In the 1960s, there was a popular movie called “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming.” In the film a Soviet naval commander ran his sub aground off a Massachusetts coastal island and sent 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 Soviet dictator, confiscated individual landholdings and enslaved workers. The farms were operated under government-established five-year production plans.
It destroyed the 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 experienced 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 offload a grain rail car in seven 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, upgrade our infrastructure and not estrange our longtime 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.