ELLENSBURG, Wash. — As one drives through the Kittitas Valley during summertime, signs of agriculture are everywhere. The star of the valley, of course, is the world-famous timothy hay, but farmers this season have planted other crops, as well.
Along with Sudan grass and alfalfa, farmers this year are planting crops such as beans and sunflowers. One specific crop that’s made a return this summer is sweet corn. Twin City Foods has contracted with growers to plant the crop this year for the first time since 2012. That year, the company contracted for approximately 2,000 acres and contracted for approximately 1,000 acres in 2011.
Carl Jensvold with the Organization of Kittitas Valley Timothy Hay Growers and Suppliers said timothy hay crops have a lifespan that can range from three to seven years. Once foreign grasses become invasive and affect crop quality, farmers begin to look towards rotating out for a different crop. Jensvold said the problem is exasperated during drought years.
“Droughts are really hard on timothy,” he said. “It doesn’t fare very well.”
Although this year’s drought didn’t have as adverse of an effect, Jensvold said during some seasons in which junior water rights holders don’t have a full water year, they are only able to get one cutting and then must let the field go fallow. He said doing so weakens the plant structure.
“It’ll actually die off,” he said. “That gives weeds and other grasses the opportunity to invade the field.”
Another issue Jensvold said affects timothy crops is the buildup of pathogens over the years. Nutrients in the soil are also depleted from years of having the same crop in the ground, so planting a different crop helps to replenish the soil.
“By rotating the crop, you’re able to build those back up,” he said.
One of the largest rotation crops in the valley is alfalfa, and Jensvold said alfalfa is a perfect example of a rotation crop that enriches the soil with nitrogen, creating soil conditions that timothy thrives in.
“Just being able to break up that continual grass cycle in the field, you kind of start over again,” he said.
Jensvold said the number of seasons a farmer decides to keep a rotation crop in place depends on what they chose to grow, and that it is beneficial in most cases to keep them for at least a couple of years to help recharge the soil. With certain crops like soybeans and corn, he said herbicides that may be applied during their growing season can have an adverse effect on timothy if it is planted too soon after the rotation crop.
“Ideally, a couple of years out gets you back to a good point to start over again,” he said. “For a lot of us, if there’s not a lot of value in the rotation crop, sometimes we do a one-year rotation just to get back to a crop that has a higher rate of return. I think that’s where some of these new crops like beans or sunflowers or corn, there might be a big enough return that you could keep it out a couple of years before you need to go back to timothy.”
With prorationing this season curtailing the supply of junior water rights holders, Jensvold said late-season crops like sweet corn and soybeans won’t give growers the time they need to seed in timothy, as they have roughly one month less of water to get the crop established for next year.
“More than likely you’re going to have to follow that up with another rotation crop because you just don’t have the ability to seed back down because it’s too late in the fall to get that new crop started,” he said. “Sometimes maybe you’re growing corn on some ground, but you might have other ground that you might be growing wheat or Sudan where you can actually seed that back down, but maybe that other field you’re going to keep out two years. You kind of try to get into a cycle where you’ve maybe got some ground that you’re taking out for two years, some ground you’re taking out for one year. Mother nature throws a little drought in there and then screws the whole thing up and you just start over the next year and try to figure out how to get back to where you want to be.”
HOPE FOR CORN IN THE VALLEY
Denmark-area producer Brian Cortese is one of the farmers in the valley growing sweet corn this year. He has approximately 130 acres of the crop growing under contract to Twin City Foods. He also has approximately 100 acres of beans planted, most being small varietals that are exported to Mexico. Although he wasn’t sure on the exact number, he estimates there to be between 1,000 and 1,500 acres of sweet corn planted in the valley this year. Beyond sweet corn, he said some valley farmers are also growing field corn as trials for Pioneer Seed. He made the decision last fall to plant sweet corn this season as a rotation crop and said the benefits are numerous.
“The corn adds a lot to the soil,” he said. “Once they start picking the corn, we basically grind up the stalks back into the soil. That green matter really helps rejuvenate the soil and adds nutrients and fertilizer. All sorts of good stuff back to the soil.”
Cortese said the decision to plant beans was more of a last-minute decision.
“We had some open ground that we thought the beans would do good on,” he said. “They also have some green matter that we can add. Just going from a grass to a legume really helps the soil be more fertile for us.”
Although he is sure that he won’t rotate back to timothy in the next couple years in order to get the soil where he wants to be, Cortese would like to see the demand for sweet corn persist into the next season and beyond.
“I’m real hopeful that we’ll have contracts for corn again next year,” he said. “I’m hoping that corn will be coming back the valley for the long term.”