea-surface temperatures have been above average for several weeks, but the warm ocean has yet to link up with the atmosphere to form an El Nino. “We haven’t seen that atmospheric response to the warmer than normal sea-surface temperatures,” he said.

Climatologists pegged the chances that a weak to moderate El Nino will form in the next month at 90 percent. An El Nino typically will have its greatest effect on Northwest winters after Jan. 1.

El Nino’s warm waters are along the equator. According to the Office of the Washington State Climatologist, sea-surface temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska also are higher than average and resemble the mass of warm winter that contributed to the 2015 drought. Pugh said those warm waters did not factor into his forecast.

In a conference call with reporters, Arndt said global temperatures for the year will be the among the warmest, according to records that go back 139 years. “It is virtually certain that 2018 will go down in the record books as the fourth-warmest year,” he said.

Through November, 2018 has been the 16th warmest on record in the U.S., according to NOAA. November was cooler and wetter than average in the U.S., even though the West Coast was warm. California had its 10th warmest November on record, according to NOAA.