Northwest farmers plow under St. Helens ash, then carry on

For many farmers and cattlemen across the Northwest's "ash belt," last month's eruption of Mt. St. Helens was just another of Mother Nature's disasters.

And as they have done after other natural disasters, they are picking up the pieces and making do as best they can.

"We're farming as usual," Phyllis Dean says, even though she suspects that her family farm's pea crop was destroyed and doesn't have much hope for the alfalfa and carrot seed.

Their farm near Warden was buried under two inches of volcanic ash following the eruption May 18.

In eastern Washington's wheat-growing areas many farmers are plowing their fallow summer fields, trying to work the ash into the soil.

Some were worried that the ash might form a "pan" or impermeable barrier on the ground, thus keeping sunlight and water from reaching seedlings. But that concern was outweighed by the pressing need to try to cut down on the dust and ash in the air.

Only about 15-20 percent of Washington's winter wheat crop was flattened by the ash storm.

"The big question is whether the wheat will be harvestable, or will the machinery be knocked out by the dust," said Brent Heinemann of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers.

But farmers are less worried about getting those crops to market once they are harvested, since the Army Corps of Engineers seems to be making good progress in opening the Columbia River to grain ships.

The river was blocked by mud slides immediately after the eruption. By June 15, however, ships with a 33-foot draft were navigating a narrow channel to Portland and other grain ports on the river.

About 85 percent of Washington's wheat crop is exported, and the Columbia is the main conduit to the foreign markets.

Some of the saddest farmers in Washington are the alfalfa growers, whose crop was heavily hit by the ash fallout. Alfalfa hay losses account for more than half of the agricultural damage in central Washington, according to the Grant County extension services.

Ironically, alfalfa farmers had been anticipating their first truly good year , with prices expected to be close to $100 a ton.

Now, in the heaviest hit areas many alfalfa farmers are plowing their crops under and starting over from scratch. Others in areas farther from the volcano and less affected by ash are hoping to salvage something from their second and third cuttings.

As is often the case in events affecting crops, one man's disaster may be another man's boon. Alfalfa farmers in areas not touched by the ash probably will get even higher prices for their hay -- some say up to $130 a ton -- as dairymen and cattlemen scramble for feed.

The availability of feed, in short supply here even before the eruption, seems to be the major concern of cattlemen in Washington.

The animals themselves seem to be taking the ash fallout in stride, although there was one instance of a sheepherder losing about 10 percent of his flock because of the volcano.

Animal scientists speculate that the sheep may have eaten toxic plants, being unable to distinguish them under layers of ash.

Meanwhile, cherries are turning red, a sign that there is still life in the Yakima Valley. Growers were mainly concerned that disaster stories indicating that the crop had been destroyed would frighten buyers and the migrant farm workers needed for picking.

A banner headline in a Seattle newspaper, stating "Farms are dying in the ash ," didn't exactly help matters any, according to the growers.

By all accounts, the cherry crop in Washington is excellent and should equal or nearly equal last year's record crop.

Apples were originally thought to have weathered the ash storm with minimal damage, but in the past week there have been alarming reports of excessive apple "drops" in orchards heavily hit by ash.

Agricultural scientists speculate that the coating of ash acted as a kind of shade, causing the premature apple drops.

That the phenomenon affected only about 10 percent of the state's apples was no comfort to some growers facing near total loss of this year's crop.

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