JOSEPH — All those amber waves of grain we see flowing across Wallowa County will soon be on their way to destinations where they’ll be turned into bread, pasta or pastry, as farmers get started with their annual wheat harvest.
But first, the combines roll.
Most farmers in the county have yet to start cutting, but a couple who have wheat off the Imnaha Highway were cutting last week and were pleased with the crop they were harvesting.
Robert Butterfield, of Butterfield Farms, was cutting dark northern spring wheat — used largely for bread — off Tenderfoot Valley Road east of Joseph.
“The yield’s been good,” he said. “With irrigated ground, it stays pretty consistent.”
Butterfield, with wife, Julie, operate their own farm. But it’s in conjunction with the farm of his parents, Dan and Lori Butterfield, and brother Eric and his wife, Katie.
Robert and Julie graduated from the University of Idaho in Moscow in 2006 and came back to Wallowa County to put his degree in agriculture business to work. His studies taught him the marketing aspects of farming. Julie teaches at Enterprise schools.
“Usually she’s out here helping, but they’re getting going at school,” he said.
Robert said the “good” yield means about 100 bushels per acre. That’s been on conventional-style irrigated land.
“That’s a pretty good average for us,” he said. “We’re really pretty optimistic.”
Dan Butterfield said that some of their land, which they’ve chosen to do the no-till method, is a little less productive. He said they planted it directly onto sod that previously grew timothy grass hay.
“It’s down a little,” he said after doing some test cuts Wednesday, Sept. 2. “We’ve done some no-tilling and it’s down a little.”
Greg Brink, who also farms wheat off the Imnaha Highway east of Joseph, has about 800 acres in both spring-planted soft white wheat and DNS. He’s been farming since 1985.
White wheat goes mostly for pasta or pastry.
He’s expecting to get 100-plus bushels per acre of the DNS and 90-plus of the SWW.
“The yield looks good, so far,” he said. “Some of it’s a little wet.”
As a result of the test cut, he said Wednesday, he expects to hold off a while to complete the harvest.
As for the market, the Butterfields and Brink all ship to Tri-Cities Grain. There, it’s loaded onto barges and shipped down the Columbia River to Portland, from where it goes to China and other Pacific Rim countries.
Brink and Robert Butterfield both had an app on their cellphones to give the current prices at Tri-Cities Grain. Butterfield said it costs about 60 cents a bushel to ship there.
On Tuesday, Tri-Cities Grain was paying $6.06 per bushel for DNS for Sept. 20 delivery and $4.90 a bushel for SWW for the same delivery date.
Brink is not impressed with the current prices.
“We’re not getting very much,” he said.
However, he said, it is comparable to last year.
The global market has a direct impact on Wallowa County growers.
“China’s a big market for it; they use a lot of DNS,” Robert Butterfield said.
He said the COVID-19 pandemic and the trade situation have thrown a wrench in that market.
“We were all optimistic trade was going to boost the DNS price, but it’s kind of gone the other way,” he said.
But the market could improve, Robert Butterfield said, though it’s on the backs of those who experienced a disaster. Last month, he said, about 500 million bushels of grain were destroyed in the field.
“Things have softened up,” he said, “after the Midwest got hit with a major storm.”
But the actual grain isn’t the only thing a wheat farmer can harvest. Eric Butterfield’s specialty, his dad said, is selling and marketing the straw left in the fields after the combines reap the grain.
Eric has it baled into small bales — not the large, round or large, square bales most do — and sold to feed stores. Customers buy a bale or two for use as livestock bedding.
“Not a lot of people do that anymore, so he sells a lot to feed stores,” Dan Butterfield said. “They want small bales.”
Most farms that bale straw do so in large bales for use at mushroom farms.
“For somebody who just wants one bale out of a feed store, it’s a lot easier with a small bale,” he said.
He said they didn’t used to sell much straw.
“Then (Eric) got involved,” Dan Butterfield said. “It’s all about marketing.”