Green Bluff farmers navigate COVID-19 uncertainty

MEAD, Wash. — Farmers in Green Bluff, a group of nearly 40 small family farms and fruit stands north of Spokane, say they’re getting far less traffic than normal due to the COVID-19 shutdowns.

About 10 farms would typically be open to the public at this time of year, according to the Green Bluff Direct Marketing Association. Five are partially open and the rest are closed.

Jason Morrell, owner of the 68-acre Walters Fruit Ranch, said the closure has contributed to a sense of uneasiness for Green Bluff farmers.

“I was going to buy a mower this year for the orchard — I’m not going to do that now,” he said. “I’ve got the money, but I just don’t know how the year’s going to be.”

Morrell has kept his restaurant and gift shop business closed. The farm also sells commercial take-and-bake pies at local grocery stores, and that business continues, he said.

He employs 20 people year-round, he said.

Morrell’s main business typically picks up June 1, with U-pick strawberries and cherries.

“If we have a good strawberry crop, we’re usually going to have a good year, and we just don’t know what it’s going to look like,” he said.

Morrell said he’s preparing for the worst: the possibility of never opening the whole year.

“It would be quite devastating for us,” he said.

Teri Story, owner of High Country Orchard, raises cherries, peaches, pears, apricots and garden produce on 20 acres.

“We are open six months, we make our money in five to six months,” Story said. “We have to be open, or. …”

She did not finish the sentence.

She has 10 employees, and a few more waiting for seasonal work to begin. At the height of the season, she normally employs nearly 40, she said.

To cope during the shutdown, Story started an online store and hands out orders at a drive-thru window.

Keeping a grocery of sorts in her store has allowed her to keep her doors open, she said. Most customers stay outside, she said. Those who come in have to wear gloves.

Michael Townshend, owner and winemaker of the Townshend Cellar winery, has switched to curbside pickup.

“It’s only curbside,” he said. “We typically would have more people coming in, having a glass or doing a tasting.”

He farms about 30 acres of Christmas trees with his wife, Vanessa. The winery purchases grapes from the Columbia Valley.

The farmers fear the impact of canceled events that usually bring in tourists, a key part of their businesses.

Story’s store has already lost big events like Easter and Mother’s Day and had to cancel some of the weddings she hosts each season.

“It’s those big things we can’t recover that are very difficult for us,” she said.

Craig Dietz, owner of Big Barn Brewing with his wife, Jane, said his 54-acre farm has already had to cancel charity events and an art show.

The farm grows hops, Christmas trees, raspberries, blackberries, pumpkins, peaches and plums.

Dietz estimates his brewery is doing 30% of its normal business. Last weekend he had about 10% of his normal traffic.

The operation has cut its hours by 50%.

“There’s a lot of unknowns for all of us, still,” Dietz said. “Farmers are forever hopeful optimists. … I believe sanity will override current conditions and people will slowly take back their lives.”

Story would like a specific plan from Gov. Jay Inslee for reopening.

“Give me some specifics or what I can do to meet those requirements and I would gladly do them,” she said. “I can socially distance like crazy in our orchard.”


New WSU pollinator center to address bee health

OTHELLO, Wash. — Two years ago, the Hiatt Honey Co. in Ephrata, Wash., lost roughly 10,000 hives to diseases and pests.

That’s about 53% of its hives, co-owner Chris Hiatt said.

It was the worst loss since 2004, when the company lost 8,000 to 9,000 hives, Hiatt said.

“This past year was only 33%, so that’s great,” Hiatt told the Capital Press. “Isn’t that crazy for me to say only? The national average was 40% last year. Everyone just expects to lose 30 to 40% through the whole year (to) mites, virus, pesticide pressure.”

Hiatt was one of the speakers during the March 6 ribbon cutting of Washington State University’s new Honey Bee and Pollinator research, extension and education facility. It is designed to help protect and improve pollinator health.

The university purchased the Othello, Wash., building, formerly owned by Monsanto and used for research and corn growing operations, for $2.5 million in June 2019.

