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Rain, cold bring headaches for Northwest farmers

Dennis Glaser's farm should be abuzz with activity, with his tractors in the field and three John Deere combines churning out premium Oregon grass seed.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Dennis Glaser's farm should be abuzz with activity, with his tractors in the field and three John Deere combines churning out premium Oregon grass seed.

But the combines sit idle in a garage, and Glaser has plenty of time to show around some visitin g golf course managers. That's because, while most of the United States suffers from oppressive heat, Oregon remains far too cold and wet to dry out Glaser's crops.

Across the Pacific Northwest, farmers like Glaser are nervously watching their bottom lines as they cope with a year of cool, damp weather that has caused late cherry crops, spoiled peaches and the threat that world-class grass seed could fail to dry out and germinate before it reaches the market.

"I don't recall it ever being quite this bad," said Glaser, 64, who farms land that's been in his family since the year before he was born. "We've had wet springs, but it usually stops at some point on the way."

Not this year. Oregon grass seed is at least 10 days behind, and more rain would delay it further. Next week's forecast shows some cloudy days.

Anticipating a rapid harvest, Glaser bought a third, $250,000 combine last week to help keep up. He doesn't want to leave 1,300 acres of grass in the field like he had to do in 1967, another especially rainy year. He's bracing for the possibility of losing 20 percent of his business.

Grass seeds grow on the top of stalks. Farmers harvest it by cutting the stalks and bundling them into rows called windrows, then waiting seven to 10 days for the seeds to dry out. They're then collected in a combine, which separates the seeds from the rest of the plant.

The typical warm, dry summers in Oregon's Willamette Valley create an ideal climate to grow high-quality grass and vegetable seed because, usually, Mother Nature will dry seeds out. Oregon's 1,500 grass seed farmers have a competitive advantage over those in England, New Zealand and elsewhere, where high humidity means the seed must be dried artificially, costing time, money and quality.

Oregon seed is stored and transported easily. It's shipped globally and sprouts almost two-thirds of cool-season grasses in the United States, experts say. Oregon farmers produced some $256 million worth of grass seed in 2010, making it the state's sixth-most lucrative commodity, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

Dampness can destroy the seed or cause it to germinate before it reaches a golf course or baseball outfield.

"The industry kind of counts on it not raining once you get to July," said Mark Mellbye, an Oregon State University professor who studies grass seed from the extension office in Albany.

The problem is, much of the Willamette Valley has had more than twice the normal rainfall in July, according to National Weather Service data. The average monthly temperature has been 2 to 3 degrees below normal.

One rain storm is enough to set back the crop for five days, pushing the harvest closer to the rainy season and making it harder to fill orders on time, experts said.

The unusual weather isn't just affecting seeds.

A warm spell in February followed by frosts and freezing temperatures hurt cherry and apple production, leading to a U.S. Department of Agriculture disaster declaration last week that covers eight counties in northeast Oregon and neighboring Washington. The declaration gives farmers access to emergency loans.

Last month, Washington County outside Portland asked for a similar disaster declaration, estimating an 80 percent loss to peach and caneberry crops because of a cold, wet spring.

In Washington, some peas and corn were planted late due to wet weather. Elsewhere, apples are behind schedule and vulnerable to a freeze in the fall, said Dan Wood, director of local affairs for the Washington Farm Bureau.

Consumers get accustomed to eating particular foods at certain times of year, farmers say, and if you miss the window, many customers lose interest. The cherry harvest, typically well under way in early July, had barely begun at that time this year.

"If you have to wait until after the Fourth of July to start selling your cherries, then you've missed a huge market opportunity," said Lynn Long, an Oregon State professor who studies cherries from the extension office in The Dalles. And, there's a danger now of late-season rains, which can split cherries open if they're ripe, he said.

It's not all bad news. Wheat, a roughly $1 billion per-year crop in Oregon and Washington combined, is behind schedule but thriving in some areas. As long as there's not a poorly-timed rain that causes the grain to sprout, wheat farmers could have a good harvest.

But other farmers need some warm weather to dry things out. Glazer said it's always a gamble with the weather.

"There's no reason to go to Reno, or Vegas," he says. "Farmers gamble all the time, and probably bet a lot more money than they'd ever consider putting in a slot machine."