WALLA WALLA, WA (AP)--As fuel prices climb to their highest levels in a decade, farmers are looking for ways to reduce the number of trips their tractors make across fields.
Crude oil prices have more than doubled in the past two years, taking a bigger bite out of farm operating budgets.
"A lot of farmers are going to feel the pinch this spring," warned Perry Dozier, a Waitsburg wheat and pea grower.
"It used to be that farmers never considered fuel costs as a significant factor in their costs," said Herb Hinman, a Washington State University farm management specialist.
Operating costs last year averaged about $32.77 an acre, of which fuel and lubricants amount to $1.75, Hinman said. As fuel costs continue to rise, thin profit margins will surely be squeezed, he said.
That is forcing some farmers to change the way they plant this spring.
"I think it will push more people into using no-till, or low till management, because every time you don't make a pass over the field with a tractor, you're saving money on fuel," Hinman said.
No-till or low-till farming means planting seeds with no or minimal plowing. The process leaves crop residue from previous harvests on the field, which helps hold the soil in place.
But some farmers are reluctant to try the methods because they fear the crop residue can become a breeding ground for insects and disease.
Wheat and other row-crop growers are likely to be most affected, Hinman said.
Dozier said he is hoping for a fuel price break so he can stock up.
"I have enough storage that I can buy by the semiload, so I can buy when I see a good price break," he said.
Bulk diesel fuel delivered to farms sold last week for about $1.15 a gallon in the Walla Walla area, and $1.66 per gallon at the pump. That compares to year-ago prices of 58 cents and $1.20 a gallon, respectively.
"This kind of increase does impact both your capital and your cash flow," Dozier said.
Over the past three years, he has shifted more of his operation toward low-till and no-till practices, Dozier said. That has translated into fuel cost savings as much as 33%, he said.
Not all farmers have that option.
Tom Beechinor, an asparagus grower, tried low-till farming, but found he was penalized at market, because spears emerging from the soil were nicked and scarred from the harvest residue.
Pea growers also spend a lot of time on tractors weeding, fertilizing, planting and harvesting their crop. Pea growers must make five passes over their fields in the fall and another six or seven in the spring.
"I'm going to spend a third more on fuel this year than I did last year," said Gary Nibler, president of the Oregon-Washington Pea Growers Association. "We can't pass these higher prices on to the customer."
Higher fuel bills are "just another thorn in the side of the farmer," said J.P. Kent, an executive board member of the Washington Association of wheat Growers.
"There is no way we can pass on this higher cost, so we take it in the shorts," he said.