From heat domes to supply chain woes, state agriculture weathers a challenging year

By Derek Sandison

Derek Sandison, Washington Department of Agriculture

Derek Sandison,
Washington Department of Agriculture

When it comes to growing food, it all starts with the weather. No doubt, the weather is having a substantial impact on agriculture of late.

In 2021, the lack of spring rains and low soil moisture resulted in difficult growing conditions for dryland agriculture, leading to a reduction in wheat yields of more than 40% compared to the five-year average.

Other dryland crops, like peas, lentils, garbanzos and barley, also had lower than normal yields.

Livestock also struggled, as a drop in dryland hay production led to low feed supply at the same time that poor pasture conditions led to high feed demand.

As if the drought conditions were not enough, a record-breaking heat wave, or heat dome, also lingered across the Pacific Northwest, reducing the yield and quality of several crops including berries, tree fruit and potatoes.

While the 2021 weather impacts are still not fully known, precipitation deficits have continued throughout Eastern Washington and the chances of recovering over the next several months are difficult to predict.

For the state’s tree fruit growers, weather concerns continued into 2022.

Cherry farmers are already working to assess the effects of a late spring snow and freeze, as well as the effect on pollination due to some cold, wet and windy conditions during full bloom. Transportation delays compounded cold weather impacts when producers were left scrambling to find propane to fuel wind machines to protect budding crops.

These weather impacts stack on top of the perennial integrated pest management issues – like apple maggot and coddling moth – mean our tree fruit growers are likely to face a challenging year ahead.

Rising fuel costs

Rising fuel costs have been a source of pain for commuters across the state, but those costs also are felt by the agriculture industry. On June 1, gas prices in Washington averaged $5.24 per gallon, an all-time high and over one and half times the retail price paid the year prior.

On average, fuel costs account for roughly 3% of on-farm production expenses, though that varies by commodity. Still, elevated fuel costs have a direct impact on producers, increasing the cost to power essential farm equipment like tractors, trucks and farm implements.

Rising fuel costs also are contributing to increased transportation costs, shortages and slowdowns.

Producers also are affected by higher natural gas prices. Natural gas accounts for 70%-90% of the costs required to produce nitrogen-based fertilizers, so higher natural gas costs mean an increase in the cost to produce fertilizer.

Nitrogen retail prices have increased over 150% since last year; phosphorus and potassium retail prices have similarly risen.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that total production expenses will rise by 5% in 2022, partially attributed to fuel and fertilizer prices, which have risen dramatically over the past year, on top of an increase of over 9% in production expenses in 2021.

Despite all these challenges, agriculture remains one of our state’s top industries, with a significant global footprint.

The value of Washington-grown and processed food and agriculture exports totaled
$7.7 billion in 2021, a 15% increase over 2020. Some of that is due to increases in export values, even while the volume of most exports declined.

Throughout 2021, the supply chain disruptions that started in 2020 because of Covid-19 only intensified.

Significant port congestion, a shortage of pallets and containers, and ocean carriers choosing to return to Asia with empty containers instead of shipping our agricultural products are just a few of the many challenges faced by Washington’s food and agriculture exporters.

It’s a chaotic environment for those in the business of exporting Washington agriculture products.

Ag worker shortage

One issue I haven’t mentioned is the difficulty in fielding an able and qualified workforce for agriculture. Struggling to fill job vacancies is nothing new for farmers and other agricultural employers.  

The one option more farmers are turning to is the federal H-2A program managed by both the U.S. Department of Labor and the Washington State Employment Security Department (ESD). This visa program allows farmers to recruit and hire from other countries to perform agriculture work on a seasonal basis.

The use of the program has increased in the last 10 years. In 2012, ESD reported 4,405 workers were requested to work in Washington state. In 2021, that number ballooned to 30,018. If the trend continues this year, more foreign workers will be in the state, but the late cold weather damage to fruit trees may have lessened the need for them.

In the coming year, many of these challenges will still be here, and WSDA will continue its efforts to support Washington’s great agricultural community.

Addressing food insecurity

In the past year, we have established grant programs like the small meat processors grant, which provided $3.6 million in grants to operations around the state.

Other grant programs are intended to bolster markets for local food producers, such as the farm-to-school grants and meat processor grants, which help improve sustainability for both farmers and consumers.

Food insecurity continues to be a priority issue, with the number of people seeking food assistance in Washington doubling during the pandemic and now with rising food costs due to inflation.

As many as 2 million people in the state still face food insecurity. From our initial emergency response during the pandemic to current enhanced Food Assistance programs and the We Feed Washington pilot food program, WSDA has developed strategies to feed all underserved communities and in doing so also support the diverse farmers and producers in our state.

Researchers at WSDA also have undertaken an effort to assess soil health in our state by participating in the Washington Soil Health Initiative and recently concluded a survey of dryland farmers to further their studies. This information will be critical for the researchers as they learn ways to support sustainable agricultural operations into the future.

Derek Sandison is director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

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