Agriculture in Washington since 1900

  • By Kara Rowe
  • Posted 3/15/2018
  • Essay 20524
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At the turn of the twentieth century, Washington farmers and ranchers realized they still had much to learn about the land. Washington State College (later University) in Pullman became the center of agricultural research in the early early years of the century, helping to improve farm practices around the state. Construction of Grand Coulee Dam began in 1934, the start of the Columbia Basin Project that would include 300 miles of canals and provide irrigation water to more than 600,000 acres of Central Washington farmland. Advances in crop rotation and nutrition strategies, equipment technology, and breeding allowed farmers to manage more acreage with fewer workers in less time. Washington farmers and ranchers increasingly depended on trade to sustain their economy. By 2016, the state exported $7 billion of food and agriculture products, roughly two-thirds to Asia. Washington agriculture (not including food processing) contributed a total of $10.6 billion to the state's economy, with apples, milk, potatoes, cattle, and wheat the highest-valued commodities. More than 300 crops are raised in Washington, and 95 percent of the state's farms are family owned and operated.

Changes on the Land

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Northern Pacific and Great Northern railways had established their foothold in the Northwest. Branch rail lines to rural areas fed transcontinental lines connecting the region to the rest of the country. Railroads advertised the fertile lands of Eastern Washington to residents of the East Coast who hoped start a new life in the Northwest. Branch lines helped establish communities such as Quincy and Almira in rural eastern areas of the state. Wheat production continued booming on the eastern prairies, as more immigrants, like Volga Germans, settled in the grasslands. Rail transportation allowed farmers to ship surpluses quickly and regularly.

Wheat became the largest crop grown in the drier eastern half of the state. Since the 1880s, farmers had produced wheat in mass quantity. Ships carried most of the crop overseas. Farmers believed that tilling fields multiple times before seeding was the best approach to growing a successful crop and often harrowed fields 10 times in one year to slow moisture loss and absorb rain better. In many areas the multi-till approach worked, especially for wheat. The U.S. Department of Agriculture claimed, "The highest average yield of wheat per acre in the entire United States for 1901 was in the state of Washington. It was 29.1 bushels to the acre, while the general average for all of the states was but 15 bushels" ("Washington Wheat Lands").

West of the mountains, in the Puget Sound region, numerous small truck farms supplied the area's growing cities. Many truck farmers were immigrants, especially from Italy and Japan. Japanese American farmers began farming in the White River Valley and east of Lake Washington in the 1890s; they were selling produce at Pike Place Market within a few years of its 1907 opening, and by the 1920s supplied more than three quarters of the vegetables consumed in King County and half the milk.

Dairies, including Hazelwood Farms near Spokane, grew around the state. Near Seattle, Elbridge Amos Stuart (1856-1944) expanded his Carnation Milk Company and established a large farm near Tolt in the Snoqualmie Valley in 1910. Stuart's herd of purebred Holstein cows became world-famous and the valley was named the "Home for Contented Cows." In 1917, the town changed its name from Tolt to Carnation, in honor of the famous farm.

Along with agricultural success, however, came some problems. Intense grazing by cattle and sheep on the open range nearly depleted public grasslands. Sagebrush moved into areas where bunchgrass once dominated. The Federal Homestead Act was still in effect, and homesteaders plowed up the land in 160-acre tracts throughout the region. In 1904, J. S. Cotton, a graduate student at Washington State College, explained the decline of rangelands from his observation of the Prosser area:

"[The range] is at present in a very bad state of depletion. Nearly all of the better portions are now under fence and being cultivated, while the poorer parts have been grazed to a point where it is almost impossible for cattle to make a living, and sheep can find but a few weeks of good grazing" (Harris, 225).

The U.S. Department of Interior stepped in and established control over public grazing lands in 1905. Grazing laws limited the number of livestock and amount of time allowed on the range. This reduction of free grass, along with continued harsh winters, changed the way most livestock was raised in the state. Many ranchers diversified and added crops to livestock operations. Ranchers also accepted the fact that providing shelter and feed for their herds in the winter were necessary for a successful operation. They relied less on the open range, and more on hay in the cold months. Many ranchers bought additional land and fenced in their cattle. This allowed them to have better control over the herds year-round.

