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August 11, 2014 at 6:13 AM

Why Gov. Jay Inslee goes against the grain industry

Wheat harvest along the Washington-Idaho border, 2013 (photo by Jeff Horner/ Walla Walla Union-Bulletin)

Wheat harvest along the Washington-Idaho border, 2013. (photo by Jeff Horner/ Walla Walla Union-Bulletin)

A letter from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee explains a curious decision that has bollixed up the wheat harvest throughout the western United States this year. Good bet it will infuriate more people than it will soothe.

In it the Democratic governor appears to say the issue is purely a labor dispute involving 44 union positions at the Port of Vancouver. The only acknowledgement of the enormous disruption he has caused for thousands of farmers and for the rural economy from the Washington coast to the Midwest is a throwaway line: “I remain committed to a healthy, thriving agricultural industry.”

The letter is the fullest explanation Inslee has offered – read it below. But first it might be useful to check in with agriculture, which has been doing all it can to reopen the United Grain Corp. terminal, a facility responsible for nearly 20 percent of the exports from the West Coast.

On July 6, in the 17th month of a lockout involving the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Inslee withdrew State Patrol protection for Washington grain inspectors who had been crossing what they called a dangerous picket line.

 

United Grain Corp. teminal at Vancouver.

United Grain Corp. teminal at Vancouver.

So the grain inspectors stopped inspecting and the grain-loaders stopped loading – all but the rare shipments that can get through without inspection. The state Department of Agriculture rebuffed an offer from UGC to pay for private security — which couldn’t have been a surprise for Inslee, because the department is under his control. The U.S. Department of Agriculture rebuffed requests from farm-commodity organizations to send inspectors of its own. Now, as harvest begins, so has the meltdown many had predicted. “We’re already starting to see it,” says Lola Raska, executive director of the Montana Grain Growers Association.

Montana normally exports 80 percent of its crop, most through the Pacific Northwest. Raska says elevators already are stuffed and farmers without adequate storage are forced to store their wheat outside. She says it’s only going to get worse in future weeks, and if farmers have nowhere to go with their grain, they can expect prices to fall.

In Washington, wheat is a $1.2 billion industry; in Montana, $2 billion — but maybe it will be a little less this year, thanks to the Vancouver situation. International news reports indicate Taiwan has backed off U.S. purchases for fear of market-wide disruption. In a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture the Taiwan Flour Mills Association says it purchased 1 million metric tons last year, but “a stoppage of this nature undermines the reputation of U.S. wheat in the marketplace.” Similar letters circulate from Korean and Chinese traders.

All of which makes Inslee’s explanation seem rather narrowly focused – like a governor looking through the wrong end of a telescope. Dated July 29, it comes in response to a query from congressional Republicans Jamie Hererra Beutler of Vancouver, Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Colville, Doc Hastings of Pasco, and Greg Walden of Oregon. In providing State Patrol escorts, Inslee says,

Gov. Jay Inslee.

Gov. Jay Inslee.

“My intention was to provide enough time and space for UGC and ILWU to negotiate an agreement, and I was very clear with both parties that WSP’s services were temporary and not to be considered a standing arrangement.

“As is evident, negotiations during that eight-month period were unsuccessful, and over time it became increasingly clear that keeping WSP escorts in place was not leading to productive negotiations as intended. Therefore, in early June, I met with both parties and informed them of my impending decision to end the escorts, which I felt would provide them one last opportunity to come to the table. Unfortunately, UGC refused to return to negotiations.

“…The only sustainable solution to this impasse is for both parties to come together immediately and engage in good-faith negotiations. This is how it works in every other grain terminal in the state, where grain is being inspected without interruption.

“It is my understanding that the two sides will meet in negotiations this week, and I hope that they can find a solution. Those interested in seeing this shutdown resolved should strongly urge UGC and ILWU to come to the table and finally reach an agreement.

“As you know, agriculture is one of our state’s key economic sectors, and I remain committed to a healthy, thriving industry.”

So much for the harvest.

See the full letter here: GovInslee_letter_PacNWoffices_072914

Comments | Topics: agriculture, economy, Jay Inslee

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