Combines have been in action around Washington County in recent weeks as the annual wheat harvest hit its stride. In this part of Oregon, the main wheat harvest generally starts in July and wraps up in August, and from Hillsboro to Forest Grove, farmers have been out in force bringing in their crop.Photo Credit: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Edmund Duyck has been farming wheat in the Hillsboro area since 1954. At age 84, Duyck still operates a tractor and enjoys producing crops on his land.

The good news is, recent prices for a bushel of wheat are high enough to keep farmers at least mildly optimistic about next year’s crop.

“Overall, over the past five years or so, wheat prices have been strong,” said Nicole Anderson, north valley field crop extension agent for Oregon State University. “It has declined a bit in the past several months, but compared to the 30-year average, it has been generally strong — in the $6.50 to $7 a bushel range. The 30-year average may be in the high $5 a bushel range.”

“It has gone from $5 to $15 a bushel over the last five years,” said Dave Vanasche, owner of Vanasche Farm north of Cornelius. “Seven dollars per bushel is profitable. Below there, it’s getting closer to the cost of production.”

Almost all of the wheat grown in Washington County is soft white wheat. According to Bruce Pokarney, director of communications for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, most county farmers sell their wheat to the Port of Portland, and from there it’s delivered to overseas markets.

“In Oregon, we export most of our wheat,” Pokarney said. “The vast majority is exported to Asia. In fact, 80 percent of all our agriculture leaves Oregon, and wheat certainly fits that description.”

“We can haul wheat to the Port of Portland and get a check three or four days later,” Vanasche said. Photo Credit: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT -  A closeup of wheat growing in a field just outside Banks.

According to the 2012 agricultural census produced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are 1,968 farms engaged in wheat production in Oregon, with 162 of them in Washington County. For perspective, in the USDA’s 2007 census, there were 117 farms growing wheat in Washington County.

Pokarney said there was a good reason for the jump in the number of wheat farms over that five-year period.

“What happened for a lot of folks in the Willamette Valley was, when grass seed prices tumbled in 2008 [and] 2009, grass seed and nurseries took a big hit,” Pokarney explained. “So farmers were looking for another crop to make money at that time, and wheat really started to increase in price. Wheat replaced grass seed for some, and that was certainly the case in Washington County.”

Vanasche said he was one of the affected farmers, with the sharp economic downturn at that time forcing his hand.

“I had 2,000 acres of grass seed, but the seed market collapsed in about 2008, while the price of wheat came up,” he said. “So we took out some of our grass seed and planted wheat. Wheat is a worldwide crop, and there were good margins to be made.”

Vanasche said grass seed remains his main crop. He now has 1,350 acres in grass seed — tall fescue and perennial rye — and just 385 acres for wheat. But wheat remains vital to his overall business, and he said he intends to stick with it for the foreseeable future.

“I’ll continue to grow 300 to 400 acres a year in wheat,” he said. “As long as it stays economically feasible, we’ll keep raising it. There are 200 crops we can grow in the Willamette Valley, and wheat is one of them.”

Vanasche added that growing wheat has been something of a family tradition.

“This is a Century Farm and it has been here since 1896,” Vanasche said. “My grandpa grew wheat, and my dad grew quite a bit of it.”

Although his farm has a history of wheat production, Vanasche said that does not mean he will stick to it even if prices are down. He pointed out that he stopped growing wheat in 1996 and did not bring it back for 12 years.

“The price was way below the cost of production,” he explained. “But eventually the price of wheat came back.”

Edmund Duyck, a Hillsboro farmer and president of the Oregon Farm Bureau, said wheat was the first crop he ever planted when he got started in farming in 1954.

“I’ve been farming for 60 years,” said Duyck, 84. “I started when I came out of the service.”

In 2014, he is still farming wheat, although it is not his primary crop. Duyck owns a total of about 950 acres in the Hillsboro area, but rents most of it out to other farmers. He currently farms about 300 acres himself.

“This year, I only have about 70 acres of wheat,” Duyck said.

Despite the relatively light investment of land for growing wheat, Duyck said he is pleased with the result.

“I had the best yield I ever had last year,” he said. “That’s the only way you can come out ahead.”