Another vegetation-management problem took hold in the region, forever changing the countryside around the turn of the century. Cheatgrass, or downy brome, was first reported in Washington in 1893, and it quickly spread throughout the region. The non-native species proved to be a nuisance to both farmers and ranchers throughout the West. "Within a few short years it became the dominant plant on millions of acres of disturbed grazing land" (Harris, 226). Over the decades other exotic noxious weeds moved into the Northwest. Canadian thistle, Russian thistle, tansy ragwort, and diffuse knapweed were among the worst invaders of the state's grasslands, wetlands, and forests.

With farmers and ranchers facing weed, pest, and disease problems, agricultural research efforts increased. In wheat country, yields began to decrease as existing nutrients fed crop after crop and became depleted. With the nation on the verge of entering World War I, a delegation of wheat growers took their concerns to Washington State College. They urged scientists to spend more time in the field and to learn together with them. The result was a cooperative relationship between scientists, farmers, and local businesses that led to significant increases in production while improving stewardship of the land.

In 1910, a former Washington State professor, William Spillman, was placed in charge of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Farm Management. This allowed him to establish a network of county extension agents in several states, including Washington. Their goal was to demonstrate the current best-management practices for farming at a local level. Once consistent solutions were discovered, farmers were encouraged to use the new techniques and improve their practices for better conservation and increased profit.

Early Irrigation Projects

In 1902 Congress passed the Reclamation Act, which funded irrigation projects in the Yakima, Wenatchee, and Okanogan valleys. Supporters believed that irrigation and reclamation would encourage continuous settlement of the West. Irrigation projects helped communities grow in otherwise challenging agrarian areas. In wetter parts of the state, or where irrigation became available, farmers could grow specialty crops worth more than the wheat that could be grown with less water. In Yakima County, farmers began growing fruit and rolling pastures became orchards and vineyards, with dairy farms also scattered through the valley.

In the Wenatchee Valley, the dry climate and lack of land suited for plowing had made wheat farming nearly impossible. In 1904, however, the Wenatchee Development Company completed a 16-mile canal that irrigated 9,000 acres of narrow benches along the Wenatchee River. This led to additional irrigation efforts and the area became the apple capitol of the world. It was promoted as the place "Where Dollars Grow on Trees," with a 1908 brochure asserting, "This is a place to make money with less effort and worry than in other occupations, and with a moderate investment a good income for life can be obtained" (Rader).

As agriculture grew through irrigation projects, more workers moved into rural communities. Many Japanese contract laborers came to the Yakima area; by 1915, 500 of the 650 people living in the town of Wapato were Japanese. In 1921, however, the state legislature passed the Alien Land Bill, which prohibited Japanese (and other non-white) immigrants from owning or leasing land. Many Japanese farmers were able to continue farming in the valley under private, informal agreements with tribal landowners. But their lives would change drastically during World War II, when the U.S. government evicted 1,200 Yakima Valley residents of Japanese heritage, along with many others around the state, from their homes and placed them in internment camps.

Wobblies in the Fields

Before World War I, horses powered the farming economy. Horses and mules pulled equipment in the fields and were vital to agricultural success. Farm families spent much of their time tending to the work animals, and they often hired additional help during harvest. Hundreds of migrant workers arrived by train during the harvest season looking for work. Wheat harvest alone required about 20 men and 30 horses per farm. The work was hard and often dangerous.

In the first decade of the century, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or "Wobblies") organized in Eastern Washington. The IWW's farm labor branch -- the Agricultural Workers' Industrial Union (AWIU) -- sought to increase wages and improve working conditions. IWW representatives arrived during harvest when migrant crews did, spreading their message and recruiting members. Farmers feared the IWW would win over their seasonal crews and they would be forced to spend money they often didn't have to improve conditions. Wobblies quickly became the focus of law enforcement activity in communities across the state.

