In mid-August, a massive fire swept through a 100-year-old flour mill in Pendleton. The Pendleton Fire Department evacuated the mill without incident, but officials say the building is a total loss. That’s halted production at the Grain Craft Pendleton Flour Mill, a central piece of the regional economy.
The fire comes in the middle of the wheat harvest season in Eastern Oregon and is the latest blow to an industry that has been plagued by drought and wildfires in recent years. But this year’s late spring brought wetter weather later in the year, improving growing conditions so much that it could be one of the best seasons yet.
Ben Maney, a wheat grower in the area and also the president of the Oregon Wheat Growers League, spoke with OPB’s All Things Considered host Crystal Ligori about the impact the fire has on the Pendleton community and where the wheat industry is heading.
Crystal Ligori: Can we start with a little overview of what wheat farming has been like over the past few seasons?
Ben Maney: Going back to last year, our temperatures were at an extreme high and we were in an extreme drought. Last year’s crops, typically guys were harvesting at about 50% of what they typically harvest, [which] was a big challenge for our area. We came into the beginning of this year and in the spring we finally got some rains. So with those rains, were able to re-energize our crops and farmers are seeing above-average yields per acre, which is great. It’s been a blessing because, as you can imagine with the pandemic the last few years, supply issues [and] input prices have increased quite a bit. So it’s been welcome because it can offset those increases in pricing that we’ve seen.
Ligori: Speaking of supply chain issues, do you know if the war in Ukraine is having an impact on the wheat growing here in the US?
Maney: That does have an effect. Ukraine produces a lot of wheat and any time that you take a commodity offline, it’s gonna put pressure on other areas to produce more. So there’s been pressure there. Ukraine [also] produces fertilizer that helps produce that crop and so that’s been an issue. It’s amazing that we live so far apart and everything, but we all kind of have to work together because we all have that area that we supply wheat through the whole world and you break that chain and that link and it puts a challenge on a lot of guys.
Ligori: I understand the Grain Craft flour mill has been an operation in Pendleton for more than a century. What role did a mill like that have in the local community?
Maney: It’s heartbreaking, that’s a staple of our community. And you know, you look at a lot of the old-time pictures and that flour mill was in those pictures. When you think about Pendleton, that was centrally located in Pendleton for a reason and for 100 years, they have had fourth [and] fifth generation farmers that have still hauled into there. And I’ve talked to a few of the farmers that haul in there and it’s heartbreaking because it’s a family atmosphere. There’s little stories where the farmers would have their kids riding in the truck coming in the mill and they’d get popsicles or a new Grain Craft hat when they roll in there. But the Pendleton community has just wrapped their arms around that Grain Craft and we just hope for a quick recovery there.
Ligori: Wheat is the state’s third largest cash crop with the bulk of it being shipped to overseas markets. So are farmers now having to make alternate plans—how easy is it to just swap to another mill?
Maney: What was nice about that mill was that grain, when they milled it, stayed local and then it was distributed domestically throughout the states. With farmers that typically would haul into that mill and can’t now, there are options to go to other grain facilities like Northwest Grain Growers, United Grain, Mid Columbia. So they do have options to get that grain to the markets. It’s just, [going to] that mill was one of those things that they did every year for 50 years and guys just got accustomed to that. To see it gone now it’s. ... I mean, it’s tough.
Ligori: What does the rest of the season look like? I know harvest is happening now, but it’s going on through the fall, right?
Maney: We had a wonderful spring with a lot of late rains, which was great for the crop, but one of the things with those late rains and cool May and June was, it took a long time for that crop to ripen and to get ready to harvest. And so typically a lot of guys will start harvesting the first part of July, whereas this year a lot of guys were starting at the end of July. And one challenge that we did have with harvest being later and a lot of our local farms employing college kids coming back for summer. Well, college and high school is starting next week or in the next couple of weeks. So a lot of the farms that are just finishing up are doing a little jockeying around to fill the gaps for [those] combine drivers and tractor drivers to finish harvest because they lost their summer help.