Kristi Pihl, Tri-City Herald
The acreage Washington's farmers devote to growing canola is expected to skyrocket for the fourth consecutive year, while chickpea plantings may level off after more than a decade of booming production.
They also are expected to grow more dried peas and wheat this year, with corn and hay acreage stabilizing, according to a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report.
Across the Mid-Columbia, farmers are in the midst of planting potatoes and dried peas, with chickpeas and spring canola expected to follow soon.
Chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans, have been a success story for farmers in Walla Walla and other areas of the state, with demand increasing because of America's growing appetite for hummus.
Washington has become the top grower in the nation of the bean, reaching a record 92,000 acres last year. But plantings are expected to drop by 2,000 acres this year. The 2 percent slump is smaller than many were expecting because of chickpea price declines during the last year and a dry winter in Walla Walla.
The lack of moisture caused some Walla Walla dryland farmers to decide to plant dried peas instead of chickpeas because chickpeas need more water, said Gary Ferrel, president of Blue Mountain Seed of Walla Walla.
But some farmers who were planning to allow land to remain fallow changed their mind after the recent weekend rains and decided to plant more chickpeas and dried peas. The Walla Walla company picked up 400 additional acres of peas and garbanzo beans just on Monday, Ferrel said.
Still, prices for dried peas are more competitive with chickpeas this year, Ferrel said. The Walla Walla company has seen farmers increase dried pea acreage by about 10 to 15 percent.
That is in line with statewide projections that farmers will plant about 90,000 acres of dried peas, up 10,000 acres from last year, according to USDA.
Like chickpeas and dried peas, canola can serve as a rotation crop for wheat.
Washington State University researchers have been encouraging farmers to consider growing the crop because canola can help with weed control and add to the yield of future wheat crops in the same soil.
State farmers this year are expected to grow about 45,000 acres of the oilseed, up by 22 percent from last year. Canola oil can be used in food-grade oil and biodiesel, and canola meal also can be used as feed for cows.
Karen Sowers, WSU extension and outreach specialist for the Department of Crop & Soil Sciences, expects slightly higher planting numbers, she said. Canola acreage more than doubled between 2012 and last year.
But some farmers still are debating whether they will plant spring canola, which will go in the ground soon, she said. Spring canola is typically harvested in July and August.
"The interest is not going away and the market is still there," Sowers said.
There was some damage to winter canola, which is normally harvested in late June and early July, but experts aren't sure yet how extensive it was.
When the temperature fell in December, many areas lacked the snow cover that can act as a blanket for winter canola, Sowers said.
Prices for canola also have been lower, at about 20 cents per pound this week, about 8 cents less than the same time last year, she said.
Farmers often will opt to plant wheat because of the immediate return, which is why WSU is spreading the word about the overall benefits of the crop, Sowers said.
Wheat, hay and corn
Washington farmers are expected to plant more wheat this year, about 2.3 million acres, up 3 percent from last year, according to USDA.
That's contrary to the slight downward trend in wheat production in the U.S. as a whole.
Wheat is Washington's second-most valuable crop after apples, bringing in $1.2 billion in 2012.
Washington is also bucking the national trend with corn. State farmers are expected to plant 190,000 acres of corn this year, the same as last year. Nationwide, plantings are expected to decline by 4 percent.
Hay, the state's fifth top crop, is expected to stay stable, with 750,000 acres statewide, a 1 percent decline from last year. In the Mid-Columbia, much of the alfalfa hay is grown for export.
Lared Whitby, co-owner of Whitby Farms and Whitby Ag Enterprises in Moses Lake, attributes some of the decline to a slight drop in alfalfa prices last year and the rotation patterns of some of the larger growers.
The competition for the Columbia Basin's limited acreage also is a lot higher, Whitby said, due to the addition of acres of canola, onions, potatoes and grass seed.
Most alfalfa and Timothy hay farmers expect to harvest this year was planted last summer and fall. Some of the alfalfa planted in October did not fare well this winter. An early cold snap killed cover crops and wind blew some of the seeds away, said David Manterola, who farms hay north of Pasco.
Hay is just a little behind normal this year, but Manterola said it's been a fairly typical spring. He's expecting a "decent" year.
Although potatoes are worth more than hay in Washington, the estimate for the annual crop didn't make it into USDA's planting forecast.
The Columbia Basin potato crop should be stable, up by about 2,000 to 2,500 acres, said Dale Lathim, executive director for the Potato Growers of Washington and the United Fresh Potato Growers of Washington & Oregon.
Potatoes are the state's fourth-most valuable commodity after apples, milk and wheat, worth about $700 million in 2012.
Columbia Basin farmers are currently in the middle of planting the spuds that will be harvested later this year, Lathim said.
-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; firstname.lastname@example.org