Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire has asked that 10 counties be declared federal disaster areas because of crop damage from drought and wildfires started by lightning.
Low-interest federal loans to hard-hit farmers under a disaster declaration are “sorely needed,” Gregoire wrote in a request submitted to Acting U.S. Agriculture Secretary Charles Conner.
The request covered Asotin, Columbia, Ferry, Garfield, Klickitat, Pend Oreille, Spokane, Stevens, Walla Walla and Whitman counties, all in Eastern Washington. A request for aid from Klickitat County on Sept. 18 and drought reports on other areas resulted in the request, the governor wrote.
One fire in Klickitat County alone blackened 30,000 acres of land with 15 owners, according to the county commissioners’ letter.
“All of the affected landowners lost fencing, some upwards of 14 miles, as well as winter pasture,” the commissioners wrote. “Most will be forced to purchase and feed expensive and scarce hay instead of allowing their cattle to graze through the winter.”
Asotin County, where wildfires ravaged nearly 6,000 acres of rangeland, is facing the greatest need for federal pasture land assistance since 1994, said Courtney Smith, a U.S. Department of Agriculture rangeland management specialist in Clarkston.
Eastern Washington hay production was half of average this year, and the yield of livestock pasture food was down by 60 percent, according to the governor’s office.
It was unclear how many farmers have been affected statewide. State and federal officials have yet to determine which areas and farmers had the worst of it, said Jason Kelly, a spokesman for state Agriculture Department.
“I guess the initial assessment is that the farther east you go, the more drastic the drought has been,” Kelly said.
John Stuhlmiller, director of state affairs for the Washington Farm Bureau, said hay and tree fruit growers reported some of the worst damage while some wheat producers benefited from record high prices.
“While it’s raining on the cherries (causing them to split), it’s good for the wheat,” Stuhlmiller said. “It’s kind of a perverted trade-off.”
The high wheat prices reflect below-normal crop yields statewide, nationwide and worldwide, said Randy Suess, a farmer just north of Colfax and chairman of the Washington Wheat Commission.
“I think as an entire state, we were way under average as far as yields,” Suess said. “That’s one of the reasons it is $10 (a bushel). There’s not a lot of wheat to sell.”
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