In the summer of 1916, agricultural workers from nearly every farm type and ethnicity in the Yakima Valley held strikes demanding better wages. Both law enforcement and vigilante violence against IWW organizers and workers increased pressure on the movement. The state legislature passed a bill in 1917 effectively making membership in the IWW illegal. When the U.S. entered World War I, the IWW opposed the war. Newspapers and law enforcement labeled the organization as seditious. Federal authorities became involved and Wobblies were arrested throughout the region. "The Yakima Daily Republic often convicted the Wobblies of pro-German sentiment, of having pockets filled with gold of suspicious origin, and of having plans to poison Yakima citizens" (Hall, 43).

In the Palouse wheat region, the Washington State Council of Defense and local farmers avoided using union labor as families banded together and mechanization reduced the need for additional help. In the Yakima area, farm owners worked with the courts, news media, and vigilante action to stifle the progress of organizing efforts. Conflicts within the IWW also added to the union's overall demise in the state as it failed to connect with the diverse cultures of agricultural workers. "Stationary workers would ignore the union's message. Latino and Asian farm workers were not attracted to the culture and ideas of the AWIU, which were still largely rooted in the transient, white-male experience" (Castañeda).

Advancing Technology and Increasing Research

After World War I, exporting food to Europe was less vital than during the war, and the decrease in demand hit farmers hard. Many Eastern Washington farmers lost land due to plummeting wheat prices. One homesteader in the Mansfield area recalled:

"We broke the sod, fenced, and raised horses and mules ... [Soon] we had to move: it was first the grasshoppers, then the drought ... The Bridgeport Bank went broke and we lost money there. We lost more when the Mansfield Bank went broke ... John was hauling his wheat to Mansfield at the time in the winter. Twenty-seven miles with a team and sled" (Kirk and Alexander, 93).

Advancing technology also changed the agricultural economy after the war. Combines, which "combined" the header and thresher in a single unit, made wheat harvests more efficient. Some farmers used gas or diesel tractors to replace horses in the fields. Tractors increased productivity -- from five acres per day with horses, farmers plowed 100 acres with tractors. International Harvester, Deere & Co., Avery Company, and other equipment manufacturers also improved the way crops were transported. Motorized farm trucks replaced wagons pulled by horses.

In wheat country, farmers needed fewer hired hands during the busy season, but orchards, vineyards, and other specialty crops still needed large crews to bring in the harvest. On potato farms, crews harvested the potatoes by hand; pulling, picking, and sacking them as they went down the rows. The 100-pound sacks were sewn shut, loaded onto trucks, and taken to local warehouses for sorting.

Farm-product cooperatives began forming as transportation and marketing opportunities increased. In 1918, a group of dairy farmers in the Puget Sound area joined together to market their products. They formed the United Dairymen's Association, and later rebranded their products as Darigold.

In 1920, the Washington Farm Bureau formed with local chapters in counties throughout the state. Specific commodity-grower and rancher groups began organizing to promote their industries, support research, and increase trade. These groups supported increases in research at Washington State College. Professors and graduate students tested various plant pathology and breeding techniques to improve crop varieties and minimize loss to disease and pests. In the 1930s, horticulturist Dr. Walter J. Clore arrived at WSC's Irrigation Branch Experiment Station near Prosser, and he began experimenting with wine grapes. Clore's research led to innovative work in the wine industry. Dr. Orville Vogel and other scientists in Pullman began breeding shorter-stalked wheat varieties that increased yields and revolutionized the industry.

Washington wine-grape growers who survived Prohibition, which ended in 1933, started increasing production. By 1938 there were 42 different wineries in Washington, "most producing the then-popular heavy, sweet fruit-based wine -- blackberry, cherry, concord grape, currant, and loganberry" (Blecha).

The Columbia Basin Project

By the 1930s, like much of the country, areas throughout Washington were in the middle of one of the worst droughts in history. Dry streambeds resulted in power shortages throughout the Pacific Northwest. Multi-till practices kept the topsoil loose and major dust storms became a regular occurrence. The federal government established the Soil Conservation Service, and conservation districts were put into place with local leadership. The districts offered assistance on farmland, rangeland, woodland, and watersheds. Farmers and ranchers helped make long-term plans for better land conservation and management. Slowly, the agricultural community in the state used less destructive practices on the land.

