You don’t need a ton of rainfall to grow wheat, but you still need some.
Over the past 40 years, Central Washington farmer Mike Nichols and his family have learned to adapt to an unusually dry climate in the Horse Heaven Hills.
With barely 6 inches of rainfall per year, on average, the region southeast of Prosser is best known for producing some of the world’s finest wine grapes.
But growing wheat in this arid region is an entirely different bargain. It requires some ingenuity — and patience.
“Most people wouldn’t try to farm here, and if I had grown up on a farm, I may not have tried it, either,” said Nichols, who moved from Tacoma to the Horse Heaven Hills in the early 1980s to raise cattle. He started farming dryland wheat about 30 years ago.
“It takes a certain breed of character; someone with lots of perseverance,” he added. “We started out not knowing anything, but this farm has given us a pretty good life.”
The main reason the family has managed to succeed in an area where few others have is that they have been willing to try less conventional approaches to farming their 20,000 acres (6,600 of which they own).
Over the past five growing seasons, the no-till method — cutting the crops and leaving behind the remaining organic matter — has proven extremely effective.
“In the old days, we used to turn over the ground and kill the weeds with iron,” said Nichols’ son, Cody, who owns 25 percent of the business and works the fields with his father every season.
“But the old way would really beat up the ground. Now, we just cut (the crop) and leave it,” he added. “It’s better for the soil, and we are hoping that it will allow us to keep working this land for many years to come. It’s a much more sustainable way of farming.”
Cody Nichols explained that it took several rotations for the family to figure out which soil types worked best for growing no-till wheat crops.
Due to differences in soil types, the family has had to remain flexible in its approach.
“We still do things the conventional way on some of our land because we find that it just works better,” Cody Nichols said, referring to the seed-and-fallow process common in the industry.
“But we prefer to farm this way (no-till) because we’ve been able to keep our labor and vehicle maintenance costs lower. For us to be successful, it all comes down to cost per acre.”
The transition to no-till farming methods has reduced the family’s cost per acre to between $80 and $100 — numbers that are unheard of in other parts of the state.
Because the family spends less to produce their crops, they’re also able to get them to market cheaper than their competitors. All of the Nicholses’ wheat is exported overseas through United Grain Corp., by way of the Columbia River.
“We’re starting to pick up more acreage now because we can farm more land at the same cost as before,” said Mike Nichols, whose wife, Claudia, handles all of the marketing, accounting and sales for the business. “Those savings on labor costs have also helped us invest in some new equipment, which has also improved our efficiency.”
Just like with any agricultural business, some years are better than others. The Nichols family has seen more good times than bad over the past 40 years. But they’ve been doing this long enough to know they can’t rest on their laurels.
“The good years help you weather the bad years,” Cody Nichols said. “You can’t get too excited when you have extra money in the bank because you always have to plan for the future. You have to be disciplined because things are always changing. We’ve never had a ‘normal’ year and that’s not likely to change.”