Winter’s snow adds strain to agriculture industry

Mid-Columbia farmers facing Yakima basin drought declaration on top of delay in planting, harvest

This year’s growing season may be challenging for farmers with possible drought conditions and delayed plantings after winter’s heavy, prolonged snow.

Wheat, wine grape, apple, asparagus and potato industry officials reported weather-related delays because of the record snowfall that blanketed the region for most of February and into March.

But despite the significant snow, water supply shortages are forecast in the Upper Yakima basin, which is 74 percent of normal. It’s prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to declare a drought emergency in this watershed, along with the Methow and Okanogan basins.

The water supply for Yakima River pro-ratable users such as Kennewick Irrigation District was at 77 percent in early April, the district reported.

The state Department of Agriculture is already advising growers to prepare and plan for limited water supplies. Many high-value crops such as apples, berries, pears, cherries and wine grapes could be at risk.

Potato farmers were about a month behind in planting, and Chris Voigt, executive director for the Washington Potato Commission, said that could lead to a fry-apocalypse this fall.

The shepody potato is an early-season variety that’s fast-growing and typically ready to harvest the first or second week of July. With the delayed planting season, potato farmers are banking on a dry spring and hot temperatures to give potatoes time to catch up.

“But a lot can happen between now and the middle of July,” Voigt said. “We’re a little nervous about that.”

For the last month two, Voigt said growers have been calling seed growers and fertilizer spreaders.

“Everybody is scrambling,” he said.

Although the snow disappeared quickly once mid-March hit, the wet soil made it difficult to use heavy machinery in the fields.

“It compacts the soil and squishes it down—turning it almost to cement. Dirt clods are created, and that will come up with the harvester and get loaded with your truck. Your truck will have half dirt and half potatoes,” Voigt said. “It’d be helpful to have a little bit of wind right now. That’s great at drying out soil.”

Coyote Canyon Vineyards, which has 1,300 acres in the Horse Heaven Hills American Viticulture Area, had to limit field equipment to avoid soil compaction, as it can affect water penetration. In addition, the company is using neutron probes in 80 sites to analyze soil data.

“I expected to see more runoff from the snow melt, but it occurred at a nice rate, allowing most of the moisture to be retained in the soil,” said Todd Chapman, vineyard manager for Coyote Canyon. “We like to have a full soil moisture profile early in the season to promote healthy canopy growth, gradually drying things out until fruit set.”

Ray McKee, who owns Washington Wine Consultants and works with vineyards such as Coyote Canyon, Chandler Reach and Alexandria Nicole Cellars, said the snow had a positive impact in that it provided a nice blanket so the vines could weather the freezing temperatures.

“It’s probably going to delay the start of our season. For the last four years, we’ve seen bud break earlier and earlier. Because there was quite a bit of snow, it will delay the ground from warming up,” said McKee, adding that when temperatures reach 50 degrees, dormant vines wake up.

Kimberly Garland-Campbell, a U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher at Washington State University, has a research specialty and interest in breeding wheat for winter survival. She said the snow also might have been a blessing for winter wheat farmers, as it acted as a protective blanket during the coldest temperatures.

State Department of Agriculture’s Chris McGann said his agency is hearing that spring wheat planting will be delayed as much as three weeks because of the weather.

Like the wheat, wine and potato industries, the Washington Apple Commission said orchardists were about two to three weeks behind in field work.

And the asparagus industry was feeling the stress as well.

“There’s so much need for labor around here during the spring,” said Greg Kinsey, who operates Kinsey Farms in Sunnyside. “It’s pretty intense, but we’ll make it. We’re just going to have to run tractors through the night if we have to.”

Normally Kinsey said his farm would be ready to cut the first week of April.

“But that’s not going to happen,” he said with a laugh.

Kinsey Farms has about 350 acres, and while his crops may be delayed, one of his biggest concerns isn’t the growth of produce, but rather finding labor.

For some companies, such as Coyote Canyon, the unusually warm November and December months gave workers a head start with pruning.

“A lot of growers were able to get quite a bit of work done because of the mild winter,” McKee said.

Chapman added that Coyote Canyon was two-thirds of the way done with pruning by the first week in February when the snow came.

“Chandler Reach waited until now to prune,” said McKee, referencing the 42-acre vineyard he consults for in Benton City. “They’ve held off until a week ago, but at their size, they’ll move through it in a couple of weeks.”

McKee went on to note that this summer is forecast to be one of the warmest in years, and if predictions are correct, they’ll be right back on track where they need to be in the vineyard.

“We hope for a nice, dry spring, considering we have all the moisture we need already,” he said.

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