No bees were yet at the center during the March 6 ceremony. They were in California pollinating almonds and will be moved to Yakima to pollinate cherries this week, said Brandon Hopkins, entomology assistant research professor.

The university has roughly 100 colonies, each with 40,000 bees. The center will eventually run 400 to 500 colonies, Hopkins said.

The new facility will scientifically seek solutions such as mite treatments or virus controls, any of which would be helpful, Hiatt said.

About six top universities for bee research, including WSU, are working to find answers for the hive losses, he said.

“Honeybees are the single most important pollinator contributing to a healthy global food supply,” said Andre-Denis Wright, dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences. “Bees are threatened by a host of challenges, and they need our help.”

Honeybees are “key to the existence of agriculture and, I guess you could argue, to the existence of humans on this planet,”  U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said.

Hiatt said it’s hard to measure how quickly the center’s effects will be felt in the industry.

The facility will allow researchers to collaborate with seed producers and other farmers, Hopkins said.

For example, WSU pollinator ecology professor Steve Sheppard is leading an experiment in which mushroom extracts are being tested as a way to help bees combat viruses.

Hiatt said bringing the extracts to market would be huge.

“It’s urgent, it’s super-urgent,” he said. “Honey price is down, (the price of) pollination is up, but these high losses just make it harder to stay in business.”


Weather forecast: La Nina’s on the way

SPOKANE — A La Nina is on the way, bringing with it wetter weather later this spring.

That’s the prediction of weatherman Art Douglas, who delivered his long-range forecast Feb. 4 at the Spokane Ag Show. Douglas is a professor emeritus of atmospheric sciences at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., and is a fixture at the show.

El Nino and La Nina are complex weather patterns that result from variations in the Pacific Ocean’s surface temperatures.

Lower ocean surface temperatures off the West Coast mean a La Nina will develop later in the spring, Douglas said.

“Here in the wheat area, (the forecast is) about normal to above normal precipitation, which is what La Nina would suggest,” he said.

Douglas called for a “warmish” May, with normal to above normal precipitation in the Pacific Northwest.

His summer forecast calls for a warm and dry June and July and a cool and wet August.

In the meantime, the Pacific Northwest has become wetter in the last 30 days, following an El Nino in which the region was “very dry” from April through September, Douglas said.

A high-pressure ridge in Alaska will block Pacific moisture from reaching the West in February, Douglas said.

The pattern will persist into March.

“So it’s going to have an impact on spring weather, but not as bad as it could,” Douglas said.

Winterkill of wheat will be a concern in February and early March, Douglas said.

Through the spring, high pressure ridging in the Pacific and Southwest will favor dry weather elsewhere in the West.

From March through May, Douglas predicts normal temperatures in the Pacific Northwest and slightly drier conditions west of the Cascades.

Douglas said the 2020 forecast appears most similar to the years 1989, 1990, 2008 and 2018.

“Do not go and look at one of those years alone and say, ‘This is what I’m going to have this year,’” he said. “It’s all of these four years together. It’s a blend.”

Warming in the Pacific Ocean over the past five years was due to weakened wind systems and weaker ocean currents. Warming in the Atlantic Ocean is due to enhanced wind systems and ocean currents.

“The two oceans aren’t behaving the same, in fact, they’re the opposite of each other,” Douglas said. “If you believe in global warming, both oceans would have to be behaving the same, and they’re not. These are decadal climate changes we’re dealing with right now, and apparently we’re getting ready to change.”

The forecast should mean a less intense fire season for the Pacific Northwest, which this year will likely end earlier, Douglas said.

Farmers can expect “better early fall moisture and cooler temperatures,” he said.


Survey finds landowners OK with conservation on rented farmland

Landowners in Washington are more OK with the farmers renting their property making conservation efforts than previously thought, the American Farmland Trust says.

The organization, which is devoted to protecting agricultural lands, farmers and sound environmental practices recently released the results of its survey of Washington landowners.

The organization surveyed 306 non-operating landowners in the state.

