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Rain at Harvest

Unless you need a break from harvest, rain right now is not much good to wheat farmers in the higher rainfall, continuous crop Palouse. The dry, dryland guys, where they have half their land in fallow to accumulate moisture, are thrilled because more moisture any time means more crop next year, but for the Palouse, not so much.

Rain on grain that is ready or nearly ready for harvest won’t change your yield, but it can reduce the density, or weight per bushel. Density or “test weight” is one of the oldest and easiest indicators of grain quality. For example, US #1 grade wheat has to weigh 60 lbs. per bushel or more, and anything less is automatically graded #2 and the price will be discounted.

A little rain doesn’t have much impact on lentils or garbanzo beans (chickpeas), but dry green peas quickly lose their nice green color if they get rained on very much. Modern processing equipment with electronic eye sorters can be used to separate the whitish from the still green ones, so consumers never see it, but the price to the farmer is discounted for bleached peas.

If it were to rain, and stay damp and rainy for a week or ten days, that is when things get really ugly. Wheat and barley kernels will actually start to germinate and grow in the head before they are ever thrashed. When the germination process starts, enzymes are released in the kernels that start to convert the stored starches into sugars for use by the developing plant embryo. Sugars don’t make flour like starches do and if sprouting has started at all, it drastically changes the baking qualities of the flour. Consequently, if there is much sprouting at all, the price is discounted heavily and if it is too bad you end up with animal feed. In other words, you get something that can’t be used for human consumption.

A rainy harvest with sprouted grain seems to come along about once a decade or so, but different varieties respond differently to rain. Some sprout worse than others, so even though it was only wet around here for about 3 days, there may still be some sprouting show up in this year’s crop.

Mostly though, this recent storm system gave us a few days to catch up some harvest equipment maintenance: fix the automatic gadgets that you have been operating manually because you didn’t want to take good harvest weather to repair it. Replace the parts you noticed were failing that you were hoping would last until you got a break like this one. And reduce the paperwork pile in the office. And sleep a little more. And get a hair cut. And then stand around and wait for it to dry out so you can get back at it before it decides to rain again.

The real beauty of a rain in harvest is that there is nothing, no technology, nothing money can buy, that can change what rain may fall, or not fall, or when it will be dry enough to continue. It tends to keep us humble and physically remind us that whether your combine is worth eight thousand, eighty thousand, or eight hundred thousand dollars, they all sit still at nature’s whim.