Eastern Oregon's pea growers fighting for survival


MILTON-FREEWATER - These are tough times for Eastern Oregon's pea growers and processors. Low prices and over-supply continue to plague the industry as it struggles to remain economically viable.

"If you are involved in agriculture, it's hard to be upbeat. It's really tough out there," said Tom Darnell, Milton-Freewater, of the seemingly persistent, across-the-board low markets farmers are receiving for many of their crops.

Darnell, an Oregon State University Extension agent in Umatilla County, is one of several university and federal employees in the area working with pea growers in a search for farming practices that will help them weather the hard times.

Peas have been grown in rotation with winter wheat since the mid-1930s in the Blue Mountain region of northeast Oregon and southeast Washington, which centers around Milton-Freewater, according to Darnell.

"Year in and year out this region raises about 40,000 to 45,000 acres of green peas, primarily as freezer peas, with a portion going into canned peas," he explained. "Currently, however, the crop is marginally economical for both growers and processors."

Darnell, who has studied pea varieties for 20 years, said the crop is an ideal fit as a rotation crop for winter wheat growers in the region. "There are no other crops really to replace peas," he said, noting that the area's cool, moist spring weather favors an annual, spring crop of peas.

Growers generally plant peas in early spring, from early March until mid-May, depending on the weather. Using early, mid-, and late-maturing varieties to spread out harvest dates, pea harvest runs from early June into July.

From agronomic to economic, there are many benefits associated with a crop of peas.

"The region's pea crop employs a lot of people from farmers, to processors, and truckers," Darnell pointed out. "The crop brings growers some annual income and agronomically, peas help keep weeds in check between crops of winter wheat, they increase soil fertility, and help cut down soil erosion."

Darnell, and others, are working to find growers new and improved varieties. If a new pea variety is released, it's likely Darnell has grown it. "I test about 50 new varieties a year in variety trials," he said. "Peas are a significant area crop, so it's important that we, as researchers, continue to test new and improved varieties for our growers."

"Testing a variety takes about three to four years," explained Darnell. "After a new variety looks good in the variety trials, it is tested commercially on a limited acreage before it is widely planted in the region. We must be sure it's adapted to the region's growing conditions before it's released to growers. All varieties look good in wet, cool years. It's the dry and hot years that separate out the poor varieties.

"Today's new pea varieties can't only be sensational yielders, they need to taste good," said Darnell. Size and color are still important, but new, consumer-linked considerations are being given to the pea's internal qualities, like taste.

"We are trying to get some good early season varieties," Darnell added. "In order to successfully harvest the area's 40,000-plus acres of peas, growers need more early season varieties, along with the mid- and later maturing varieties, because they can't harvest every field at once.

"A fun thing we've got going this spring is looking at peas in reduced tillage farming systems in rotation with winter wheat," he said. "Reduced tillage is good for the environment, because it reduces soil erosion, and it's good for growers, because it lowers their production costs with fewer trips across a field."

Working closely with both the OSU and USDA-ARS branches of the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center at Pendleton, Darnell and other scientists plan to look at stand establishment, uniformity of plant stands and weed control in plots to be set out this spring.

"When you start changing tillage systems, in our case by going from a conventional tillage system to a minimum tillage system, you change lots of things," Darnell explained, "like soil moisture conditions and soil temperatures. There is a big unknown over time for peas grown in minimum tillage conditions. There could be new soil diseases and we would need new disease-resistant varieties."