Photo: Like pennies from heaven, peanuts fall during October harvest in Pasco. (Photo by Kevin Montgomery).
 
Peanuts, traditionally a southern crop, have found a new calling in the sagebrush-covered soil of eastern Washington. On a WSU test plot in Pasco, recent harvests have produced peanuts in yields equal to or surpassing the national average. Indeed, all across Washington, alternative crops from sunflowers to soybeans are poised to boost the state’s economy.

Tim Waters, area extension educator for Franklin and Benton counties, reports early October peanut yields of 1,922 to 4,096 pounds per acre. The national average is about 3,200 pounds per acre. According to the American Peanut Council, peanuts are about a $400 million annual crop — 40 percent of which is produced in Georgia.

Now in his second year of testing peanut varieties, Waters was first inspired by Basin City area farmer Steve Price, who planted 25 acres of peanuts in 2006 “just to see if he could grow them.” Price came up with surprising yields of 5,000 pounds per acre. He and Waters have since collaborated to fine tune growing regimens and purchase harvesting equipment.

Obtaining the original seeds was a challenge, however. When Waters first contacted producers in southern states, he discovered no one would take a “Washington state peanut grower” seriously. Finally, an extension agronomist at Texas A&M agreed to send the samples — saying the heat and sandy soil of the Pasco area were similar enough to west Texas that the plants might have a shot.

Waters says this year’s peanut yields are about what they expected — and will help determine the best varieties for the region. He believes peanuts grown commercially could show much higher yields.
“If there is a market for peanuts here, I have no doubt we can grow them,” he said.

New biofuel players
Mariner baseball games aside, peanuts — with their 50 percent oil content — are of keen commercial interest for biofuel production. The tasty legume joins the growing list of traditional and nontraditional crops under scrutiny by researchers and farmers seeking alternative fuel sources.

At the Prosser Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center, associate research agronomist An Hang is investigating an array of oilseed crops, with canola at the forefront. The brilliant yellow-flowered plant produces oils high in unsaturated fatty acids suitable for both cooking and biofuel production. She is also examining mustard seed — a plant able to grow in poor conditions — and safflower, whose oil is commonly sold as “Saffola”.

But Hang is most excited about a relatively unknown member of the false flax family called Camelina satvia.

“It produces a fantastic oil,” she said. “It can give a higher yield than spring canola and it is very rich in omega-3 fatty acids. It also has a short 80-day growing period and appears to be more stable than canola if not harvested immediately.”

Hang is still in the testing phase but is conducting public meetings to advise people about camelina’s commercial potential.

Hang also studies soybeans and their elite cousin, edamame.

“Just a few years ago, people said soybeans couldn’t be grown in Washington,” she said. “But with irrigation, we can grow up to 80 bushels per acre compared to 40 bushels per acre on a good year in the Midwest.” Soybeans are being used as a rotation crop in the basin area.

Sunflower power
With land at a premium, western Washington producers aren’t as likely to test new crops on large plots, according to Tom Walters, small fruit horticulturist at the WSU Mt. Vernon Northwestern Washington Research & Extension Center.

Dwarf sunflowers happen to be an exception. WSU NWREC is collaborating with a company called Flower Power USA to try growing sunflowers as an experimental biofuel crop. Owner Ion Manea said that last year’s crop reportedly adapted well to the Skagit Valley — even doing better than experimental crops in the Midwest where the hybrid was developed.

Blueberry heaven
Beyond the biofuel boom, growers on both sides of the Cascades are looking for ways to diversify. Walters reports that skyrocketing consumer demand has led to the emergence of blueberries as the alternative crop of choice.

The berries are popular with west side raspberry growers as well as east side orchardists hoping to balance unpredictable apple prices with a variety of new commodities.

“We expect the blueberry production to ramp up a lot over the next few years,” Walters said.
Other promising crops for the west side include wine grapes and cider apples.

Gary Moulton, extension fruit horticulturist at WSU NWREC, has done extensive work over the years in the development of wine grapes — and says that the climate in western Washington closely resembles that of “premiere wine growing regions of France and Germany.” He also tests apples for hard cider production — a specialty market similar to microbreweries.