Initial results from a state study find drought caused hundreds of millions of dollars in crop losses and impacted farmers around the state.
A study of the 2015 Washington state drought estimates more than $335 million in farm losses, with the damage toll expected to mount as more information is gathered in the months ahead.
“This is meant to be an early snapshot of what we are looking at,” said Hector Castro, a spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture, which released the interim study on Thursday. “I think the big take-away is that it (the drought) clearly did some significant damage.”
Agriculture is a mainstay of the state’s economy, generating more than $10 billion in crop values in 2013. This past year featured both a shrunken winter snowpack and hot, dry summer weather that put many crops under stress and affected farmers around the state.
The study found that wheat farmers took the biggest hit. The study estimates $212.4 million in drought losses to a wheat harvest that was 22 percent smaller than average over the past five years.
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Apples, the state’s most valuable crop, came in a distant second with an estimated $86.5 million in crop losses.
Other crops harmed by the drought included raspberries, which the study found sustained $13.9 million in losses, and blueberries, at $12 million in losses.
In Central Washington, farmers in the Kittitas Reclamation District, whose crops include alfalfa, timothy hay and pasture, experienced $11.4 million in losses, according to the study.
Loss data has yet to be assessed for some major crops, such as potatoes, hops and juice grapes. There also are no damage estimates for nurseries.
“Every farmer in the state felt some type of impact in 2015, whether it was yield or quality reduction, crop rotation related, a shortened harvest period (due to fast ripening during extreme heat), or some other effect,” the study says.
But so far, the loss totals are running far below the $1.2 billion estimate released last spring by the agriculture department as the growing season first got under way. During the summer, the impacts of the drought eased for some farmers who were able to tap into wells to supplement reduced irrigation flows.
But water still had to be rationed on some prime irrigated acreage in the Yakima basin. And some fruit farmers fear carry-over effects next year as their trees try to rebound from the impacts of reduced water flows.
Castro said this is the first drought year in which the department followed through on early-season damage estimates to assess the actual effects on the industry.
The state Department of Ecology requested the study, and the initial results will be sent to the Legislature. The report also includes an online survey of crop losses that more than 450 state farmers have completed so far.
The crop losses were highest among livestock-feed farmers and dryland farmers who don’t rely on irrigation, with most reporting at least a 26 percent reduction in yields because of the drought and extreme heat.