Assessing the loss

Written by Devan Schwartz July 18, 2012 09:41 am

Delbert Stephens farms southwest of North Powder.
Delbert Stephens farms southwest of North Powder.
By Devan Schwartz

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The morning of Saturday, July 15 brought a two-prong hail storm to portions of the North Powder Valley and the Bridgeport area. Although many in the area were spared so much as a single hailstone, local farmers saw their wheat and potato fields thrashed by these white pellets varying in size from peas to golf balls, according to Mark Bennett, Baker County’s planning director.

Delbert Stephens, who farms near Haines, watched the strip-like hail storm sweep down from the Elkhorn Mountains. It reached the potato fields he and Jason Williams lease from Allen and Dale Bingham.

On Tuesday morning, Stephens dug through the shredded leaves, the flattened stalks and the wet soil.

“Without the leaves there’s  no photosynthesis,” he said.

“And when the stalks are broken they can’t pass nutrients down to the potatoes and they’ll be underweight.”

Local potato growers had been looking at a good season  thus far, though this weather event may set them back.

Stephens thinks his tubers probably lost two to three weeks of grow time.  

“This valley is short on growing season — we thought we were ahead of schedule and now we’re behind,” he said.

Harvesting Russet Burbank potatoes any later than September can butt up against Baker County’s early frosts.

In response, Stephens said he plans to add nitrogen to compensate for the diminished photosynthesis, and fungicide to address the excess soil moisture and the chance of rot.

He thought there had been as much as 2 inches of rain in the half hour following the hail.

“Overall, we’ll probably lose 400 to 500 sacks per acre,” Stephens said, sweeping his hand over the hillocked field. “It can grow back, but this is some of the worst I’ve seen.”

Agriculture is so volatile that a drought halfway around the world in Pakistan is reflected in local prices.

“There are controllables and there are uncontrollables,” Stephens said. “This hailstorm was an uncontrollable. The uncontrollables are what hurt you.” 

Luckily, Stephens had crop insurance. The adjuster in charge of Stephens’ claims was scheduled to stop by today and again within a couple of weeks to assess the level of crop damage.

His potatoes go to Heinz Frozen Food Co., a Pittsburgh-based company with a processing plant in Ontario.

Just down the road, Allen Bingham cruised by on a four-wheeler. In assessing damage to his own crops, he thought spring wheat had borne the brunt of the storm.

Flattened green stalks looked as though they’d been severely trampled. 

With 160 acres of wheat, Bingham didn’t think the harvest would be worth the price of combines and labor.

And so the pattern goes — buy insurance, plant, grow, harvest and wait.

On Thursday, a joint team will meet to further discuss crop damages in the area.