“If (farmers) are thinking about conservation, especially around soil health, improving water quality or wildlife habitat, they may have presumed that their landowner is not supportive,” said Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, director of the organization’s Women for the Land program. “Our results suggest they should work and talk with their landlord about flexibility they have in supporting them to adopt conservation practices. We think they’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

According to the survey results, 75% of landowners generally rent or lease land to family, friends or a neighbor, and 92% say they trust their farmer to make good conservation decisions.

Concerns that conservation practices would devalue the farmland or receive disapproval from neighbors were actually the least likely barriers to conservation on landowners’ rented land, according to the survey.

Roesch-McNally called the idea that non-operating landowners don’t care about conservation and wouldn’t support their renters a “myth.”

“At least from the landowner perspective, they’re not as concerned about that,” she said.

The biggest limiting factors were a weak farm economy and the renter’s ability to afford conservation efforts, the survey found. Roughly 27% and 22% of respondents listed these factors, Roesch-McNally said.

Non-operating landowners own roughly 39% of land in the West, higher in some states, she said. Non-operating landowners own roughly 80% of rented land, according to the organization.

“We have a decent understanding of landowners who farm their land and farmers who farm their own land and rented land,” Roesch-McNally said.

USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service provides consistent data over time, she said.

“But we recognize that there’s a lot we don’t actually understand about these non-operating landowners.”

Respondents were asked to consider a series of attributes that are somewhat or very important to them when evaluating a current or potential renter.

Trustworthiness is the top quality landowners are looking for when renting their land, cited as “somewhat” or “very” important 99% of the time. The other top five operator characteristics were “They care about my land,” cited by 98%; “They are financially responsible,” cited by 97%; “ability to maintain soil productivity” and “reputation as a good farmer,” both cited by 96% ;and “ability to avoid soil erosion,” by 92%.

But Roesch-McNally pointed to a relative lack of awareness about or access to information to help with conservation efforts.

“I think there’s kind of a gap between the technical assistance we provide to farmers, but we don’t always reach out to landowners,” she said.

Roughly 17% to 33% of survey respondents are interested in access to education materials.

“They’re supportive, but they may not be as interested in formal support,” Roesch-McNally said. “To me, I take that as suggesting that our ag adviser communities shouldn’t forget the landowner audience and do some targeted outreach, so they’re aware of some of the programs that could benefit their land and their farmers.”

Most landowners speak with their farmer a couple times a year, she said.

“Often people have long-standing relationships and annually-renewed leases, folks have been working with the same renter for a while, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re communicating with each other all the time, especially about things around conservation,” she said.

Women non-operating landowners are more likely to experience a breakdown in communication with their renting farmer, she said.

Many women have been disproportionately left out of mainstream agricultural conversations and may feel less empowered or supported, and don’t feel as confident in discussions with their renter, she said.

The Land for Women program works to help them gain the expertise and gain confidence to discuss conservation and other topics with their renting farmers, Roesch-McNally said.

American Farmland Trust plans to implement the program in the Northwest in 2020.

The organization surveyed 11 states across the country – Washington, California, Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Texas.

Full survey results are slated to be released this winter, including analyses of gender and agricultural experience. The information will inform American Farmland Trust’s outreach and programming to help boost conversations between landowners and renting farmers, Roesch-McNally said.

“There’s an opportunity to improve the way people are talking to each other about their goals for their land,” she said.

Online

https://www.farmlandinfo.org/sites/default/files/AFT_NOLs_WA%2010_30_19%20web.pdf


Cascadia conference seeks to build local grain economy

Registration is now open for the Cascadia Grains Conference, which seeks to connect smaller grain farmers with bakers, brewers, millers and health and nutrition advocates.

The conference runs Jan. 17-18 in Olympia and various events throughout Thurston County.

The event exists to connect people and build a local grain economy in the Northwest, said Aba Kiser, conference coordinator and project manager for the Washington State University food systems program.

“There’s not a silver bullet of what that looks like, and we’re all in this together trying to figure it out,” she said. “We want to make sure everyone who wants to be a part of this conversation has a seat at the table.”

