Sunday, July 28, 2013

Notes From the Palouse

Rolling hills and patchwork farm fields
     This past week I visited the farmers who live and farm in the Palouse Region of Eastern Washington state.  This area comprises roughly in the south-east portion of the state, and goes into the panhandle of Idaho.  It is very rich agriculturally, with silty soils and abundant rains, which come during the spring and early summer.

Winter wheat beginning to turn from green to gold.  
     Geologically, the region is made of unusual and beautiful silt-dunes, which were formed during the Ice Age.  They were the result of a glacial outwash, which made huge, random humps and hollows.  I often describe them as endless giant gopher mounds.  The big, open portions of the dunes are cropped fields.  In the gullies and hollows, are timber, brush, creeks, deciduous trees and shrubs.  The combined fields and trees are gorgeous.

See how the cab is level, and the header follows the contour of the land?
This is a self leveling combine.  Pretty helpful.
     You might imagine that it could be dicey attempting to drive a tractor or combine on these steep hillsides.  It is!  The self leveling combine was developed by Washington State University, which is in this region.

      The farmland here is like none other.  Precipitation ranges from 15" to 22" annually, so farmers have no need to irrigate.  The top soil is very deep, ranging from 3' and deeper throughout the Palouse.  Crops are predominantly wheat, barley, dry peas, lentils and garbanzos, with some oats, flax and canola.  Whitman County, in the heart of the Palouse, is the largest grower of Soft White Wheat in the United States.

     The region was settled in the late 1800's by German, Irish and Russian immigrants - you'll hear their surnames all over the Palouse.  Most farms are still being worked by original families - with 4th and 5th generation now tilling the land that their ancestors homesteaded.

Fields with dry peas growing in the foreground

      Harvest is just beginning in the Palouse.  The first crop to ripen is winter wheat (hard red and soft white winter wheats), then dry peas and dry lentils, then the spring wheats (dark northern, hard white and soft white spring wheats), and finally, garbanzos.  Harvest runs from the end of July through September.

     After harvest, farmers plant their fall crop of winter wheat and in some cases, dry winter peas. Also, they prepare fields which will be planted in the spring.  They spray weed killer and incorporate fertilizer in the soil, so that it can work over the winter.  Usually they are done with all their fall work by mid to late October.

Dry peas growing.
     Then, they rest.  They  make repairs and upgrades to all of their equipment.  They go to seminars and conventions which pertain to the crops they grow, or type of farming they practice.   They plan and budget for next season, and talk with their banker, accountant and crop advisors.  They sleep in a little bit, maybe till 7 am or so.  They enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas.  And, if they're lucky, they go on a winter vacation with their families and friends. The farmers of the Palouse know they live in God's country, and they don't take it for granted!

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