The climate crisis and agriculture: How our local farmers are being impacted

SPOKANE, Wash. — Changing weather has had an immediate impact on our local farmers, striking at their way of life and affecting the food we put on our dinner tables.

Changes in things like rainfall and heat can mean crops failing.

Moisture can be measured in many different ways. One is the protein level in winter wheat, which is on the rise due to more mild and drier winters.

According to the Wheat Marketing Center, since 2000, only seven years of winter wheat harvest has had protein levels in the lower, and most profitable side, of 10 percent or lower.

Another way to gauge good moisture is the actual harvest, which has seen steep declines during the dry years.

The USDA has tracked the numbers for years. In 2000, almost half of those harvests dropped off due to hear and dry conditions for spring wheat.

Whitman County is the number one county for wheat production in the United States. Climate change shows in the region’s winter and rain cycles.

“We are definitely drier than we used to be,” Manager at Seeds Inc. Dean Browning said. “At different times of year, the patterns have changed a little bit. Overall, we are definitely down on moisture.”

And it’s not a new phenomenon. The first real experience with drought for one Whitman County farmer dated all the way back to 1977.

“That was the first year I leased my own farm and we had virtually no crops that year,” Paul Dashiell said. “I thought to myself ‘If there is ever a rain again, I will be forever thankful.’ And I’m thankful because it finally rained.”

When drought hits, the effects are far reaching. Bad crops and low harvest create issues for everyone.

Larry Heaten has 68 years of farming under his belt.

“How important is farming to the economy? Well it’s very important, everybody suffers. I mean, the machinery dealers and everybody, Spokane. It goes right down the line,” Heaten said.

So, what’s being done?

“One of the things we have done in the last 20 to 25 years help protect that used to be called ‘no-till’ but now a catch word is ‘direct seeding,” Dashiell said. “The offset of that is your chemical bills are a lot more than what they used to be because instead of tillage, you’re using chemicals.”

Organizations like Washington State University’s Agriculture Extension and Northwest Grain Growers are also consistently improving drought resistant seed.

But outside of standard agriculture, plant growers of trees and drought resistant plants are changing.

“We are also seeing that with reforestation around here. It used that you matched up specifically a seed zone for a tree with where that seed was collected and then it was planted back into that zone,” Manager of Plants of the Wild Kathy Hutton said. “Now, they’re doing research on collecting seed from drier, harsher sites because they’re thinking that the conditions are going to be drier and more harsh. So they’re picking trees that will be more acclimated to that.”

4 News Now is dedicating a large portion of Thursday’s coverage to examining the climate crisis and the effects it is already having on our lives. The First Alert Weather team explores it all Thursday night on TV and online.