Wheat Harvest

Despite drought, disease, disaster

Highline Grain Growers wrap up a solid season


By Mike Maltais

WATERVILLE – Despite drought, disease and disaster, North Central Washington wheat farmers managed to get their grain crops into area elevators for the 2020 growing season.

Paul Katovich of Waterville, is CEO of Highline Grain Growers (HLGG), a network of nearly 50 grain and seed handling warehouses spread across eight Eastern Washington counties.

Parts of Douglas, Okanogan, Lincoln and Grant county grain producers principally access three elevator sites in Brewster, Mansfield, and Waterville.

Katovich said that considering the lack of moisture during the cold months the crop yield was better than he expected.

“For the winter we had and the rain we had, the quality was great,” said Katovich. “I was surprised.”

He noted that the Brewster area was one that experienced a good harvest.

He compared the lack of moisture this crop received, six-tenths of an inch of rain for 2020, to typical rainfall amounts in the Mohave Desert.

“A rain shadow pattern extending from Okanogan to Oregon put us way behind on moisture,” Katovich said.

An article published in the June 2020 issue of Wheat Life, the official publication of Washington Association of Wheat Growers, cited figures from the U.S. Drought Monitor showing abnormally dry to serious drought conditions spread through a large swath of Eastern Washington including Highline’s member area.

While HLGG lost no elevators to the several wildfires that burned through parts of its network, some crop losses occurred in the Wilbur-Creston-Davenport area.

“What we’re doing now is watching to keep grain in good condition and shipping,” said Katovich. “With the footprint we have – the largest in the state – it takes us all year to get ready.”

HLGG maintains a staff of about 100 full time employees and hires another 100 to 150 temporary workers during the busier months.

“We ship about a million metric tons annually,” Katovich estimates. “About 36 million bushels.”

“The majority of the grain from Brewster goes to Wenatchee by train on the main BNSF line,” Katovich said.

HLGG uses a variety of traffic from the Columbia River where HLGG is part owner of a barge system, to small trains and 110-to 115-car unitrains. One particular problem the wildfires caused was damage to a rail track HLGG uses to ship product from Coulee City to Cheney.

“The fire ran right over the tracks,” said Katovich. “More than nine miles of track, 1,228 ties must be replaced.”

The HLGG model as a cooperative of five local grain companies is a young enterprise entering just its third year of operation.

“The merger happened in a 2017 vote and first operations began in April 2018,” said Katovich, “though we had been working together longer than that.”

The merger was a record of sorts bringing together Central Washington Grain Growers, Odessa Union Warehouse Co., Reardan Grain Growers, Davenport Union Warehouse Co., and Almira Farmers Warehouse Co., Ltd. Under one roof.

“When we went through the process of tying up the equity portions, they (the facilitators) looked at it and said, ‘We’ve never done that before,’” Katovich said.

Katovich worked for Central Washington Grain Growers at the time and applied his economics degree from the University of Idaho to the challenge of ramrodding the operation.

“The beauty of a co-op is that we can pay back to our patrons,” said Katovich. “In the past two years we have paid back $10.1 million dollars.”

Katovich describes the wheat farmer as fiercely independent by nature.

The cooperative they are a part of is an extension of them,” said Katovich. “We want to protect that and if a neighbor’s in trouble, we help them.”

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