‘It’s going to be a difficult year’: Local dryland farmers struggling with severe drought conditions

HARTLINE, Wash. – Both Eastern Washington and Northern Idaho are under severe to extreme drought conditions now. Dryland farmers, and their crops, are struggling with the little rain.

Comparing Wheat Heads

Wheat head comparison from Ryan Poe’s field. The left is what a normal sized wheat head looks like, the right shows a smaller wheat head with some frost damage.

There are pockets of yellow in Ryan Poe’s winter wheat field in Hartline. It’s supposed to all be green. His crop isn’t growing as tall, either. Walking through the field, in some sections, the height of the crop went to Poe’s knees, but in other areas it went down to his shins.

His wheat heads are also not normal. Some grew to its regular size, but the drought and drastic change in temperatures ruined the fifth generation farmer’s field this year.

“This definitely the driest, kind of late winter and going into spring that I’ve seen,” Poe told 4 News Now.

Rain total in the last three months for the Wilbur area – near Hartline – show that 2021 is in the top five when it comes to the driest years.

In 1924, from March to June, there was only half an inch of rain. The second was 2021, which saw .56 inches of rain in the same time period. The next three least amount of precipitation years were all before 1975.

“It’s going to be a difficult year. It’s very important that farmers do have crop insurance, because they’re not going to have 100 percent of their crop back,” said Michelle Hennings, the executive director of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.

Poe knows he wouldn’t get 100 percent of his crop back this year. When he planted in the fall, he was hopeful, having good moisture then. He was hoping to have an above average yield, but that isn’t happening anymore.

“I think that’s been one of the most disappointing things for me. This dry kind of late winter, early spring, we had really good potential. If we could’ve gotten some timely rain, we could cut a really above average crop,” he said.

On his wheat field, the average yield would be 65 bushels per acre. Now he’s looking in the 40s range.

Not only that, the quality of his wheat may not be as good anymore, either. Temperatures have been fluctuating in Eastern Washington. In the last week it went up to 90 degrees then back down to the 60s.

Lower quality wheat and higher protein counts means less money for Poe to bring in.

“It’s almost feels like it’s kicking you when you’re down where we’re already going to have that lower crop,” he said.

Fortunately, Poe has crop insurance for his wheat, but he doesn’t for his cows. He’s worried about how much grass he’ll have this season to feed his cows.

“I hope to not be feeding cows until December, but this year is just one of those years that if things don’t change, we’re either going to be looking for other places to go with them,” he said. “I hope I don’t’ have to think about selling them.”

Poe is an optimist, he says, happy that he at least has a crop to harvest as opposed to others in the state who may not have any at all.

Hennings said there are some farmers who have “complete crop failures,” in Walla Walla, Benton and Klickitat counties.

All farmers can do now is wait. Poe will have to start harvesting earlier than normal, moving his timeline up.

Hennings said the association plans to send a letter to the governor’s office hoping to get him to declare an emergency on the drought to help get farmers more funding and resources to get through these times.

Now, they’re all just hoping for more rain this fall.

“If this happens to be a two-year drought, next year would be very devastating,” Hennings added.