"O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties, Above the fruited plain." America, the Beautiful
While written in the early 1900s about a trip to Pikes Peak, I think Katherine Bates, the author of the poem to which the music was later appended, would agree that this stanza could apply equally well to the Palouse and the Columbia Basinespecially the amber waves part.
When you drive from the Cascade Range on the west, the Okanogan Highland to the north, the Bitterroot Range on the east and the Blue Mountains to the south from spring through mid-summer, you see the wheat growing from the young green shoots to the mature grain of amber-wave fame, rolling all over these hills in mid-summer.
Other than buying and working a wheat farm, there are other ways you can invest in this important part of our economy through companies that serve this sector. I'll mention some of those in a bit. First, here's some background for you.
Did you know:
Wheat is the second-most produced cereal grain in the whole world. It ranks after corn and just before rice.
Wheat is grown on more land area than any other commercial crop and is the most important staple food for humans.
Prime wheat land in the Palouse Hills has a higher per-acre yield than acreage in any other major grain-growing region in the nation.
World trade in wheat is greater than for all other crops combined.
Wheat is the world's leading source of vegetable protein in human food, having higher protein content than either corn or rice.
There are eight classes of wheat with more than 100 varieties grown in our area alone.
Wheat provides a huge local economic impact, both in the rural areas, as well as in larger cities like Spokane.
The type of wheat that's most prevalent in our part of the world is what's generally termed soft white. Now, when yours truly looks at any wheat stalk, all I see is a grass-looking thing topped with a lot of kernels with tails on them. Apparently, the soft white refers to what's in those kernels.
First grown in this area in 1878, soft white is used mostly for cookies, pancakes, pastry, and flat breadsitems that don't need yeast. Eighty percent to 90 percent of our wheat crop is exported annually through the Port of Portland area export grain elevators to Asian markets. Most of what's left is processed by local mills.
Contrary to what many believe, the growing of wheat in our area isn't really "agribusiness," as it is in many other parts of the country, where the corporate farms dominate. We have about 4,000 active wheat farmers in Washington state, and many of these wheat farms are owned and operated by families, with many of those families being multigenerational owners.
The Washington Grain Alliance says 25,000 jobs were directly attributable to wheat farming in the state, in 2010, the latest year for which figures were available. From the hard work of those folks, the wheat industry contributed about $925 million in production value to the economy of the state, most of it in Eastern Washington. In addition to that, the economic contribution of their vendors and suppliers added another $775 million on top of that! Due to the higher wheat price at the time, the numbers for 2011 likely will be even higher than those.
Here's what I think is an equally important figureand this is according to an ongoing study by the agricultural economists at Washington State University. Unlike many other industries doing business in the state, the money generated by the wheat industry stays here. For every dollar that's generated on the farms, 99 cents is spent locally, i.e., close to where the family farm is located. That's impressive stuff. We are talking people who are loyal customers and who should be well taken care of.
Investing in wheat
From the point of view of an investor, most of the vendors and suppliers to the industry are privately held companies, so public stock isn't available. I do have a representative and not necessarily all-inclusive list of those publicly traded companies that have employees in our area and that are actively and directly involved over the entire wheat production cycle. Wheat farming support is usually only a part of their overall businesses.
For example, leading providers of equipment can be John Deere (DE), Caterpillar (CAT), and AGCO (AGCO), through its Massey Ferguson division. Transporting the grain to Portland can be by rail via the Union Pacific (UNP). Trucks and barges are used extensively, though are private entities.
Processing is provided by Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and ConAgra (CAG). Fuel comes through Phillips66 (PSX), Chevron (CVX), and others. Fertilizer to help make it all grow comes from Potash (POT), Agrium (AGU), and Mosaic (MOS).
A recent Wall Street Journal story said, "Bulk grain exports from the Pacific Northwest are likely to rise by almost 60 percent in about five years" as the region continues its rapid expansion of the infrastructure needed to do that. Looks like a growth business to me; growth that will benefit all constituents.
Regardless of the annual vagaries of pricing in either the global or domestic markets for their grain, our Eastern Washington wheat farmers have proven that they are, like their crops, highly resilient. Their acreage is consistently among the most productive in the world.
In addition to the food they provide, we need to be aware of the huge and ongoing support the wheat farmers of Eastern Washington give directly to our economy.
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