Across the Pacific Northwest, wheat harvests have been affected by the hot and dry weather. Both yields and quality are significantly lower than usual, spurring an earlier-than-usual harvest and concerns about protein levels.

Low precipitation levels in the second half of winter and all of this spring impacted the wheat while it was doing most of its growing, Mid-Columbia Producers (MCP) Grain Merchandiser Justin Miller said. The dryness is beyond what the area usually sees.

“It seems like the faucet got turned off in January and didn’t get turned back on again,” Miller said.

Jacob Powell, Oregon State University Agriculture Extension agent, said the drought has been unlike anything seen in the area for almost 50 years.

“In our region the precipitation of the last three months, back through April, is about 20% of average,” Powell said. “A lot of the wheat farmers, a lot of the producers remember there was a drought back in 1977. But a lot of them would probably say this was worse then what they had back then, so just extremely dry.”

The ongoing drought has also caused wheat yields to be patchy and inconsistent, Powell said, which means looking at the fields could be deceptive.

“As you drive through the fields, just on the roads, you can see there are some areas where the crop looks really good, the wheat is standing nice and tall, it has a very filled-out kernel on the head of the wheat, but there are other patches where the quality is very poor,” he said. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) is a national service that evaluates wheat quality each year, Powell said. They assess how much of the wheat is in good to excellent condition in an area. Last year, that number was 50%, and in 2019 it was 60%. 

For 2021, that number is currently 10%, Powell said.

“The fact that we are only at 10% is very outstanding in a bad way,” he said.

Miller said the previous few years have been great wheat years, which makes this year seem especially bad in comparison.

“We’ve had some really good years the last two to three years, both yield-wise and quality-wise, and unfortunately to make averages when you have some good years you’re going to have to have some down years,” Miller said.

Another prevalent concern is the content of protein in the wheat being grown, Powell said. 

“Most of the wheat that’s being grown in Wasco county is almost entirely soft white wheat and that is grown for flour millers that are primarily in Asian countries, where they use the flour primarily for pastries and crackers,” Powell said. “So they really like having grain to work with that has very low protein, which means the gluten is not as stretchy.”

The drought has caused protein to be more concentrated inside the grain of the wheat, Powell said. Because of this, local producers are concerned that there may be a dock to prices, due to protein content being higher than what millers may actually want.

However, due to limited availability and international trade agreements, prices of wheat are higher than they typically have been, Powell said. Miller said prices last year would’ve been around $6 a bushel, whereas now a typical bid is $8.35, which could make a big difference for farmers.

 This should, in theory, lessen some of the monetary impact of the lower yields.

“It’s nice that the price is going up but the prices of other things they need to purchase are going up as well,” Powell said. “That [price increase] is going to help balance things out but it’s still going to be a struggle.”

Crop insurance should also lighten the burden to some local farmers, Miller said, though they don’t want that to be something the farmers have to rely on consistently. 

The hope is that this year will be a one-off, Powell said, though if there continues to be low rain throughout the fall, it may be difficult for farmers to even seed the wheat to begin with.

Though there’s not a lot locals can do monetarily to support producers, due to most local wheat going overseas to China, where there’s demand, they can provide support by being conscious of actions that could start a fire, Powell said. A fire can be a horrible thing for a wheat farmer to have to go through on top of an already difficult year.

“They’re struggling enough with the drought affecting their livestock and crops that we definitely don’t need more fires causing additional issues.”