Wheat Harvest Links Oregon Farmers to Flour Mills of Asia

August 25, 2016 07:48 AM

It's a limited pallet this time of year in the Columbia Plateau counties. Blue sky above brown fallow, with combines of John Deere green or Case IH red moving in slow, shrinking circuits around golden wheat fields.

It's an empty landscape, most ways you look. Few buildings and no traffic. And in that emptiness, you can lose track of the broader world. The wheat kernels tumbling into the hopper on Chuck Greenfield's combine are the reminder of the connection. From Gilliam County, Oregon, with fewer than 2,000 people, it will go to flour mills in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines.

"Feed the world," Greenfield says.

It is a diminished group of farmers who can make a living doing that. Greenfield's employer, Marc Pryor, said the county had about 150 wheat farmers in the 1970s. Now he estimates the number is in the teens. It's a classic example of the economy of scale: Like most crops, wheat's narrow profit margin makes it critical to spread input, equipment and labor costs over more acreage, and it forced many farmers to get bigger or get out.

In 1950, Oregon had 34,000 farms of one to 49 acres. Now it's down to 21,800 in that size category. The state lost 8 percent of its farmers between the 2007 Census of Agriculture to the next one in 2012.

The weather, crop diseases, equipment breakdowns and the market don't care. Wheat that sold for $7 a bushel one year brings $5 the next. There may be enough rain to germinate and nourish a dryland wheat crop through the bone-dry summer, and there may not. "It's pretty tough right now," Pryor says.

He's 66 and trying to maintain the farming operation that flourished under his father, Earl Pryor, now retired. His stepmother, Laura Pryor, was the Gilliam County judge for many years. The family business, now called Prycor LLC., farms about 3,500 acres. Marc Pryor monitors the farm from Los Angeles, where he lives and has a business, and returns home to Condon for harvest.

Marc Pryor is president of an engineering forensics business, which involves finding out why materials, products, structures or components fail, or don't work like they should. Farmers have their own structural problems.

Some are putting land into conservation reserves and making money that way, Pryor says, but that takes land out of production and limits expansion possibilities. Estate taxes can make it difficult to pass farms along to heirs, and in some cases the previous generation still needs to be supported by the farm's revenue. A strong U.S. dollar can make U.S. wheat more expensive than competitors,' crucial to Pacific Northwest producers whose wheat is exported.

But to people who question the business, Pryor has a ready answer. "Well, we produced over six million pounds of food this year, what have you done?

"And it's in our blood," Pryor adds. "That's why we're still doing it."

Chuck Greenfield, the combine driver, talks about the same thing. He turns 72 in September and is the Prycor field manager. He's worked for the family 35 years.

"You're kind of independent, you don't have to deal with a lot of people," he says. "If you work in a factory, you're basically a number."

He glances over, taking his eyes off the machine's spinning header for a second.

"As far as I'm concerned, this is a good way of life," he says. "It's not always bad to sit and listen to the combine."

His grandson, Justin Waggoner, is driving the red Case IH combine. He went school to learn welding, but returned to the wheat fields.

"I didn't ask him to come back," Greenfield says. "He's got farming in his blood."

Greenfield and his grandson circle in to the trucks to unload. Truck driver Buster Nation, who says he's "16 running on 17," manipulates an auger transferring wheat from a smaller truck to a larger one, which will haul the load to a grain elevator.

The teen says he didn't know how to do anything when he started this summer; now he can operate every piece of equipment out here.

"This is one of the best learning experiences I've ever had," he says.

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