The organic movement in our region has deep roots in Eastern Washington, including some of our state’s first certified organic farms. The vast region extends from the Canadian border on the north, along the Idaho Panhandle, to Oregon on the south.
Annual precipitation ranges from 30 to 60 inches in the Selkirk Mountains of Pend Oreille County to less than 10 inches per year in the arid Columbia Basin. Most of the precipitation falls as snow from November through March, leaving long, dry summers. Irrigation is essential to grow crops in most areas. The exception is the Palouse region of Spokane and Whitman counties, where 12 to 28 inches of precipitation per year provide sufficient moisture for some of the nation’s highest-yielding dryland wheat, barley, and legumes such as dry peas and lentils.
Eastern Washington is dominated by the Columbia River, which flows out of Canada on its long journey to the Pacific. Northern tributaries include the Kettle, Sanpoil, Colville, and Pend Oreille rivers in Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille counties. The Spokane River flows west out of Idaho’s Lake Coeur d’Alene to its confluence with the Columbia at Lake Roosevelt.
The arid Central Columbia Basin, encompassing Lincoln, Grant, Adams, and Franklin counties, is drained by Crab Creek and Esquatzel Coulee. To the south, the Snake River flows out of Idaho through Whitman, Garfield, Asotin, Garfield, and Columbia counties, where it is joined by the Palouse and Tucannon rivers before it enters the Columbia at Kennewick.
Walla Walla County is located in the eastern Lower Columbia Basin. Its primary water courses are Mill Creek and the Walla Walla River, which joins the Columbia as it cuts through ancient basalt formations south of the Tri-Cities.
Much of eastern Washington’s soils were formed over the millennia from weathered basalt that flowed from fissures deep in the earth and from volcanic ash blown by eruptions of Mt Rainier, Mount Baker, Glacier Peak, and most recently by Mount Saint Helens. The agricultural areas of the Columbia Plateau and the Palouse were formed by windblown silt called “loess,” which created some of our state’s deepest, most fertile soils.
Eastern Washington’s thirteen counties have 184 certified organic farms and a total of 36,345 acres of certified organic land. The chart shows the number of farms and the certified farmland in each county. (Currently there are no certified organic farms in Columbia, Garfield, or Pend Oreille counties.)
According to the most recent data, Eastern Washington leads the state in the value of organic production, with $135 million in sales in 2011. Grant Count was the top producer, with organic farm sales topping $87.7 million.
In the Columbia River Basin abundant sunshine, rich soils and access to irrigation combine to produce some of the world’s most highly prized wine grapes. The diverse soils and micro-climates of the region have been with recognized with eight distinctive American Viticultural Area (AVA) appellations, including Lake Chelan, Yakima Valley, Wahluke Slope, Rattlesnake Hills, Horse Heaven Hills, Snipes Mountain, Red Mountain, and the Walla Walla Valley. Although wine grapes are increasingly being grown in western Washington, 99% of the state’s total wine grape production is in the Columbia Valley.
Although wine grapes are king in the lower Columbia Valley, certified organic vineyards in protected microclimates in Stevens County along the northern Columbia are planting selected European varieties such as Leon Millot and Marechal Foch.
Stevens County is also home to two of Washington’s first certified organic farms, Cliffside Orchard near Kettle Falls and Twin Springs Farm near Rice, both of which are famous for their luscious apricots, peaches, nectarines, pears, and apples.
Other farms in the county grow a wide range of organic vegetables, culinary and medicinal herbs, berries, and nuts, including Chinese and European Chestnuts, Hazelnuts, Heartnuts, and Walnuts.
Mountain Mushroom Farm, the only certified organic farm in Ferry County, is one of our state’s most innovative. Owners Marc and Vivian Keith are perfecting energy and water-conserving techniques for growing Shiitake and other gourmet mushrooms, including Lion’s Mane, Maitake, Oyster, and Reishi. The Keith’s market their mushrooms via their website, through local grocery stores and the Ferry County Co-op in Republic.
Organic farmers throughout Eastern Washington are producing apples, berries, table grapes, mixed vegetables, herbs, flowers, melons, and plant starts for direct marketing through CSAs and farmers markets in Colville, Chewelah, Newport, Davenport, Cheney, Spokane, Liberty Lake, Pasco, and Walla Walla.
Franklin and Benton counties are renowned for the quality of their soft fruits, including cherries, apricots, peaches, plums, and nectarines. Walla Walla, of course, is famous for its sweet onions, but the rich alluvial valley is also well suited for growing asparagus, blueberries, potatoes, melons, and a tree fruit.
In the rolling hills of the Palouse farmers raise dryland barley, oats, triticale, soft white and hard red wheats, plus ancient varieties Einkorn, Emmer and Spelt. Mustard is also being introduced as a rotation crop as a green manure and natural fumigant. In addition, a few farmers are re-introducing livestock into their rotations, plus pastured chicken and turkey production.
The Palouse is also the home of Washington State University in Pullman, which leads the nation in organic farming research with 13 acres of certified organic test plots. WSU scientists and students are growing a wide variety of crops utilizing state-of-the art organic techniques, including asparagus, beets, berries, broccoli, green & dried beans, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, chard, cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, kale, leeks, lettuce, onions, parsnips, peas, peppers, potatoes, radishes, rhubarb, shallots, spinach, summer and winter squash, tomatoes, and watermelons. In addition, they are researching organic alfalfa, grain and legume production, and are testing organic hops varieties.
With dozens of certified farms and ground-breaking research underway at WSU, Eastern Washington will continue to be a major force in our state’s organic movement.