Northwest shrugs off volcanic ash, produces bumper crops

Heavy furrows of worry have given way to wide grins of delight on the faces of farmers across the Pacific Northwest's volcanic ash belt. Wheat farmers in the path of heavy ash fallout from the May 18 eruption of Mt. St. Helens are enjoying a huge harvest this summer, possibly a record.

Around Ritzville and in other small towns in the wheat-growing areas of eastern Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, crews are working feverishly to move grain to storage elevators. Much of the harvest is being piled on the ground.

Ritzville was one of the towns in the Northwest hardest hit by the eruption.More than two inches of ash fell on the town and in the surrounding wheat fields.

Preliminary surveys showed that only about 10 percent of the crop had been badly damaged by the ash, but many farmers were worried that even the unaffected wheat might not be harvestable because of the abrasive effect of ash on farm machinery. But that problem was not nearly as severe as some had feared and really did not impede the harvest.

Unusually heavy spring rains in late May and June were responsible for wheat harvest yields that exceeded 60 bushels per acre in some areas, according to Bob Mickelson, the state agriculture director.

State officials said the harvest in Washington state may exceed 150 million bushels, which would be a record. With prices averaging about $4 a bushel, that would bring the total value of the state's wheat crop to some $600 million.

The wheat harvest in Oregon and Idaho is also reported to be excellent, with Oregon producing more than 60 million bushels and Idaho some 84 million bushels.

Most of the wheat grown in the Pacific Northwest is exported to the Far East, and there had been some anxiety on the part of exporters that foreign buyers, concerned about the possibility that area suppliers would not be able to meet their contracts, might turn to other sources.

But the Japanese, who buy about a quarter of the crop, inspected wheat fields in the path of the ash this summer and said they were satisfied that the volcanic fallout had not caused any serious harm.

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