The Russians are indeed coming | Don Brunell

Russia is now the world’s top wheat producer.

In the 1960s, there was a popular movie called: “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming.” The plot was a Soviet naval commander runs his sub aground off a Massachusetts coastal island and sends two English-speaking crewmen ashore to procure a boat with enough power to pull them free. The Russian sailors didn’t exactly blend in and chaos ensued.

That was fiction, but today American farmers face the hard facts that the Russians are invading our wheat markets worldwide.

Many of us remember Soviet Union collective farms which were a dismal failure. Joseph Stalin, the brutal Russian dictator, confiscated individual landholdings and enslaved workers. The farms were operated under government-established five-year production plans.

It destroyed Russian farm system. Wheat production, which led the world under the czars prior to the communist revolution, plummeted and the communists imported grain to feed their starving people.

When the Soviet Union collapsed nearly 30 years ago, the Russians slowly started letting farmers have their farms back and modernize to compete with wheat growers in the United States, Canada and Australia. Recently, Russia’s government has focused on building modern grain elevators and trucking and railroad systems.

Russian farmers now buy modern American high tech farm equipment, plant more productive seed, and, apply fertilizers and pesticides to increase yields. Many of those products were developed in our research labs.

The results are stunning and Russia is now the world’s top wheat producer. While they are increasing the number of acres planted, U.S. farmers are losing money and sowing fewer fields. America is on the brink of the farm collapse our country experience in the 1980s when high interest rates and inflation ran rampant.

Today, large Russian investments, a weak ruble against our strong dollar, falling grain prices, high equipment costs, and the uncertainty of tariffs on U.S. agriculture products resulting from new trade negotiations, are hurting American farmers. It is particularly harmful for our farmers attempting to sell more wheat to China.

Today agriculture products (largely wheat) account for 40 percent of Russia’s revenues. “Given the fall in the price for oil, grain has come to the fore. Grain is our oil,” former Agriculture Minister Aleksandr Tkachev told the Wall Street Journal.

The burning question is how will our farmers compete?

Alex McGregor, former Washington Wheat Growers Association (WGA) president, believes American growers, especially those in Washington, have an advantage because of our high quality grain. He heads the McGregor Company, a 70-year old family fertilizer and crop protection enterprise based in Colfax.

McGregor believes our transportation network, ongoing research, farming experience and customer relationship give Washington growers hope. However, farmers worry that the ongoing trade war with its accompanying tariffs could damage trade relations which took decades to build and deepen our competitive disadvantages.

According to WGA, Washington has 2.3 million acres in wheat production and 90 percent of it is exported. Our wheat crop is heavily dominated by white wheat exported to Japan and other Asian countries to make Asian-style noodles, sponge cakes and cookies.

BNSF railroad hauls grains from as far as Minnesota to Washington and Oregon terminals. Our ports have developed efficient systems to transfer the gain onto ships. For example, the Port of Vancouver can off-load a grain rail car in 7 minutes.

McGregor believes WSU’s agriculture research gives our state an advantage. Researchers have developed over 100 wheat varieties many of which are targeted for eastern Washington.

The Russians are indeed coming and they are rapidly upgrading their research and transportation networks. To compete, our country must continue our research, upgrading our infrastructure and not estrange our long-time customers.

Don Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, after over 25 years as its CEO and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at TheBrunells@msn.com.

More in Business

Retrieving ocean trash is only the first step | Don Brunell

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is nearly the size of Alaska.

The inconvenient truth about batteries | Don Brunell

More than 86,000 tons of single-use alkaline batteries are thrown away each year.

Enumclaw Recyclers, The Use Again Store re-open on Garrett

The businesses have collected close to 1.3 million pounds of electronics for the E-Cycle Washington program over four years.

The darker side of renewable energy | Don Brunell

Renewable energy doesn’t automatically mean it’s clean, especially in how certain renewable energy products are made.

Oil giants betting on electric tech | Don Brunell

Making electric cars and new batteries for homes and power grids is a major step toward replacing carbon-based energy with electricity from renewables such as wind and solar.

Trade issues bring state Republicans, Democrats together

Washington is the third largest exporter of food and agricultural products in the nation.

California wildfires spark renewed debate over underground power lines | Don Brunell

Power lines could have caused the Camp wildfire in California.

Microsoft has expanded their AccountGuard service to 12 new European Countries. Yellow: European countries already protected. Blue: European countries now protected. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Microsoft warns of hacking ahead of elections

Launching defense services in Europe.

Those pesky tax incentives | Don Brunell

We need them to start big projects, no matter how much of a pain they may be in the future.

Praerit Garg joins Smartsheet as CTO

Bellevue-based company employs 760 people

In Buckley, more storage units on 410, beer and wine downtown

Wood, Wine, & Whimsy got their alcohol license Feb. 12.

Growing resistance to corporate incentives | Don Brunell

There is a growing backlash to corporations among liberals.