The Wonderful Soil of the Palouse
There’s really nothing else quite like it in North America. A quilted ocean of gently rolling hills and changing colors that swells with wheat and barley, peas and lentils.
Don’t look for the creeks and rivers that sculpted this 4,000 square miles of living topo map. Here, the wind is the architect. All this glacial silt was blown in, in a series of colossal dust storms from the south west.
"It just settled out of the air much the same way snow would fall," explains Paul McDaniel of the University of Idaho. "Certainly in North Amercia this is the largest area of this type of a landscape and soils. And it’s a landscape that has built up over the last two million years or so."
This process of soil building continues even today. When the ash from Mount St. Helen’s settled over the Palouse in 1980, farmers noticed that their yields increased. The ash helped to seal in the soil’s moisture.
And that’s the secret of this soil. It retains water for plants. Farmers don’t irrigate and there’s never been a crop failure here. Farmers in the Palouse grow the best winter wheat in the United States.
But erosion is a problem. "And unfortunately," says McDaniel, "some of the highest documented rates of soil erosion anywhere in the United States are from right here in the Palouse. And there have been estimates that even around here some of the ridges may have lowered as much as six feet since settlement and cultivation."
Luckily, many farmers are doing something about erosion, with no-till farming practices.