As I thought about how to start a blog on agriculture, I struggled with where to begin at first. Ultimately, I decided to get down to the most important driver of high-value agriculture in Benton and Franklin Counties: water.
As most people know, we receive most of our irrigation water from the three rivers –Columbia, Snake, and Yakima – that feed into our area. In order to utilize the river system for watering our crops, we need dams to create the reservoirs that enable us to water throughout the growing season. Even the mighty Columbia would struggle to irrigate crops in August if we didn’t have those great carbon-free dams. Interestingly, only about 6% of the water that flows down the Columbia is diverted for irrigation purposes, but that water is what makes our desert bloom!
Without irrigation, agricultural options are limited in Benton and Franklin Counties. The average rainfall across the two counties is nine inches, which isn’t enough to produce much of a wheat crop. However, there is a pretty good variance of rainfall depending on hills and the rain shadow effect. Some areas receive only about seven inches, while others receive twelve. At twelve inches of rain per year, a farmer could raise a wheat crop of about 40 bushels* every other year. So, in order to raise a decent crop of dryland wheat, farmers save water in the soil by raising it biannually. Wheat is currently worth about $5 per bushel, equating to approximately $200 per acre – or $100 per acre on an annualized basis.
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So where am I going with this? If we didn’t have the irrigation water for the Columbia Basin, the “high-value” crop would be wheat at an average of $100 per year gross, per acre. But unfortunately, we would only have the ability to raise it in certain parts of each county. We have about 1.9 million acres in Benton and Franklin counties; however, if I were to guess, only 15% of that ground can be used to raise a crop of wheat without irrigation. The rest is too dry, too steep, too sandy, too rocky…you get the idea. We would have about 300,000 acres farmed, producing wheat every other year (or 150,000 acres per year). At 40 bushels per acre, Benton and Franklin counties would produce approximately $30 million of wheat receipts per year. The rest of the ground would likely be grazed with cattle, sheep, or goats, and might add an additional $50-$100 million per year. Either way, the county would top out at about $100 million in gross receipts annually – enough to support a couple hundred families across both counties (think eastern Montana).
Benton and Franklin counties have about 400,000 irrigated acres, with annual production ranging from about $750 per acre for irrigated wheat to $10,000-$20,000 per acre for some permanent plantings, like apples or cherries. A conservative estimate would be $1.5 billion of farm gate value annually. And while I love bread and steak, I really love all of the other things we produce, like apples, asparagus, and apricots – and that is just start of the alphabet! Those products then have to be washed, sorted, packaged, etc., providing ever more jobs and money to our economy!
Now you know why Mark Twain said, “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting!”
*A bushel is a volume measurement and is equal to eight gallons. But we weigh the truckload of wheat and test the moisture – wet wheat weighs more – and calculate the number of bushels.
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