Michael Quin Heavener

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Corn fits the pattern

Basin farmers replace sugar beets

EPHRATA, Wash.—Money is the only difference between sugar for Utah and corn for Russia. Like consumers everywhere, farmers are seeking the best value for every dollar. So, with the loss of the Salt Lake City-based U & I sugar beet processing plant in Moses Lake, farmers planted other crops that are maturing for harvest now.

Ephrata farmer George Pheasant examines his corn crop    

Not too wet OR dry
Ephrata farmer George Pheasant checks the maturity of his coming corn harvest, looking primarily at moisture content. He, and other growers in the Columbia Basin, are discovering new economic value converting to corn for export as a replacement crop. They were hard-hit by last spring's closing of the U & I sugar beet plant which devastated their beet-based market.

One of these crops is grain corn, a staple of the cattle industry, and a high demand item in cold, far-away Russia, where corn can't easily be grown. The Russians bought a tremendous amount of corn this year," said Ephrata farmer George Pheasant, who hopes to receive nearly $29,000 for his 300 tons of corn. Pheasant predicates that figure on an estimated return of $100 per ton, with a harvest of at least four and a half tons from each of his 65 aces.

Quincy farmer Lyle Bair thinks the 400 acres of corn he and his three brothers are growing will yield five tons per acre or better, for a gross return of $200,000. I enjoy growing corn," Bair said. "I should have gotten into it a long time ago. You don't have to hurry to get it in the spring and you don't have to hurry in the fall."

He claims he was the "guinea pig last year" for the corn experiment. At the time, his brothers wanted to see if corn would fit into the rotation of sugar beets and potatoes, which they contract grow for Lamb Weston processors in Quincy. "Dad always said the best spuds he ever grew were in a corn field" Bair said with a hearty chuckle.

There might be as much as 50,000 acres of corn growing in the Columbia Basin, estimated Grant-Adams County extension agent Elvin Kulp, for an increase of at least 25 percent from last year. He attributed that to the U & I closure. He couldn't guess what the total acreage in Washington State would be, but figured that "we're minor in terms of corn production," compared to such grain states as Iowa.

"We have a freight advantage to marketing our corn as an export crop," explained Kulp. "Corn is like the wheat market, it fluctuates up and down. One grain affects another, with feeders doing a lot of grain substitution."

Washington corn almost always stays west of the Idaho border, and most of it even stays in the state. The larger grain states hold an edge on futures markets, but export is still strong here, moving out of ports at Seattle and Portland "to any country that normally would take export from the west coast," including Russia, according to both Kulp and Pheasant.

Strong corn-growing areas in the state are also located in the Yakima Valley, where another U & I plant at Toppenish was closed this year, and around the Tri-Cities. "There's no difference between our production than say Yakima," said Kulp. "The Midwest has an advantage in having the right weather. That's why they produce corn and we produce wheat. They have an economic advantage in their access to major markets.

Other crops that replaced sugar beets include wheat, beans and peas, grain sorghum, and barley, which is also a new crop to the Columbia Basin. Corn has a selling point for farmers in the amount of risk they take. "There's nothing major that can go wrong. You know what the costs are and what you'll get out of the crop.

"There are onions laying in the fields now. If it rains, they'll rot in storage. If it rains, the husk will protect corn — and it has to be put through a drier anyway," said Kulp The trickiest part of corn production is in the drying, Pheasant agreed. In the field, the crop has to lose moisture or profits will be lost having the grain dried in bins. But too much field drying will cause the corn to snap through combine rollers and fall to the ground, creating a loss of up to 10 percent.

Because he and his brother are diversified, with apple, pear, and cherry orchards, corn, wheat, and beans, Pheasant hasn't installed a drying and storage unit on his own farm. Bair and his brothers are building one now, hoping to complete it by harvest time. Their success with corn, coupled to the loss of sugar beets as a cash crop, encouraged the expense. Using a federal loan, the Bairs invested $70,000 in dryers and bins to store up to 2,000 tons. "We have the capacity to do custom drying for our neighbors too," said Bair.

Bair feels drying corn in town, at a warehouse facility as Pheasant does, is too slow and leaves him at the mercy of others. "This is a long-term investment, but it's worthwhile for the flexibility it allows."

It helps to have participated in the Department of Agriculture's farm storage facility loan program, which makes 85 percent of the cost available at 10&#frac12; percent maximum interest. "It's strictly limited to producers' own storage needs," said Ben Davis, executive director of the Grant County Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Services office. "It fits in with the philosophy of price supports. It gives the producer an opportunity to hold onto his grain until the price fits his needs."

Corn growers such as Bair, who switched from beets, aren‘t faced with major equipment expenses for cultivation. Most of them already own combines and only need to add a corn head to be in business. In addition "we have to hire Mexicans to work with beets" he said. "I had the same family all the time, but I'm glad I don't have to keep them any longer, even though they're good."


Published by The Columbia Basin Daily Herald, Scripps-Howard League Newspapers, Moses Lake, WA, 98837

 

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