A researcher and a farmer agree that winter peas use less water than other crops, add nitrogen to the soil and help combat grassy weeds in a crop rotation with wheat.
Farmers and researchers have been looking for an alternative crop to winter wheat in the wheat-fallow cycle for a long time, said Bill Schillinger, director at the Washington State University research station in Lind.
He recently published a paper on the potential of winter peas for dryland farmers in the journal “Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.”
Schillinger compared a winter pea-spring wheat-summer fallow rotation to a winter wheat-spring wheat-summer fallow rotation. He put on 50 pounds of nitrogen fertilizer an acre for winter wheat, but none for winter peas.
In Ritzville, pea yields averaged 2,200 pounds per acre over seven years, compared to 73 bushels per acre for winter wheat.
Spring wheat that follows winter peas has higher yields because winter peas introduce nitrogen into the soil and don’t use as much water, he said. In Ritzville, spring wheat yields averaged 34 bushels per acre after winter peas and 31 bushels per acre after winter wheat over seven years.
Potential winter pea markets include food aid, cover crops and pet food, Schillinger said. Farmers receive 10 to 20 cents per pound.
Schillinger’s research team used the edible pea variety Windham, which, he said, is not the best fit for the market. Newer varieties have better qualities.
Winter pea production has increased each year, and Schillinger foresees demand taking off. The state has 20,000 winter pea acres, but he believes it could double — and then double again.
Ritzville farmer Ron Jirava worked with Schillinger, raising 20 acres of winter peas last year and increasing to 50 acres this year. He plans to increase to 300 acres next year.
Winter peas helped Jirava control goatgrass.
Jirava expects more grower acceptance for winter peas.
“If they don’t, I’m going to be kind of flabbergasted, because they’re so easy,” he said. “I can plant my peas, it could rain an inch and a half on them and they’re going to come up.”
Jirava recommends farmers know the ground’s chemical history. Some herbicide residuals will hurt winter peas, he said.
Jirava said winter peas cost a little more for seed than wheat, but don’t require fertilizer and leave some left over in the soil.
“The yield we’ve seen has made me comfortable enough to (say), ‘This is a good tool for goatgrass and cheatgrass control,’” he said. “We’ve got all these different ‘tools in our toolbox’ — that little catchphrase. We might as well make use of all of them.”