HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Intense drought conditions have shrunk the kernels and disrupted the proteins of winter wheat crops in Montana, Washington, Oregon and Idaho, the region that produces a fifth of the U.S. harvest.
The National Agricultural Statistics Service classified a large percentage of the region's winter wheat as below-average quality on Monday.
Farmers in the Northwest are nervous that the uncharacteristically low quality of their product could slash the crop's already declining prices.
"The problem is flour is made with the center part of the kernel and if there's not much there they can't make flour out of it," Rick Diehl, a farmer in East Helena, Montana, said. He and other growers in western Montana have observed shriveled kernels and empty beards where kernels never developed in their fields of hard red winter wheat.
Blake Rowe, CEO of the Oregon Wheat Commission and Oregon Wheat Growers League, said the heat wave in May and June caused Oregon's prominent soft white winter wheat to develop more protein than is desirable for baking products.
"We've had dry years in the past, but if anything is different this year, it's been warmer and warmer for longer," Rowe said. "Growers feel like this is a little out of the norm for a hot, dry year."
Scattered rains helped keep winter wheat from the same fate in six Midwestern states that cultivate half of the nation's winter wheat.
Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota typically raise winter wheat of slightly lesser quality than the Northwestern states, according to data from the United States Department of Agriculture's statistics arm. But the Midwest is producing more "good" bushels this year than its five-year average, while the Northwest's "good" ratings have dropped nearly 20 percent.
The USDA said in a July 10 national crop report that spring and early summer weather conditions were favorable for winter wheat everywhere but Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The latter three states saw their highest June temperatures on record.
"I think earlier on some of the growers were more optimistic, but as the summer's progressed it's gotten drier and drier as the harvest comes up," NASS Northwest Regional Director Chris Mertz said. "They're still waiting to hear what happens when they run the combines out there to see how it's going to be."
Due to the heat and early wheat maturation, farmers in the Northwest began harvesting about three weeks early this year. The true value of the crop will be determined in the coming weeks as growers finish the harvest and receive estimates from grain elevators.
Montana farmer Gary Dobler said he wouldn't be surprised if the region's wheat is less dense, nutritionally off balance or otherwise adversely affected by the drought, but he's waiting for a professional assessment to make a final determination.
"We'll know here in another week what the damage was."
This story has been updated to correct that farmers in the Northwest are concerned about winter wheat crop quality.