Spokane Journal of Business

Mixed export markets worry Washington's ag producers

International sales of apples could fall; wheat market likely to hold serve

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Uncertainties in overseas markets due to COVID-19 will almost certainly put a dent in the sales of most Washington commodities abroad.

An observer of the state’s grain market thinks wheat exports will remain unchanged this year, while the head of the apple commission predicts exports will be drastically reduced.

Glen Squires, the Spokane-based CEO of the Washington Grain Commission, says U.S. Wheat Associates currently estimates 2020 wheat exports will remain roughly the same as last year.

U.S. Wheat Associates is the export market development organization for the nation’s wheat industry and is based in Portland.

On an annual average, as much as 90% of all wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest goes to export markets, Squires says.

More than 75% of Washington-grown wheat is soft white wheat. Less than 13% of all wheat grown in the U.S. is soft white, and most of that variety is grown in the Pacific Northwest.

Soft white wheat is often used to make confectionary items, such as cookies and pastries. It is also popular in Asian nations because it can produce spongy noodles.

Squires says a prolonged pandemic beyond this year’s harvest could make it more challenging for Washington wheat buyers abroad.

Depending on the weather for the rest of the summer, central and Eastern Washington wheat growers will begin harvesting crops anywhere from late July to early September.

“When economies close, that’s less disposable income,” he says. “I don’t anticipate it (exports) will be substantially down, but it really is a wait-and-see scenario.”

In a normal year, roughly a third of the state’s apple crop is sold abroad, says Todd Fryover, president of the Washington Apple Commission. At the end of the current growing season, which concludes in early September, that share could be reduced to as low as 26%, Fryover says.

“I’m trying to be optimistic,” says Fryover, who works from the apple commission’s office in Wenatchee, Washington. “But with COVID-19, we’re just trying to figure out what the retail side of things will look like, both at home and abroad. Export demand is mixed right now.”

Mexico and India currently are the top importers of Washington apples. But stay-at-home orders, particularly in India, where the virus has seen a surge, has kept consumers out of markets and stores and has contributed to a reduction in demand, Fryover says.

The Washington apple sector is heavily dependent on India’s consumption of red delicious apples, he says, adding, “So far this season, we’ve not met target sales numbers on any variety.”

If the export market for Washington apples remains slow, the next step is to attempt to move them in the U.S. market, he says.

“So, then you end up with a situation where more pressure is put on domestic prices ... the price becomes less, and then the growers are heavily impacted,” he says. “I doubt things are going to get much better in the near future.”

As for the Renton-based Washington State Beef Commission, executive director Patti Brumbach says industry officials estimate the current backlog in the beef food chain won’t be clear until February.

The beef commission’s representatives include beef packers, cattle feeders, cow and calf ranchers, dairy farmers, and livestock markets.

“Washington is at the epicenter of the beef industry for all the Pacific Northwest,” says Brumbach.

The state hosts the two-largest beef processors, one in Toppenish and the other in Wallula, located a little more than an hour from each other in the south-central region of the state.

The closures of the two major processors to blunt the spread of COVID-19 generated the backlog, she says.

“We process beef from as far away as Northern California and into Montana. And right now, we’re only processing at 75% to 80% of normal capacity,” Brumbach says.

Between 25% and 30% of Washington beef is exported. At this point, Brumbach says, it’s still too early to determine if that share will change.

In its most recent report released Oct. 11, 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture placed the total value of Washington’s 2018 ag production at $9.67 billion, down 2% from the previous year’s value of $9.86 billion.

Apples remained the state’s leading agricultural commodity with a value of $2.19 billion. Milk was second at $1.13 billion, and wheat came in third at $845 million. Rounding out the top five were potatoes, at $788 million, and beef and cattle, at $652 million. 

Washington remains the second largest wine producer in the U.S. behind California and ranks first in the U.S. for production of apples, hops, red raspberries, and sweet cherries, says the USDA.

Despite the uncertainties abroad, the commission heads say their staffs have seized an opportunity to boost their marketing efforts virtually to overcome travel restrictions.

Squires says the grain commission has been working with wheat scientists at Washington State University and the USDA’s Western Wheat Quality Lab, both in Pullman, Washington, as well as with farmers, millers, and all the other participants in the state’s wheat infrastructure, in hosting virtual meetings for prospective clients.

Many WSU extension personnel, farmers, and researchers have the ability to fly drones over entire fields and can provide real-time updates to buyers around the world, he says.

Fryover paints a similar portrait in the apple industry. He also says the apple commission has its own representatives in 12 countries.

As for the beef commission, Brumbach says U.S. consumer demand has been high since the onset of the pandemic.

With more people staying at home preparing their own meals, the beef commission’s website has seen a surge in viewing traffic from people seeking tips on how to prepare certain cuts of beef properly, she says.

“We’re providing as many educational tools to the public as we can,” she says.

Kevin Blocker
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