Mid-Columbia strong with dry, fresh peas

Tri-City HeraldSeptember 17, 2012 

For crops that would seem to be similar, dry and fresh peas could not be more different.

-- Dry peas are dry-land farmed, while fresh peas need irrigation.

-- Dry peas are grown as a rotation crop, while fresh peas are grown on the same land as other crops each season.

-- Washington dry peas often head to the Middle East and India, while fresh peas are processed, frozen and used around the world.

-- Dry peas use more than twice as much acreage, while fresh peas produce 25,000 more tons. Combined, peas are a strong commodity for Washington, valued at more than $45 million in 2011.

Clayton Voss, a young farmer in Franklin County, loves growing fresh peas for processing, primarily because he can use the same land to farm peas in the spring and sweet corn in the summer.

“They bring in a decent amount of money, and I can double up on the land,” he said.

Voss, 28, graduated from Pasco High School in 2002. After high school, he went into the carpenters’ union to get away from the farm life he grew up with. It turned out to be a great decision.

“You can’t appreciate what a great life farming is unless you go and do something else,” he said. Voss farms 1,875 acres of land, but he harvests 3,400 acres from the ground he works. In March, he plants green peas, harvesting them in June. As soon as his peas are delivered to Twin City Foods in Pasco, he works 20-hour days to prepare the soil for sweet corn, which is planted in early July and harvested into October.

“We’re running high speed from March to October,” he said. “It’s pretty intense.”

Peas are not too labor intensive to grow, though. Because they are grown earlier in the year when weather brings more moisture, Voss has to give them extra attention to avoid mold, mildew and rot.

In addition to peas and corn, Voss also grows green beans, alfalfa and buckwheat. The latter goes to Japan to be turned into soba noodles.

He regularly rotates his crops by swapping land with potato farmers. This allows the ground to stay healthy without ever taking it out of production, Voss said.

Fresh peas are graded on tenderness. Peas harvested earlier in the season might get as much as $280 per ton, but the yield is lower. Later, higher-tonnage peas that aren’t as tender will bring in a lower price.

In 2011, Washington fresh pea farmers averaged $252 per ton. Franklin County farmers brought in an average of 2.6 tons per acre. Voss was able to bring in about 3.5 tons per acre and has had several fields yield as much as 4.5 tons per acre.

In 2011, Washington was No. 1 in fresh processed peas, a title it swaps with Minnesota, depending on the year.

Meanwhile, dry peas are grown primarily in Whitman, Columbia and Walla Walla counties as a rotation crop with wheat.

Gary Ferrel, owner of Blue Mountain Seed in downtown Walla Walla, gets most of his peas between Dayton and Milton-Freewater. In recent years, chickpeas have been a bigger part of his business, as that crop has taken off in Washington. In 2012, Ferrel processed two-thirds chickpeas and one-third dry peas.

Dry peas typically are planted from mid-March to late April and are harvested 90 to 100 days later. Like chickpeas, dry peas are harvested with a wheat combine. When they are harvested, they must have no more than 12 percent moisture.

Ferrel said the region has many dry pea processors, though most are in the Palouse.

Most of Ferrel’s peas head to India, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

“They are used as an inexpensive protein substitute,” he said. “They go into casseroles, stews, soups. They have more uses for peas than I could ever imagine.”

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