Water was a precious resource for farms east of the Cascades. Farmers and the public appealed to Congress to fund an irrigation project in Central Washington. The nation was in the middle of the Great Depression, and unemployment was above 20 percent. The 1932 election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1882-1945) signaled a new era for Washington agriculture. Roosevelt's New Deal programs made jobs the highest priority of the nation. Construction began on the Grand Coulee Dam, designed to to permanently dam the Columbia River in the same spot that glacial dams had millions of years ago. Initially, the focus of the dam was jobs and electricity. In 1934 Roosevelt personally inspected the progress of the project and endorsed making it high enough to provide enough electricity to pump water to irrigate the lands of the Columbia River Basin.

But that took time. The infrastructure of the Columbia Basin Project took a decade to build. The Federal Bureau of Reclamation installed more than 300 miles of canals from Quincy to the Tri-Cities area. The idea of water on this desert brought farmers from around the nation to Central Washington after World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s many people and families packed up their lives and moved to the Columbia River Basin in hopes of thriving on the new farmland. Sagebrush was ripped out and the desert became farmable. The U.S. government held land drawings for servicemen freshly home from World War II. Developers needed people willing to take a chance to settle in the Columbia Basin.

In 1952, promoters of the Basin project created a "Farm in a Day" giveaway, advertising the new irrigation possibilities. Volunteers built an entire farm, including a home, furnishings, outbuildings, and newly planted crops, in 24 hours. The recipient of the farm was Donald Dunn, a 30-year-old World War II veteran from Kansas, who was chosen through a Veterans of Foreign Wars search. Dunn had initial success on the farm growing multiple crops. In fact, he presented General Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) with a sack of potatoes from his first crop during Ike's presidential campaign travels to Ephrata. But by 1955 Dunn was $60,000 in debt and he sold the farm. There were many besides Dunn who lost in farming. Nevertheless, today the Columbia Basin project provides irrigation water to more than 600,000 acres of farmland in Central Washington.

The canals brought water, but the wind and dirt still blew. If crops weren't ruined by wind and weather, farmers had to find a market to sell them. Some drove their produce to Seattle to sell direct to the urban masses. Processors and packing plants emerged throughout Central Washington.

Technology, Transportation, and Trade

After World War II, advances in fertilizer research allowed farmers to raise more food on the same amount of land by replacing nutrients lost during growing seasons. New science also helped farmers ward off pests and disease better. Farmers began using reduced-tillage practices to conserve soil, water, and nutrients. Plant breeding advanced, and new varieties increased yields. In the 1960s, with food production increasing, Americans spent less of their annual income on food. Food processing evolved as Americans relied more on frozen and canned items. Large food processors like Simplot prepared, froze, canned, and bagged food products from Washington and transported them throughout the nation. Flour mills grew in size and capacity. Farmers and ranchers across the state were motivated to increase supply for international trade. Many grower groups set up commodity commissions through the state legislature. A small assessment, or tax, was imposed on farm commodities sold (wheat, cattle, or potatoes, for example), and those farm assessments were gathered to help fund local marketing, research, and educational efforts benefitting the state's growers and ranchers. Such groups and commissions continue to support these missions today.

Work done by various Washington commodity commissions bolstered international trade, making specific impacts that served the overall agricultural community:

"For example, the Washington wheat industry was among the leaders in the 1950s and 1960s in identifying how rising incomes in traditional rice-eating countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan would trigger demand for consumption of alternative wheat-based foods. The Washington apple industry, through its pioneering marketing efforts for fresh apples, helped open up many developing country markets for other Washington agricultural products such as pears, sweet cherries and fruit juices. In addition to conducting trade missions around the globe, Washington agriculture has often given foreign visitors their first experience of U.S. society. As a result, farmers and agribusinesses throughout Washington are more globally aware than their counterparts in most other states" (O'Rourke).

Equipment on farms got bigger and more powerful through the 1970s. This allowed farmers to manage more acreage using fewer hired hands and less time. Advances in irrigation technology alone changed agriculture in the state dramatically. Center-pivot systems replaced hand lines, siphon tubes, and reel irrigation on many farms in the Columbia Basin. Center-pivot systems require less labor, energy, and water to manage the crop moisture levels.

