At a Lane County hazelnut farm, Mother Nature this year has been more forgiving than the trade war.
Snow fell hard in early February and snapped branches at Harper Farms. The Willamette River flooded in April and forced the replanting of some young trees there. But even as Midwestern farms are reeling from catastrophic weather, all farmer Tiffany Harper Monroe wants to know is when trade with China will stabilize for her hazelnut exports. “Trade disruption has heavily impacted almost all commodities in the United States, and especially at my family’s farm,” Harper Monroe said. “It’s been extremely challenging. We’ve had to make a lot of personal sacrifices.”
Still, Oregon farmers largely were able to plant their crops this year despite some moments of extreme weather, something farmers farther east can’t say after a devastating season that saw more acres of cropland prevented from farming than any previous year on record, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For Ohio, it was the worst year on record: 16% of total insured acerage there failed or was unplantable. In Oregon, less than 1% of some 13.6 million insured acres failed or were unplantable.
But if green-thumbed Oregonians successfully leaped the first agricultural hurdle of a planting season — getting crops in the ground and ready to grow — many are stumbling near the finish line, and for reasons that have nothing to do with blowing wind or falling rain.
Last year, fires disrupted a great deal of Oregon wheat planting. But farmers are pulling in an average or above-average crop right now, in part because weather conditions have been favorable this year, according to Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Commission.
Nationally, most of the acreage where farmers were prevented from planting due to weather conditions was for corn, at 11.2 million acres, followed by soybeans at 4.4 million acres, the USDA reported. Taking into account all acres where crops either failed or farmers did not plant, Louisiana had the highest percentage of affected agricultural land, followed by Massachusetts and Ohio.
About 6,000 acres couldn’t be planted in Oregon this year, according to the USDA. About half of those acres were wheat fields, but Oregonians plants about 770,000 acres of wheat each year.
“If you’re a farmer with those 3,000 acres or some part of them, it’s not negligible,” Rowe said. “It could be a huge deal for an individual farmer. But there will always be unplanted acres.”
Rowe instead pointed to trade disruption as the main problem for Oregon’s wheat farmers.
In all, 40% of Oregon agricultural production is exported internationally, according to the Oregon Farm Bureau. Oregon’s top markets are Japan, South Korea, Canada and China.
China hasn’t been buying U.S. wheat for about 18 months because of the trade war. The United States pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, disadvantaging American wheat in Japanese markets. Mexico is exploring secondary options for wheat because of uncertainty in future trade, and that’s the biggest market of all for American exporters.
President Donald Trump recently downplayed the importance of the wheat trade with Japan. “They send thousands and thousands — millions — of cars. We send them wheat. Wheat. That’s not a good deal. And they don’t even want our wheat,” Trump said Tuesday at a campaign stop in Pennsylvania. “They do it because they want us to at least feel that we’re OK. You know, they do it to make us feel good.”
The Oregon Wheat Growers League responded. “The president’s dismissive statements … demonstrated that he doesn’t fully appreciate the 70 years of efforts by generations of wheat growers to build the great relationships we have with our customers in Japan.”
Rowe said Oregon wheat growers need Japanese trade.
“We take that export market pretty personally,” he said.
Oregon potato farmers are similarly suffering, so much so that U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in February penned a letter to Ambassador Gregg Doud, chief agricultural negotiator in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, asking how the administration planned on limiting the effects of Mexican and Chinese retaliation against growers.
There are federal subsidies available to help farmers while the trade war is on, but hazelnut farmer Harper Monroe said that money isn’t quick in coming. “You still have to cover your losses,” she said.
Grass seed has been spared from the tariff battles with China, and planting weather last autumn has lead to a decent crop, said Marie Bowers of Bashaw Land and Seed in Harrisburg.
“Overall in the Willamette Valley, our culture in grass seed is fairly strong right now. We have good prices. We have diversity,” Bowers said. “One of my friends in the Midwest got all his planting done, but I’ve heard of people not even getting half of their planting done.”
While Oregon didn’t have a great start to this year’s planting due to snow, it has evened out since, said Northwest Farm Credit Services industry analyst Jon Driver.
“You might hear an old farmer say this is the 40th consecutive year of abnormal weather,” Driver said.
Any effects a late start gave farmers was mitigated by favorable summer conditions. “Everything is OK,” he said.
There was some rainy weather at the start of the summer harvest season, Bowers said, which wasn’t good for grass seed farmers. And a windstorm blew down portions of a large crop of meadowfoam. But Bowers said it’s not much to complain about. “That’s just the way farming works. We just roll with the punches.”