The last of Wallowa County’s more than 10,000 acres of wheat has finally been harvested. Most farmers agree wheat prices are down, though that is attributed to a variety of causes.
Tim Melville grows hard white spring wheat on his farm just east of Enterprise. The crop is mostly used for bread. “There’s too much wheat in the world,” Melville said “The main thing is supply and demand … you pay a farmer to grow it, and you get too much.” He said part of the problem for American farmers over the past 10 years is an increase of wheat grown in the Black Sea region and in Brazil.
“When you’ve got overproduction, the tariffs aren’t the big problem,” he said. “What people don’t realize is we grow some peas and they’re way down,” he said. “But that’s because of tariffs by India on crops just to protect their local farmers and keep the price high for them.”
Son Kevin Melville agreed, though he put some of the blame on the trade dispute with China. “(Prices) are down a bit because of the trade war with China, but not as bad as for corn and soybeans,” he said.
“The tariffs aren’t helping so people go buy somewhere else, like from Canada,” Tim Melville added.
But it’s not always about just getting a better price for grain buyers. The Melvilles emphasized the better quality of U.S. grain.
“People will buy from other places, but the quality is not as good,” Tim Melville said. “When people can’t buy the quality they want from other places, they’ll buy here.”
Trevor Collins, who has about 200 irrigated acres of dark northern spring wheat along Elk Mountain Road east of Enterprise, manages an operation owned by his mother that’s been there 32 years.
“Prices this year are so bad, there was no reason to lock them in in May,” he said, adding that prices are about $1 per bushel less than at this time last year.
Last year, as usual, he contracted about a third of his crop in May, another third during the summer and the rest at harvest. Because of the market’s volatility this year, he didn’t bother with a contract.
“Prices on my farm were weak before this so it’s likely they haven’t recovered as quickly as a result (of the tariffs),” he said. “It can’t not have something to do with it, particularly on the recovery time.”
Darrin Walenta, the Union County Extension agent who serves as the agronomist for Wallowa County, estimated there are 10,000 to 12,000 acres of all types of wheat in the county, though the figure changes from year to year. He said he’s not sure the exact acreage under cultivation for this year, and it won’t be reported for 2019 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture until January.
As to the quality of this year’s crop, Walenta was optimistic.
“It’s been a good year for winter wheat crops, but everything is late, of course,” he said. “Yields have been better than average. But I won’t know for sure till later on when we get everything in the bin.”
Walenta said the county produces mostly soft white winter wheat used for pastries, noodles and cakes.
“A lot of it gets exported to Pacific Rim countries, about 80% to 90%,” he said.
The Melvilles and Collins sell at least some of their crop for export overseas, so the potential for tariffs remains a concern and the producers are keeping their hopes up at President Donald Trump’s attempts to renegotiate a trade deal with China and resolve the dispute over the tariffs.
“I’m not sure if he’s going to be successful,” Collins said. “I’m biting the bullet, but it’s taking its toll. We’ll see.”
“I’m all in favor of” Trump’s efforts, Kevin Melville said, in agreement with his father. “Especially of solving the problem of China being a bad player on the world market.”
But Collins is pleased with the 14% protein he’s seeing in his crop, which is used for bread and flour.
“That’s a high protein for wheat,” he said.