In Washington State, farmers look longingly at China trade

When Gayle Gering visited Golden Horse Production Brigade (a village) in China last year, he was amazed to find that the entire community of some 279 families had altogether only 213.5 acres of farmland.

Mr. Gering's farm outside Ritzville is 4,700 acres, and all the work on it is done by himself, one hired man, and a couple of part-time helpers during the busy summer and fall.

Chinese officials who visited Gering's farm were fascinated by his 325 horsepower tractor, by his 130 hp. harvester, and by all the other expensive equipment that enables him to average 45 to 47 bushels of wheat per acre on nonirrigated land.

But it is almost irrelevant to compare the garden-like intensity with which most Chinese peasants must cultivate their narrow fields with the huge, machine-intensive agribusinesses that Gering and his fellow-farmers run.

What is of much more compelling interest to Gering is the fact that 85 percent of Washington State's annual production is exported. And most of these exports go to countries of the Pacific Rim - Japan, South Korea, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. But not to China. The reasons are partly technical; the Chinese have concerns about a fungus that has sometimes been found in Washington wheat.

The major reason, however, applies to United States wheat exports to China as a whole. Because of a longstanding textile dispute with China, in January the US unilaterally slapped quotas on certain categories of Chinese textile shipments to this country. In retaliation, China said it would buy no more American cotton , corn, or soybeans.

The Chinese made no mention of wheat. But Gering, who is vice-president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers, notes that since the beginning of this year China has bought no new wheat from the US. But it has bought some Argentinian wheat at prices higher than American wheat.

Thus, while textile companies - and workers - in the South agitate for more stringent quotas on textile imports from China and other Asian countries, Gering and his fellow wheat growers devoutly hope the Sino-American dispute on this subject will be amicably solved.

Gering is quick to point out to visitors that Washington State grows soft white wheat, ideally suited to making noodles and dumplings prized by Asian consumers, rather than the red wheat best suited to baking bread. He is hopeful that once the textile dispute is settled and the fungus problem licked, China can become a principal market for his state's major export commodity.

The plain fact of the matter is that American farmers have become so productive that, although only four in every hundred persons in the US lives on farms today, this 4 percent feeds the entire US and much of the rest of the world. (In China, by contrast, 80 out of 100 people are peasants. China is largely self-sufficient in food but does import wheat for its cities, plus some feed grains.)

With all his sophisticated and costly equipment, the American farmer still has little protection against the whims of weather. And he seems to have equally little protection against the whims of the international marketplace. Nor can he keep political or economic disputes from impinging on his exports.

Mr. Gering remembers that in 1973 wheat prices reached nearly $7 a bushel. Today, he says, the price is down to less than $4. He blames President Carter's 1980 embargo on wheat sales to the Soviet Union for starting a downward trend - both in sales and in prices - that has yet to be reversed.

Meanwhile, Gering's production costs keep rising. Electricity cost $17,000 five years ago. This year, Gering said, he will have to budget $35,000 for electricity, mainly for pumping water to the 900 acres he has under irrigation. Irrigated land yields 100 bushels of wheat per acre, but at present Gering figures he simply cannot afford more such land.

Gering and his wife, Gaynel, grew up on farms outside Ritzville, a town of about 1,800. They graduated from Ritzville High School and teach Sunday school in the Ritzville Methodist Church. Gering started with 700 acres and gradually built up his farm.

The Gering's married daughter lives in Spokane. Their older son, a college student, spends his summers helping his father and expects eventually to succeed him. Their younger son, Steven, is in primary school and is a 4H Club member who does his chores morning and evening and who has won prizes for steers he raised himself and showed at junior livestock exhibitions in Spokane.

The Gerings' farmhouse with its homey kitchen and huge fireplace was inherited from Mrs. Gering's parents. Mr. Gering has devised an ingenious system of vents and blowers for the fireplace to trap most of the heat that would otherwise go up the chimney. He has attended computer classes and is thinking of getting one for his home. He also makes 300 pounds of sausage each year, celebrated throughout the area. Mrs. Gering coaches the local girls' tennis team.

Though science and technology have brought incredible advances to the way in which the Gerings farm, their way of life has a solidity and stability that reflects the ongoing influence of deep-rooted moral and spiritual values.

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