In fact, the prime yields are one of the factors that makes the Willamette Valley a highly attractive place to grow wheat.

“Most farmers in this area get about 130 bushels for an acre,” said Vanasche. “In Sherman County, they got about 30 bushels. They had a lot of rain in January and February, but then it quit raining. Here, it quit raining in May. The nice thing here is, with wheat, we don’t have to water it. Usually we have enough rain and moisture in the ground to carry the crop through to harvest.”

No rainfall problem

State Rep. Ben Unger, whose district includes parts of Hillsboro, Cornelius and Forest Grove, said conditions in the Willamette Valley are excellent for growing wheat.

“The eastern part of the state is struggling because of drought. We don’t really have a rainfall problem in the valley,” Unger said. “It takes a remarkable year to limit what is produced here. Weather can have an influence, but eastern Oregon is very dependent on the small amount of water they get.”

Vanasche praised two Northwest universities for helping to improve conditions for farmers in the region.

“When I started [in 1977], 100 bushels an acre was considered good,” he said. “Most of the wheat is in a breeding program through Washington State University or Oregon State University. They are the reason for the increased yields. They deal with disease elimination and help eliminate the need to spray fungicides.”

Pokarney said 1.5 million bushels of wheat were harvested in Washington County in 2012, the last full year for which USDA figures are available. The statewide total was 57.5 million.

The value of the wheat sold in Washington County in 2012 totaled $11.7 million, and $424 million for the entire state.

“It’s always interesting to look at these numbers,” Pokarney said. “Washington County is such a large agricultural county, and there is a lot of diversity here. People think of wheat and they think of eastern Oregon and Umatilla, but Washington County is a big part of [the state’s wheat production].”

According to OSU Extension’s Anderson, the county now has approximately 14,000 to 14,500 acres in wheat production, down a bit from 2013 levels.

Duyck said the price for a bushel of wheat spiked in February.

“It was $7.90 for one day in February,” he said, adding that even at that rate it’s not easy for a farmer to cover the costs of fuel, fertilizers, equipment, pesticides and everything else that goes into having a successful year.

“We’re on a yo-yo between $6 and $7 a bushel,” Duyck explained. “It’s not as good as it ought to be. But I’ll shop around (for a buyer) and see the best I can do.”

Unger said unpredictability is just part of farming.

“Farmers are making OK money on seed and grain crops,” Unger said. “They don’t make a lot of money, but it’s OK. But there’s not a single wheat farmer in this county who hasn’t seen wheat prices below $4 a bushel.”

All things considered, Duyck said wheat was probably not the best option this year for farmers in the county, because wheat prices have not been great.

“This is the year for corn,” Duyck said. “I have 25 acres of sweet corn, and it’s producing 12 tons to an acre. “If I get eight or nine tons, it’s good.”

Duyck pointed out that corn has proven to be a savior more than once since he started farming.

“Corn has been my most reliable crop over the years,” he said.

With his career in farming winding down, Duyck was happy to offer advice to those just starting out.

He cautioned that farming is a big responsibility.

“What a lot of guys fall down on is timing,” he explained. “They don’t plant on time or spray on time, and end up with half a crop. If you want to run around at night, don’t be a farmer. The crops and animals have to come first.”

He also cautioned against working too much.

“Don’t try to own the whole country and work so hard you don’t enjoy it,” he said.

Both Duyck and Vanasche stressed the importance of planting a variety of crops.

“The name of the game in this area is diversification,” Vanasche noted.

“Get diversified,” agreed Duyck. “Don’t put it all in one basket. If you have a variety of crops, one thing will pull you through.”

Vanasche has taken his own advice to heart. In fact, about a year and a half ago he branched out even further — literally — and planted hazelnut trees on 90 acres.

“Hazelnuts are growing in demand, so that’s why we planted them,” he said. “It’s a long-term investment.”

Despite his age, Duyck — the father of Washington County Board of Commissioners Chairman Andy Duyck — said even with the familiar ups and downs of the business, he still enjoys working the land on his tractor and producing crops.

“I’m no spring chicken,” he said. “But as long as we sell what we raise, it’s fair money and I ain’t complaining.”

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