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Wheat harvest arrives in Coupeville

It isn’t the Palouse country in Eastern Washington, with miles of wheat as far as the eye can see, but it’s a tradition in Coupeville, one carried out again this year with last week’s harvest of “the staff of life.”

As motorists whizzed by along Highway 20, Len Engle slowly mowed a 38-acre wheat field with a combine, which ingested the stalks, separated kernel from chaff, and on demand spit the kernels into the back of a waiting truck.

Len’s brother Bob waited until the truck was full before driving the wheat to Sherman farm where it would be weighed and a moisture sample taken. Bob’s son Bob was seen driving by on Terry Road in his Krieg Construction rig. His day job done, he would soon join the wheat harvest.

“This is Bob’s and my nephew Bob’s wheat,” Len Engle said, enjoying the confusion caused by the Bob references. “It’s Bob’s combine.”

As Len went back to cutting wheat, the elder Bob Engle explained the operation. He said Ebey Prairie farmers grow mostly barley these days, which largely goes for animal feed, but there’s well over 100 acres of wheat to be harvested, scattered around several fields. The grain truck belongs to Bob the younger, and where he eventually hauls the wheat depends on the market. He’ll drive as far as Portland to get the best price.

Coupeville’s wheat crop is small, but it’s part of the massive worldwide wheat output and must compete with wheat from the U.S., Australia, Europe and elsewhere. The big question is when to sell, and how long to keep the wheat in storage, either at the Sherman farm or at a bigger facility in Mount Vernon.

“Last year we took a gamble and lost,” Engle said. “They said the market was going up so hang on.” They did, figuring the brewing Middle East war might boost wheat prices. Wrong. They sold in the spring for about $3 a bushel, compared to the $5 they could have had the prior winter.

It has been a dry year which has damaged the crops on Ebey’s Prairie, and Engel said the wheat didn’t escape the impact. “One decent rain wouldn’t have hurt,” he said. But wheat did better than the field corn which is “one-third of what it should be,” he said. And it was a bad year for green peas, too.

After decades of farming, Engle has a face made for a Grant Wood painting. He can remember the good wheat market during World War II, when he was in high school and local farmers left for Eastern Washington where they could grow more wheat. “We’re the only ones that had wheat,” in Coupeville, he said. He also recalls a huge U.S. sale of wheat to the old Soviet Union which caused prices to skyrocket, until a policy dispute between the two superpowers ended the wheat sales.

Today with so much competition, it’s harder than ever for small farmers to survive. “It’s a shame the price of everything is where it is,” Engle said.

They’ll hope for a better price this year, and no doubt will plant another wheat crop next year. After all, it’s a tradition.

Wheat has been grown in Coupeville since the early days. By 1911, the local wheat crop was worth bragging about. A promptional pamplet printed back then, called “Island County — A World Beater,” got its title from Coupeville’s record wheat production. According to the old pamphlet, “Coupeville is said to hold the world’s record for wheat raising, of 117 bushels to the acre.”

Coupeville farmer aren’t setting wheat growing records these days, but at least they’re still in the business.

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