The Palouse is uniquely qualified to grow the world’s best winter wheat, and by the 1920’s farmers had figured that out.
What are those conditions? A mild winter, a wet spring, and a dry summer. Oh, and a soil that holds the moisture from the spring through the summer months.
Winter wheat is sown usually in October, so that it can grow a few inches before winter sets in. Once winter hits, the freezing weather causes the plants to send out shoots, thus establishing more plants, and thus increasing the yield. This process is called stooling.
A blanket of snow insulates the crops and keeps them from dying out. Then the long hot summer gives the plants plenty of time to mature. By the 1920’s wheat farmers in the Palouse could say with pride that they produced more wheat per acre in their region than any other place of comparable size in the world.
Who uses winter wheat? The Japanese, the Philippines, most of Asia, Egypt, just about anyone who likes noodles, pasta and pastries.
At Washington State University, scientists from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture evaluate Japanese sponge cakes and cookies and noodles, trying to improve the quality of the wheat. That’s because Asians demand a bright, clear appealing color in their noodle. Scientists process close to 7,000 different genetic combinations of wheat every year; but only the best two or three ever get into the grower’s hands.
Since the soil of the Palouse is so easily erodable – remember, this soil was all blown in from the southwest! – progressive farmers have begun using a process called direct seeding or “no till” farming. The wheat stubble is left on the ground and the farmer plants the next year’s crop right through the wheat residue.
In the 1970’s “no till” farming got a bad rap, as some farmers lost everything trying to make it work. But these days, the science and the machinery is available to allow farmers to drill through the wheat stubble to put the seeds exactly where they should be placed. The machinery to do this is expensive, and doesn’t work so well on the sloped areas of the Palouse, but many farmers believe this is the best hope of keeping the Palouse soil from eroding away.
Farmers know they must also improve the soil for next year’s crops, since a constant crop of winter wheat would deplete the soil. So they rotate their crops. Many farmers will plant peas in the second year, to return nitrogen to the soil. Then in the third year they may plant barley. Then it’s back to wheat. This three year rotation breaks the disease cycle while improving the soil.