Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Farmers overcame ash spewed by Mount St. Helens

Thirty years ago, on May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted violently. The headline in the May 23, 1980, Capital Press read: "St. Helens dusts NW crops with volcanic ash" and the secondary headline said "Easter Washington's rich farming lands declared disaster area."

Another front-page headline said: "Central Washington farmers 'paralyzed'" in the aftermath of the eruption.

In those early days after the eruption, experts said it was still too early to tell what the extent of damage would be to agriculture. But some things were known already. With some roads impassible, dairy farmers were forced to dump thousands of gallons of milk because they couldn't get it to market. Freight movement on the Columbia River was shut down for a time due to mudflows in the mighty river that had to be dredged to allow ocean-going ships to be able to reach port in Portland.

It was estimated that $100 million in damage was caused to crops in Eastern Washington. Farm machinery suffered additional downtime for maintenance and cleaning to remove ash or repair problems caused by the abrasive powder.

But some farmers also saw some benefits from the ash cloud that eventually reached the East Coast. The ask killed insects that would have ordinarily feasted on their crops and some crops even saw improved yields later in the year.

Normally, when stories about mountains appear in the Capital Press, it is because we are looking at the snowpack in the high elevations to determine the the availability of water for the irrigation season. Or perhaps the story is about summer grazing of livestock in mountain meadows. But 30 years ago, one Northwest mountain cast a long, ashen shadow over fruit growers, row crop farmers, dairy farmers and livestock producers in the region. The mountain's fiery was the news. And the agriculture industry, as it is famous for doing, endured nature's wrath and kept right on feeding the world in spite of the obstacles and unexpected challenges that particular season presented.

What do you remember about how Mount St. Helens affected agriculture in 1980?

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