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Alfalfa seed farmers have average, profitable year

The alfalfa seed harvest in Washington state is nearing its end.
Matthew Weaver

Capital Press

Published on September 11, 2017 10:28AM

Otis Garbe and his family harvests a field of alfalfa seed Sept. 7 near Touchet, Wash.

Matthew Weaver/Capital Press

Otis Garbe and his family harvests a field of alfalfa seed Sept. 7 near Touchet, Wash.

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The Garbe family — mom Kim; son Tegon, 8, and dad Otis — shares a relaxed moment in the final days of alfalfa seed harvest outside their combine Sept. 7 in Touchet, Wash.

Matthew Weaver/Capital Press

The Garbe family — mom Kim; son Tegon, 8, and dad Otis — shares a relaxed moment in the final days of alfalfa seed harvest outside their combine Sept. 7 in Touchet, Wash.


TOUCHET, Wash. — Otis Garbe isn’t quite sure what he did to get one of his top alfalfa seed harvests this year.

“For me, I’m going ‘What did I do this last year?’ so I can repeat it again this year,” the Touchet, Wash., farmer said.

Garbe credits a long winter, good moisture, low insect populations and weather that helped the alkali bees that help pollinate the crop.

“I don’t know if you want to call it a perfect storm for seed crop, but everything hit for us,” he said.

Most of the 55 to 60 farmers or grower entities raising alfalfa seed in the state experienced an average year after several challenges in recent harvests, said Shane Johnson, executive director of the state Alfalfa Seed Commission in Kennewick.

He estimates 14 million pounds of seed will be produced this year, up from 11 million pounds last year. He did not have a projected number of acres.

Garbe raises alfalfa seed on roughly 200 of his own acres and 50 leased acres about 20 miles outside Walla Walla.

He started harvest Aug. 19 and expected to finish up Sept. 8-9, which is typical timing.

Garbe anticipates an average yield of more than 1,000 pounds per acre. The price he receives under a three-year contract averages about $2.15 per pound for clean seed. He has to factor in the cost of equipment, power for handline irrigation, chemicals to spray insects and using leafcutter bees as a pollinator, he said. He said he is profitable.

Garbe does the bulk of labor himself, although he’ll hire a worker if he gets in a pinch.

Johnson believes alfalfa seed farmers are relatively profitable under contracts.

Farmers raise proprietary seed under contract for companies, which sell the seed to farmers to raise alfalfa.

Washington is typically the second-most seed producing state, occasionally placing first. California is typically first and Idaho third, Johnson said. Farmers send their seed to seed-cleaning facilities in the Pacific Northwest region, where it is distributed elsewhere in the country.

Alfalfa seed farmers raise conventional and GMO alfalfa seed, Johnson said. The Touchet area is a grower opportunity zone for raising GMO varieties, while the Columbia Basin is strictly conventional. How much of the crop is one or the other fluctuates, Johnson said.

Garbe prefers to raise conventional alfalfa seed, but has Roundup Ready alfalfa seed on 40 acres.

Yields vary by variety, Johnson said.

Alfalfa seed acres are grown on contract. It is a perennial crop. Most farmers can get a field of alfalfa seed to last four to five years, longer depending on the variety, the area and the farmer, Johnson said.

With a soft dairy market and reduced demand for alfalfa, and a large surplus of alfalfa hay due to the port slowdown several years ago, Johnson said seed companies may hesitate to contract for new acres. The number of existing acres would likely remain the same.

“You’re going to have the older fields that aren’t producing where they need to be or (have run) their lifespan taken out,” he said. “You might have enough new acres to replenish what’s taken out, but I think a lot of growers are in that sweet spot where the fields are three to four years old and really high producers.”



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