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Northwest Wheat Farmers Look Forward To Restored Market

Anna King

The first bushels of Northwest wheat are coming off honey-colored fields in southeast Washington. The harvest comes just as Japan and South Korea say they’ll resume buying Northwest wheat.

The Asian countries banned the U.S. grain after some genetically modified plants were found in Oregon this spring. The rebound is a huge relief for Northwest farmers, but market confidence remains shaken.

At Blain Ranch in Patterson, Washington, a massive combine hunkers over the earth. It cuts blonde swaths across the field, like a giant Hoover making lines in a deep shag carpet. 

“There are two types of farm kids: those that can’t wait to get away, and those that can never quite get over being a farmer. So I was one of the ones that wanted to come home,” said farmer Andy Juris.

One challenge Juris has had deal with is genetically-modified organisms. It’s something his father and his grandfather never had to face.

Wheat varieties modified to resist the herbicide RoundUp escaped and were found in Oregon in May. Prices dropped, overseas markets closed. Those markets are only now beginning to come back just as the grain is starting to roll in.

“I think it’s a relatively isolated incident that we may never see again,” Juris said. “I think it was just a matter of time before this dialogue about the issue came up. This incident has forced the conversation to happen now.”

Bottom line, says Juris: anything grown in the field has to have a market. He’s seen other experimental crops that go nowhere.

“ ... there’s really nothing we can do with it. You can’t sell it, there’s really no market for it,” he said. “And this GMO thing has the potential to be like that. There are just a lot of unknowns, and there’s one thing that a farmer hates is unknowns.”

Still, Juris says two things he can’t control—the rest of the world’s wheat crop, and the weather—probably have a bigger influence on prices than Japan and South Korea’s shut down. 

There’s still a lot of uncertainty. And he’s not yet sure whether to store most of his hard-earned grain on the farm and sell it later, or drive it to the elevators soon for a quick payout.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.