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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Day Of Accidental Ag Tourism

(This post originally appeared on Better Food Stories 10/3/16)

A few weeks ago I flew to Pasco, Washington and then drove up to Yakima. Eastern Washington is a very dry region, but it has several major rivers and the Columbia Basin Reclamation Project that allow for a flourishing and diverse agricultural industry. My progress was slowed by an irresistible urge to continually exit the main highway to take pictures of these carefully tended crops and to see some of the on-going innovation in planting systems.

A classical, widely spaced orchard

Tree fruits like apples, pears and cherries have long been important to this region. It was fascinating so see some of the innovation used to grow these crops. The image above is from a more classic orchard where large trees are grown with fairly wide spacing between trees and with large swaths between the rows. The next image shows a newer style orchard, in which trees are planted at high density along the row (every 18” or so), and supported by a trellis.
A newer, high-density, trellised orchard
This system gets the trees into full bearing within 2-3 years and can be harvested without the use of ladders (a worker safety and efficiency advantage). The space between the rows is also narrower requiring smaller equipment in terms of tractors, sprayers etc. Note that weeds are controlled in the row with herbicides for water efficiency, and the “middles” support a diverse “cover crop” which stabilizes and feeds the soil.
An alternative "V"shaped trellis system for apples
In the photo above we see a different trellising strategy. In this case, the high density trees are trained in a “V” shape with the goal of even more efficiently capturing the sunlight. Driving further down the road I saw something unusual in the distance and decided to investigate.
An interesting, covered orchard in the distance
It turned out to be another high-density, trellised apple orchard, but in this case it was being grown under a shade cloth to filter the light. This would reduce the chance of fruit getting a “sunburn”, and as you can see, this orchard had an abundant crop of picture-perfect fruit nearing maturity.

High density trellis under shade cloth


Hops, a highly aromatic plant, have been grown in this region since the 1870s, but even more so of late to meet demand for the booming craft beer industry. Hops are a vine which is trained on very tall (20’ or more) trellises. It is quite impressive to see! From the side of the field (below) it is a giant green wall.
One of the many "hop yards" in Washington serving the craft beer boom
Hops grown on trellises with telephone pole sized supports


Washington state is home to a flourishing grape industry with many excellent offerings for wine aficionados. It has also been a long-term source of juice grapes, which is what you see in the vineyard below. Note again the clean vine-row and the cover crop in the “middles.” This is the best way to use water efficiently, build soil quality, and prevent erosion on these hilly locations.
Eastern Washington is also home to many other crops. I’ll just throw in two more examples of a sweet corn field and an alfalfa field.
Sweet Corn 

The next day I had the privilege to spend time with a number of representatives of the grower organizations and others that support these Washington farmers. The meeting was organized by the Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, which is a grass roots alliance of those who grow the crops or tend the timberlands. I’ll be working with many of these folks for the next few months documenting some of their challenges and strategies tending these diverse plant species for the benefit of the broader society. As always, it was great to see real farming in action!