REARDAN, Wash. — More specialty crops have been finding their way into eastern Washington wheat rotations, in part because of the research Howard Nelson has done over the past two decades.
Nelson develops specialty crops — such as winter peas, triticale, canola and chickpeas — that growers can add to their wheat rotations.
“Our goal is to give them choices,” he said. “Our cropping system has just been wheat on wheat on wheat.”
Nelson is manager of member and special services at HighLine Grain Growers in Reardan, Wash., formerly Central Washington Grain Growers. He has been with the companies 20 years.
He predicts more grower interest in fall-planted winter peas in the coming years as prices improve. New varieties with food-quality characteristics could further boost interest, he said.
Winter peas aren’t a host to most wheat diseases, so pathogens are naturally cleansed, Nelson said.
The number of triticale acres fluctuates, but the crop is “bulletproof,” growing in poor soils or soils with low pH, Nelson said.
“It has the potential to really start to increase in acres,” Nelson said.
Some farmers are uneasy about triticale’s rye background. They’re worried it could revert back to a weed, which it doesn’t do, Nelson said.
Canola acreage has dramatically increased in some areas as varieties have become more winter hardy and the market has stabilized.
“Canola’s finally coming into its own,” Nelson said. “After 40 years of ups and downs, we’re finally seeing a significant acreage.”
Some farmers have land standing by for Nelson’s test plots in their fields each year.
“People are telling me they already have a spot for me, and I haven’t even asked them if I can put a trial out there,” Nelson said.
Nelson thinks they appreciate the data he generates for their area, from Spokane to Waterville.
Some companies want farmers to raise whole fields of a new crop. But that’s too risky for a grower, Nelson said. Research on specialty crops isn’t usually done much due to lack of checkoff funding, he said.
Because of that, the company bought its own equipment and began conducting field trials.
“If you would have said six, seven, eight years ago that I’d be growing a large acreage of garbanzo beans, I’d have told you you were crazy — we’ve been doing it and making money off of it,” said Reardan farmer Jason Echelbarger, crediting Nelson’s research. “When you start something new, there’s always hiccups and question marks, and he’s always been willing to work out any problems to see the endgame to make it a win for everyone involved.”
Winter pea acreage
“What we see happening with winter pea right now would not be happening to the extent it is without Howard Nelson,” said Bill Schillinger, director of Washington State University’s dryland research station in Lind. “This is the most promising crop we’ve ever had in a wheat fallow zone. Every year, acreage increases.”
Next, Nelson said he will study fall-planted lentils, but they’re still a few years away.
It can take a while to see results, Nelson said, noting that it took 15 years for winter peas to take off.
“I kind of persevere until things happen,” he said. “If something doesn’t fall into place and you feel it’s worthwhile, you just stick with it.”