Central Washington harvest has combine drivers working around the clock
By DAN WHEAT
QUINCY, Wash. -- A 20-ton combine creeps through a field at 1 mph, metal drums spinning so fast that you can't see their "fingers" stripping pea pods from plants.
Resembling a green mist, stems and leaves spew from the far side of the machine. The combine collects 3 tons of peas in their pods in its bucket before dumping them into a truck that hauls them to a processing plant.
This is harvest time for snap peas, also known as sugarsnap peas -- a crop so minor that USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service does not track it annually.
At the helm of the big Legacy combine is diminutive Ivonne Ramirez, 18, who just graduated from Quincy High School.
"This is my first job ever. I've never worked," she said. "My cousin worked here last year and said I like to drive around listening to my radio and that I could do that here and get paid."
Pea acreage varies
The 2007 Census of Agriculture listed sugarsnap and snow pea acreage at 8,859. Of that, Idaho is the leader at 4,289, California has 2,241, Oregon 1,018 and Washington 327. Other states trail.
But Washington's snap pea acreage is now 1,000 to 1,500 -- all in Grant County -- and harvested by the state's lone snap pea processor, Quincy Foods, company personnel say.
The Ag Census figure is low perhaps because some growers didn't complete questionnaires, said Annette Lupo, field representative for Quincy Foods.
In the late 1990s about 3,100 acres of snap peas were grown in Washington for three processors, she said. Improvements in yield and foreign competition led to fewer acres.
Even with the decline, Grant County is the top snap pea and green pea producing county in Washington. The warm, arid climate, good soil and abundant irrigation make it prime pea country.
Less than three weeks on the job, Ramirez operates the combine as if she's been doing it much longer.
Her left hand is the constant companion of the steering wheel while her right hand migrates back and forth between the steering wheel and joy stick controlling speed, stopping, forward and reverse. Beyond the joy stick are knobs to adjust fans, the 13-foot header, the bucket and other devices. And to her right is her radio to talk to her mechanic or crew leader about speed, where to go next and when to haul her load to the truck.
Difficult to grow
Snap peas are difficult and expensive to grow, Lupo said. Seed costs $450 per acre, two to three times the cost of its more prolific cousin, green peas. Snaps are susceptible to disease. Too much rain leads to mildew and mold and high humidity is bad. Excessive heat at the wrong time turns a crop quickly, burning the bloom, causing less pod set and hastening overmaturity.
"We don't have hardy genetics for heat," Lupo said.
She relies on 10 experienced growers to provide the crop Quincy Foods desires.
Speed, Ramirez explains, depends on the wetness of plants and muddiness of a field. Typically, she harvests at 1 to 1.2 mph, but it can drop to 0.4 mph if the field is muddy. She revved the combine up to 6 mph heading to the truck and showed skill in coming within inches of it to dump the load.
Quincy Foods aims for 3.5 tons per acre, contracts with growers for the crop and deploys its own machinery and crews to conduct harvest from the first week of June to mid-July. When harvest is done before the Fourth of July, growers typically replant with dry beans, sweet corn or buckwheat, said Brian O'Shea, the company's field department manager.
The company schedules harvests to keep an even flow of the crop into the plant. Six combines run around-the-clock on snap peas alone. Twenty-two others handle green peas. Most combine drivers are high school graduates and college students, as their summer vacation fits the few weeks of harvest, O'Shea said.
"They get orientation on field procedures and about a day of driving training," he said. "Some of them look at the machine and say, 'You're going to let me drive that thing?'"
"We lose a few. It's too slow, too fast, too hot, too cold, too boring, too something. They run it one shift and then they're done," O'Shea said. "But quite a few return from one year to the next. That's good. They can make good money."
Pay is a little above minimum wage.
"The first time I did this was the scariest," Ramirez said. "I had no clue what I was doing. My cousin rode with me."
Now, she said, she feels safe, even when moving down roads to the next field. The big machine surrounds her and she sits, in her air-conditioned cab, some 10 feet above the ground.
Quincy Foods also processes green peas, lima beans, sweet corn and carrots and is owned by Norpac Foods Inc., of Stayton, Ore., which also owns Hermiston Foods, a snap pea processor in Hermiston, Ore.
Other than Hermiston and Grant County, Wash., the main snap pea growing areas in the nation are Twin Falls, Idaho, and Salinas, Calif.
Snap peas have round pods and were developed in Twin Falls by Calvin Lamborn and Mel Parker in the 1970s when they crossed Chinese snow peas, which have flat pods, and a mutant shell pea. Earlier snaps were developed in the 1930s and 1950 but failed to succeed for apparent lack of marketing, said Daniel Wahlquist, a breeder for Syngenta Seeds and Rogers Brand Vegetable Seeds in Nampa, Idaho.
Quincy Foods freezes snap peas to include in vegetable blends for stir fry foods. Mann Packing, in Salinas, packages fresh snaps for eating and use in salads.
Shift change between day and night harvest crews is 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
"At first, I didn't like the hours and getting up in the morning," Ramirez said. "But I've gotten used to it."
While Quincy Foods is alone in Washington's harvest of snap peas, several other processors also handle green peas. Quincy Foods contract for 4,000 acres.
Overall, Washington is No. 2 in green pea production, behind Minnesota.
Green peas and sugar snaps are washed, steamed to 190 degrees for preservation by deactivating their enzymes and for sterilization and then frozen for domestic and export sales.