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$10 million snow?

Weather predictions that snow flurries will continue throughout the weekend in north central Oregon are good news for wheat growers and ranchers.

“We’re happy with it. We don’t like to drive in it, but we’ll take it,” said Jeff Kaser, general manager of Mid-Columbia Producers Inc., which is headquartered in Moro.

He said a cold spell in the winter without moisture can freeze and damage the roots of wheat plants, which lowers harvest levels.

“Snow is a real benefit because it blankets the crops,” he said.

Kaser said November and December did not bring the traditional amount of moisture to agricultural lands in Wasco and Sherman counties. He resides in Moro and dug a hole this weekend in his own yard that showed dry earth after about 8 inches of depth.

He said if the ground does not get thoroughly saturated during the spring and summer months, it is difficult to get wheat, which is not usually irrigated, to thrive and reach maximum potential before the late July or August harvest.

“We last had good moisture in September so this is definitely a positive thing,” he said. ”Any moisture in the ground is going to help the plants grow and not become stressed.”

He said the snow is also good for pasture lands where cattle graze because the moisture will set the stage for grass to grow rapidly in the spring.

Kaser said irrigation opportunities for hay to feed livestock and other grain crops are reduced when there is a low snow pack in the mountains. He said in order to keep the levels of streams and rivers deep enough for endangered fish runs, those holding the oldest water rights are allowed to irrigate and those who were granted rights more recently are cut off.

Farms in lower elevations usually fare worse than those on higher ground where the weather is often cooler and water needs are not as great.

At the time snow began to fall Thursday in the region, Kaser said there was less than 5 feet of snow at Mt. Hood Meadows Ski Resort, not even half the amount there should be.

“I think this week is going to add quite a bit and it is very needed — the more, the better,” he said.

The most important time for rain, said Kaser, is during May and June when wheat plants are reaching maturity but the stalks have not yet cured to the point they won’t accept moisture.

“We used to call those ‘Million Dollar Rains’ but now we are calling them “$10 Million Rains” because of the market prices,” he said.

Grain comprised 23 percent of agricultural commodity sales in Wasco County during 2012, according to the Oregon State University Extension Service. Hay accounted for another 5 percent and livestock for 7 percent.

Kaser said what is good for wheat farmers in the spring and summer poses a threat to cherries, which are reaching maturity. Rain water absorbed by the fruit can split the fragile skin and drastically reduce, or eliminate, the value of the crop that OSU has recorded as comprising 51 percent of local commodity sales during 2012.

Mid-Columbia Producers is a farmer owned cooperative that loads barges of soft white wheat, club wheat and barley on the Columbia in Arlington, The Dalles and Biggs. The company’s 16 inland elevators are located in Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam and Morrow counties of Oregon and Klickitat County in Washington.

Their farm stores are located in Wasco and Goldendale, Wash., and their primary seed plant is in Wasco, with satellite offices in Condon and Dufur.

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