Getting better prices for farmers is “paramount,” said.

Craft brewing and distilling industries have enormous economic potential for farmers, particularly small-scale, diversified farmers who are focused on sustainability, she said.

The registration form asks farmers if they plan to increase their grain yield in the next three to five years.

The event focuses on resources for new and beginning farmers, including start-up capital and marketing classes, larger farmers trying small-scale rotations and other resources for their farms.

Mel Darbyshire, head baker at Grand Central Bakery in Seattle, will be keynote speaker. Darbyshire rose from the position of dishwasher at the bakery, Kiser said, and is involved in many local grain efforts.

Kiser expects Darbyshire to speak about the challenges bakers face buying local whole grains and supporting their employees.

The conference includes 18 workshops, a resource expo and several Friday field trips offering hands-on experience.

The program will focus on regional grains used for brewing and distilling, animal feed and baking and other food uses, according to a WSU press release. End-users will get an inside look at grain production, quality and developing connections to use and market products using local grain. Investors, brokers and local government officials will learn about investment and policy opportunities.

The event caps at 300 participants. Kiser hopes people leave feeling “revitalized.”

“We are hoping we can be the bridge builders and connectors,” she said. “I’ve heard a lot of folks say they’ve done their best networking at the happy hour of the Cascadia Grains Conference.”

Online

https://www.cascadiagrains.com/


Small farm, food expo offers tips on profitability

SPOKANE, Wash. — The keynote speakers at the upcoming Farm and Food Expo know how to make the most of their land.

Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser, owners of Singing Frogs Farm in Sebastapol, Calif., operate a 3-acre farm that grosses more than $100,000 per acre each year, said Hilary Sepulveda, outreach coordinator for the Spokane Conservation District.

The expo is Oct. 25-26 at Spokane Community College and will offer more than 35 classes.

The Kaisers will discuss managing an intensive, no-till, hand-labor vegetable production system that is profitable while restoring soil health on their farm.

They have increased their soil organic matter by more than 400% while drastically reducing water use. Their farm has demonstrated that ecological sustainability can mean economic sustainability, with up to 10 times the sales per acre compared to similar farms, according to the conservation district.

The expo provides two days of education and resources to small-acreage farmers, those who have less than 5 acres, as well as gardeners and “foodies,” Sepulveda said.

Sepulveda expects 400 to 500 people to attend the conference.

Classes will also be of interest to large-scale farmers.

The event includes a tour of the new South Spokane Farm Corridor, which includes Casa Cano Farm, Snapdragon Flower Farm and Vets on the Farm. Space is limited for the $50 tour. The tour ends at the Moran Prairie Grange for the annual Vets on the Farm dinner and auction.

Cost of the expo is $100 for adults, $75 for seniors and students and $25 for youths.

Roughly 38 vendors will also be at the event. To just attend the vendor fair costs $10.

Contact Sepulveda at 509-535-7274, ext. 214 or hilary-sepulveda@sccd.org


Field day shines spotlight on soil health research

A national soil health research project, including four experiments in the Pacific Northwest, will share the spotlight during Washington State University’s annual Lind Field Day.

The event begins 8:30 a.m. June 13 at the dryland research station in Lind.

Speaker Shannon Cappellazzi, of the Soil Health Institute in North Carolina, will discuss making soil health assessments useful for farmers. She will speak about the institute’s North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements, studying 31 indicators of soil health on 120 long-term experiments across Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

Pacific Northwest researchers will be able to compare soil health assessments with wheat-based systems elsewhere throughout the continent, said Bill Schillinger, director of WSU’s dryland research station in Lind, Wash.

“It’ll be the first detailed soil health assessment from long-term farming practices in the inland Pacific Northwest across numerous sites,” Schillinger said.

Four experiments in the Pacific Northwest dryland region were selected for the project, including Schillinger’s project on farmer Ron Jirava’s farm near Ritzville, Wash., now in its 23rd year; a project on farmer Curtis Hennings’ farm near Ralston, Wash., a biosolids project in Douglas County for nearly 20 years, and a long-term Oregon State University and USDA experiment in Pendleton, Ore.

