TWIN FALLS — Even before the 2021 Small Grains report came out at the end of September, south-central Idaho producers already knew what it was going to say.
“Unfortunately we were expecting to see a huge drop in production,” said Casey Chumrau, executive director of the Idaho Wheat Commission. “Of course seeing it in black and white brings it to reality and it’s never easy to see.”
Every year, the United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service releases a report that tracks data for winter wheat, spring wheat, barley and oats.
The data for 2021 paints a bleak picture for Idaho.
Winter and spring wheat production were both down 32% from 2020. Barley production was down 21% and oat production dropped 43%.
Idaho planted 510,000 acres of spring wheat in 2021, the same acreage as 2020. However, yields went from 91 bushels per acre to 63 bushels per acre. A bushel of wheat is equivalent to 60 pounds of wheat or about one million wheat kernels.
And Idaho wasn’t the only state that struggled. Winter wheat production across Idaho, Washington and Oregon was down 40% this year, the lowest year on record since 1991.
Part of the dramatic shift in production can be attributed to ideal growing conditions in 2020 and disastrous conditions in 2021.
“The truly unprecedented thing I think about this year is that it affected every acre of land in Idaho,” Chumrau said. “Usually we kind of depend on our geographic diversity and the sheer size of the state and the microclimates to ensure that at least some part of the state will have a normal crop.”
Looking at last winter, the snowpack and soil moisture conditions were OK, but the spring rains never materialized, she said. The Idaho Wheat Commission, which Chumrau runs, is a non-profit that is funded through a tax paid by growers. The commission aims to develop more markets for Idaho wheat growers, support research and provide grower education.
A dry spell lasting the entire growing season and record high temperatures earlier than normal exacerbated the tough conditions.
“Moist, cool weather is ideal for wheat,” said Wayne Hurst, a commissioner for the Idaho Wheat Commission. “And we had hot dry weather.”
Hurst is a third generation farmer who lives in Burley. He has served as president of the Idaho Grain Producers Association and president of the National Association of Wheat Growers.
As a wheat commissioner, he was appointed by Governor Brad Little to represent district three which includes: Cassia, Minidoka, Lincoln, Twin Falls, Jerome, Blaine, Gooding, Elmore, Owyhee, Canyon and Camas Counties.
More than 96% of farms in Idaho are family farms, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture. Low production years hurt smaller operations and the small communities farmers live in, Chumrau said.
“While the average was 32% there were people who saw 40, 50 and 60% lower than their average production so that has a huge impact,” she said.
Hurst saw decreased yields and decreased quality. Idaho wheat is considered the highest quality in the country and possibly the world, he said. This year, growers saw low test weight and higher proteins in soft white wheat.
Test weight is a density measurement that is used to determine grain quality. Local grain buyers might not accept grain with a low test weight or offer less money for it.
Soft white wheat is the largest class of wheat grown in Idaho. Millers and bakers prefer low protein due to the products they use it for, which includes cookies, cakes and crackers. The high heat this year resulted in a higher protein content that makes it harder to sell.
“We are looking at how to market and use that higher protein soft white and working with customers to make sure they know what kind of crop is going to show up at their door and how they can adjust to take advantage of it,” Chumrau said.
Luckily, the prices for next year are high and no matter what happens in terms of weather, producers will make a plan and move forward the best way possible.
“Growers never hope for these years, but they do plan for them,” she said.