It’s just a few hours drive from the coastal rain forests to the arid highlands and deserts of Eastern Washington. Cross the Cascades into the Yakima River Basin and you’re in a whole other world, rich with diverse micro-climates and a surprising range of abundant crops.
The Yakima River cuts through the South Central region from its headwaters in Kittitas County south through Yakima and Benton counties. The Tieton and Naches Rivers flow east off the Cascades to merge with the Yakima before it enters the Columbia River near Richland.
Protected from Pacific storms by the Cascade Mountains, the South Central Region has cold winters and hot, dry summers. Average annual precipitation ranges from 30-40 inches on the eastern slopes of the Cascades to 10-20 inches in Kittitas County and less than 10 inches per year in the semi-desert areas of Yakima and Benton County.
South Central Washington has 147 certified organic farms with a total of 17,086 acres of land in organic production. The chart shows the number of certified organic farms and acreage in organic production in each county. According to the most recent survey, in 2011 organic farms in South Central Washington generated $57.7 million in sales.
With up to 200 days of sunshine per year and rich, volcanic soils, this is great country for growing summertime favorites such as melons, tomatoes, and soft fruits. And it is at the heart of the state’s growing wine industry. Irrigation is essential for crop production in this arid region, and many farms are converting to drip irrigation to conserve precious water supplies.
Strong winds sweep through the Kittitas Valley off the eastern slopes of the Cascades. Historically, farmers there raised cattle and sheep, but a few organic farmers are finding the combination of bright summer sunshine, deep alluvial soils, and ample water for irrigation makes it also prime for growing tree fruits, sun-loving produce, and some of the nation’s highest quality garlic and potato seed.
Cross over Manastash Ridge and drop into the Yakima Valley and you enter a world of lush orchards, vegetable fields, and vineyards. Washington farmers are the country’s #1 producers of certified organic apples, pears and cherries, and a significant percentage of the fruit is grown in the Yakima River Basin.
In addition to Red and Golden Delicious, the region’s apple varieties include Braeburn, Cameo, Fuji, Gala, Ginger Gold, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Honey Crisp, Jonagold, Liberty, Highland Sweet, Honey Crisp, Pacific Rose, Pinata, Pink Lady, Pinova, Red Chief, Swiss Gourmet, and Winter Banana.
The Yakima Valley also grows premium pears, including Bartlett, Bosc, D’Anjou, Bartlett, Flemish Beauty, Seckel, Starkrimson, and Taylor’s Gold.
Everyone loves Washington cherries. Because of different micro-climates and varieties, organically grown cherries are harvested over a long season from the lower Yakima Valley up through Wenatchee and the Okanogan. Varieties include Bing, Rainier, Skeena, Chelan, Tieton, Attica, Index, Lapin, Rainier, Regina, Royal Anne, Sweetheart, and Van.
Hot, sunny Yakima and Benton County orchards also grow fabulous apricots, apriums (an apricot/plum cross), nectarines, peaches, pluots, and plums.
Because of their recognized nutritional qualities, blueberries are becoming an increasingly important crop in the region. In addition, local farmers are growing several varieties of blackberries, currents, gooseberries, raspberries, and strawberries.
South Central Washington has also become famous for the quality of its grapes, and an increasing number of vineyards are now producing organically grown juice and table grapes, plus varieties selected for making world-class organic wines: Cabernet Franc , Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gamay, Gewurztraminer, Grenache, Malbec, Marsanne, Merlot, Muscat Canelli , Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Savignon Blanc, White Riesling, Syrah, Tempernillo, and Viognier.
A recent ruling by the USDA’s National Organic Program that all beer labeled “organic” must be made with organically grown hops has been a major stimulus for revival of hops production in the Yakima Basin. Organic farmers are expanding established fields and planting new ones with hop varieties including Ahtanum, Cascade, Centennial, Citra, Hallertau, Millennium, Palisade, Simcoe, and Summit.
In addition to being Washington’s fruit basket, organic farmers in the Yakima Valley also grow a wide range of fabulous vegetables and herbs. Major organic crops include asparagus, green & dry beans, beets, cabbage, carrots, collards, culinary & medicinal herbs, eggplant, kale, lettuce, melons, mustard greens, onions, peas, peppers, potatoes, spinach, summer & winter squash, sweet corn, tomatillos, tomatoes, and watermelon.
The abundance and creativity of Yakima Valley farmers is exemplified by Hilario Alvarez, whose booths decorated with colorful displays of peppers and freshly dug peanuts are a hit at farmers markets across the state.
Tree fruit, grapes, hops and vegetables aren’t the only organic products grown in South Central Washington. An increasing number of organic dairies are locating east of the mountains because of lower land costs and abundant feed supplies, including organically grown feed grains and alfalfa hay.
In addition, many farms and ranches continue to grow beef cattle, sheep and goats, and several farmers are producing artisan cheeses and raising free-range chicken for eggs and meat.
At Biocento Ecofarms in the heart of the Yakima Valley, Soren Singel is creating a “food forest” with a host of plants exotic to the area, including arctic kiwi, aronia, sea buckthorn, goji, goumi, pawpaw, and persimmon. He also raises free range chickens and markets their eggs to high-end Seattle grocery stores and restaurants.
Further south, Trout Lake Herb Farm in Klickitat County pioneered organic medicinal herb production, including Aronia, Echinacea, Feverfew, Lemon Balm, Nettle, and Valerian. Trout Lake’s founder, Lon Johnson, was one of the early members of Tilth Producers and his farm was among the first to be certified organic by the WSDA.
Organic Farming in South Central Washington Resources
Northwest Berry & Grape Information Network
Organic Viticulture Resources
Washington Wine Commission
WSU Organic & Integrated Tree Fruit Production
WSU Tree Fruit & Extension Center
Yakima Valley Farm Map