As coordinator throughout the West, Cappellazzi took soil health measurements at all four sites and sites in California, Arizona and Utah.

All coordinators like Cappellazzi will have their soil health assessments completed in the field by June 15.

“This is going to move really fast,” Schillinger said. He expects some resulting publications out of the project later in 2019, with the total project completed within 2 1/2 years. “It’s just an incredibly fast timeline for this kind of thing. Usually it takes us forever to do this stuff.”

Other topics on the agenda:

• Winter pea acres are increasing despite low prices. USDA Agricultural Research Service breeder Rebecca McGee will provide updates on dryland varieties.

• Biosolids for wheat agronomy and soil microbes, with presentations by Schillinger and USDA ARS research plant pathologist Tim Paulitz.

“There’s pros and cons of using them,” Schillinger said. “They smell when you apply them, they smell when they get rained on afterwards for a while. The plus is they provide lots of micronutrients you’d have to pay a lot of money to get otherwise.”

• Updates on WSU’s winter wheat breeding and spring wheat breeding programs from Arron Carter and Mike Pumphrey.

• Updates from WSU, the state legislature, the state grain commission, Washington Association of Wheat Growers and Pacific Northwest Canola Association.

Farmers’ fields are looking average, with May precipitation slightly half of normal and nothing slated for June, Schillinger said. Winter precipitation was average.

“We’re fortunate to be average … winter wheat’s resilient. Spring crops? We’ll see,” he said.

The Lind event is the the best-attended of all field tours hosted statewide by WSU, according to the university, and the Pacific Northwest, Schillinger said.

“Farmers like coming not only to learn what we have going on, it’s a social event, too,” Schillinger said. “I think people enjoy the day.”

The event is free and open to the public.


UI conference brings heritage orchard efforts together

A University of Idaho conference will bring together experts from around the region in an effort to revive heritage fruit varieties.

The Heritage Orchard Conference will begin at 9 a.m. May 31 at the university’s Sandpoint Organic Agriculture Center.

Many institutions in the Northwest have a small orchard of heritage fruit, said Kyle Nagy, superintendent and orchard operations manager at the center.

“Everybody seems to be doing something a little bit different, with different goals,” Nagy said. “We’re looking to … see what we can all collaborate on in the future.”

The university received the 66-acre center as a donation in 2018.

“We’re kind of looking for how we can help with other programs and collaborate with goals they have already set out,” Nagy said.

The agenda includes presentations from the Lost Apple Project, the Boundary County Orchard Restoration Project, the Wyoming Apple Project and the Montana Heritage Orchard Program.

Demand for heritage and heirloom apple varieties has increased in recent years, largely driven by a growing interest in hard cider, Nagy said. Many hard ciders need a cider-specific variety, most of which are heritage fruits, he said.

“A lot of these old varieties were bred in a time when they were really looking for hard cider varieties,” he said. “Back when potable water was maybe something that was a little harder to come by, a lot of people were drinking cider as their hydration. Being fermented like that, it’s going to be safer for everybody to drink.”

Nagy estimates the conference will have about 75 participants.

The conference may move to other locations in future years, Nagy said.

Nagy hopes to spread the word about heritage varieties to home orchardists and home gardeners, beyond the few modern cultivars available to them.

“There’s just so many neat apples out there that people have never heard of,” he said.


WSU sets field tour season

Herbicide resistance and seed emergence will be among the many traits farmers think about when they look over new wheat varieties during Washington State University’s upcoming crop tour season.

“It’s going to be a busy June and July,” said Aaron Esser, interim director of WSU’s variety testing program.

Farmers take field trial results into account when considering wheat varieties for fall seeding.

Managing herbicides and herbicide resistance will also be top-of-mind for most growers, Esser said.

The growing season so far has been relatively quiet, Esser said, pointing to low stripe rust pressure.