The new agricultural technologies, however, were not cheap. Larger, more efficient tractors and implements carried larger price tags. A boom in the demand for farm commodities increased significantly in the 1970s. Farm income rose and high inflation made farmland values increase. Many farmers went into debt as they tried to make upgrades to their machinery or purchased additional land to increase their production. The boom period came to an end in the late 1970s. The Federal Reserve Board tightened monetary policy to fight inflation, and changing conditions in worldwide markets decreased demand for American food commodities. High interest rates pushed land values and farm earnings down. In the 1980s these factors led to a near-crisis on Washington farms as market prices dropped. Farmers in the Midwest were hit hardest, but Washington also farmers struggled.

After the 1980s, farmers and ranchers grew their operations with a better knowledge of risks, international markets, and the value of technology. In the 1990s advances from other industries made their way to Washington farms. Sensors, devices, new machines, and information technology made agriculture more efficient. Irrigation systems could now identify what areas of the field were drier than others. Farmers no longer needed to apply water, fertilizers, and pesticides uniformly across whole fields. They could target specific areas and use equipment that covered a field more gently and added fertilizer more precisely. Some began using moisture sensors, aerial imagery, and GPS technology to make their farming more exact. Most dryland (non-irrigated) wheat farmers turned to reduced tillage, or even no-till practices, to minimize erosion and soil disturbance while still capturing rainwater effectively. Cattle ranches and dairies also became more sophisticated and precise in their herd management practices. Timothy hay and alfalfa growers used less water and other inputs. Some Washington dairies began to use anaerobic digesters to combust manure into biogas. Orchards and vineyards improved the way they managed their fruit, using less water and chemicals.

Significantly dependent on exports to distant markets since pioneer days, Washington agriculture became ever more reliant on customers overseas and upon improved transportation from field to port as Washington farmers and ranchers continued increasing production. "Between 1985 and 1995, when markets in East Asia, Mexico and Latin America were buoyant, Washington agricultural exports grew in almost every major product category" (O'Rourke).

Transporting farm products to the ports has challenged farmers for decades. Railroad companies consolidated throughout the nation, and only two major players remained in the Pacific Northwest: Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF). BNSF currently provides the main rail service in Washington, with a few small branch lines that are independently operated. Many wheat farmers are dependent on the rail system to get their product to the export facilities near the coast.

However, the barge waterway developed on the Columbia and Snake rivers between the 1930s and 1970s has provided an alternative. Wheat farmers and others had been moving products down the Columbia and Snake since the 1800s, and navigation on the rivers improved with the construction of the dams along the route. With the development of the dams and transportation infrastructure, the Columbia-Snake Waterway provided a route for shipping some 50 million tons of cargo annually by barge from as far inland as the Idaho border, where the ports of Clarkston in Asotin County and Lewiston in Idaho are located, to the mouth of the Columbia. Refrigerated trucks move other export commodities, such as apples and potatoes, to ports on Puget Sound. Public port districts on the Sound and also far up the barge-waterway system rely significantly on agricultural goods to keep their economies thriving. Thousands of port jobs across the state depend on agriculture.

In 2016, Washington was the third-largest exporter of food and agriculture products in the U.S., exporting $7 billion worth of food and agriculture products, roughly two-thirds of that to Asia. Total agricultural production that year was worth $10.6 billion (not including food processing). Apples were the most valuable crop, worth $2.4 billion, followed by milk ($1.1 billion), potatoes ($813 million), cattle ($704 million) and wheat ($657 million). More than 300 crops were raised in the state, second only to California in agricultural diversity. Washington farmers in 2016 led the nation in producing apples, hops, spearmint oil, wrinkled seed peas, concord grapes, sweet cherries, pears, raspberries (for processing), and blueberries.

There are nearly 36,000 farms in Washington, 95 percent of them family owned and operated. These farms have made huge strides to improve worker housing and labor practices over the years. Many offer migrant-worker housing on farms and follow strict guidelines for worker safety. Advances in technology and conservation have made the farms and ranches of Washington leaders in sustainable agriculture nationwide.

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum. 

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