“We have moisture in the soil profile, but it’s not as good as what we’ve had,” he said of the Davenport area. “We’re an inch or two off the last year or two.”

Varieties to watch include Norwest Duet, from Limagrain and Oregon State University; several Limagrain varieties and WSU’s Resilience and Purl, Esser said.

The schedule adds an Almira tour this year, replacing a tour in Creston last year.

The schedule:

• Horse Heaven: 8 a.m. June 4, contact Aaron Esser at 509-659-3210

• Ritzville: 1 p.m. June 5, contact Aaron Esser at 509-659-3210

• Western Whitman County (LaCrosse): 8:30 a.m. June 6, contact Steve Van Vleet at 509-397-6290

• Connell: 5 p.m. June 6, contact Aaron Esser at 509-659-3210

• Pendleton, Ore., field day: 7:30 a.m. June 11, contact Stewart Wuest at 541-278-4381

• Moro, Ore., field day: 7:30 a.m., June 12, contact Stewart Wuest at 541-278-4381

• Lind: 8:30 a.m., June 13, contact Bill Schillinger at 509-235-1933

• Harrington: 4 p.m., June 13, contact Aaron Esser at 509-659-3210

• St. Andrews: 5 p.m. June 14, contact Dale Whaley at 509-745-8531

• Moses Lake (irrigated): 8 a.m., June 18, contact Andy McGuire at 509-754-2011

• Pullman (WSU weed science): 1 p.m., June 19, contact Drew Lyon at 509-335-2961

• St. John: 10 a.m. June 19, contact Steve Van Vleet at 509-397-6290

• Lamont: 1:30 p.m., June 19, contact Steve Van Vleet at 509-397-6290

• Bickleton: 11 a.m. June 20, contact Hannah Brause at 509-773-5817

• Mayview: 9 a.m. June 21, contact Mark Heitstuman at 509-243-2009

• Anatone: 3:30 p.m. June 21, contact Mark Heitstuman at 509-243-2009

• Eureka (with Oregon State University and Northwest Grain Growers): 3 p.m. June  24, contact Aaron Esser at 509-659-3210

• Walla Walla (cereals; with Oregon State University and Northwest Grain Growers):  1 p.m., June 25, contact Aaron Esser at 509-659-3210

• Wilke Farm Field Day, Davenport: 8 a.m., June 26, contact Aaron Esser at 509-659-3210

• Reardan: 2 p.m., June 26, contact Aaron Esser at 509-659-3210

• University of Idaho/Limagrain, Lewiston, Idaho: 8:30 a.m., June 27, contact Doug Finklenberg at 208-799-3096

• Dayton (cereals and legumes, with Oregon State University and Northwest Grain Growers): 8 a.m., June 27, contact Paul Carter at 509-382-4741

• Almira: 3 p.m., June 27,  contact Aaron Esser at 509-659-3210

• Fairfield: 8 a.m., June 28, contact Aaron Esser at 509-659-3210

• Farmington: 8 a.m., July 9, contact Steve Van Vleet at 509-397-6290


Washington workshops address hemp issues

Washington farmers will learn about the essentials of raising hemp during two upcoming workshops, the first of which is this week.

Naked Science Topicals LLC in Spokane is sponsoring a workshop  on the global hemp outlook, regional possibilities and hemp production from seed to sale at 5 p.m. April 11 at the Museum Event Center, at 5225 N. Freya St. in Spokane. Cost is $50.

Bellingham, Wash., farmer Tom Lauerman will speak.

Lauerman returns, with state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley,  on June 1 to discuss the legalities of raising hemp. Shea is the author of a state bill on industrial hemp production.

The June meeting will be at the same location. The exact time is to be determined.

The state is issuing licenses to raise hemp, said Naked Science Topicals co-owner Tracy Sirrine.

“This is a very viable crop. It has a large number of uses — everything from fiber to fuel,” Sirrine told the Capital Press. “Hemp can replace a lot of the things we’re having issues with now, such as deforestation, and can be used to clean soil.”

The business has been operating for a year.