Wheat Farming in Washington

  • By Jim Kershner
  • Posted 1/19/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20504

Wheat Farming in Washington includes curriculum for elementary and middle school students developed by the Washington State Historical Society.

Wheat has been cultivated in Washington since the 1820s and remains the most important agricultural product in much of eastern Washington -- and among the state's top five crops. It was first grown in early Hudson's Bay Company outposts. Pioneer farmers in the 1860s discovered that the Walla Walla area was particularly well-suited to wheat. Over the next decades, wheat-growing spread north into the Columbia Plateau and east to the Palouse region, which would prove to be among the most productive wheat-growing areas in the country. Early farmers harvested fields with massive 32-horse combines, replaced in the middle of the twentieth century by motorized equipment. Most grain was exported, first to Europe, but by the 1950s mainly to Asia and the Middle East for Asian noodles and flatbreads. Whitman and Lincoln counties continue to be the top two wheat-growing counties in Washington -- and the top two in the entire U.S. 

"Wheat Thrives Astonishingly"

Wheat is not native to the Northwest. In fact, "the only grains native to the Western Hemisphere are maize, wild rice and quinoa" (Scheuerman and McGregor, 5). Not a single grain grew in Washington before Europeans brought seeds. Yet the potential of Washington as a grain-growing area was evident from the earliest days of European exploration. Sir George Simpson (ca. 1787-1860), governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, stood at the mouth of the Okanogan River in 1825 and wrote that "grain in any quantity may be raised here, but cultivation to any extent has never been attempted, indeed throughout the Columbia no pains have been taken to meet the demands of the trade" (Merk, 50).

Simpson himself would be responsible for the first systematic wheat-growing in what would later become the state of Washington. He brought seed wheat with him to the company trading post at Fort Vancouver (where the city of Vancouver in Clark County later grew up). By 1833, the post was harvesting 3,000 bushels of wheat and a visiting naturalist noted that "wheat thrives astonishingly; I never saw better in any country" (Scheuerman and McGregor, 13). The trading-post farmers had discovered that English wheat varieties produced abundantly in the somewhat similar maritime climate of what would become western Washington. Meanwhile, Simpson sent a bushel of seed wheat to Fort Colvile, near today's Kettle Falls in northeastern Washington. By 1827, Fort Colvile was reaping 200 bushels of wheat and barley. It was the first harvest of what would later become eastern Washington's premier crop, although it would take some experimenting to find strains that were best suited to this much-different climate.

On the west side of the Cascades, the Hudson's Bay Company had also established a farm on the Cowlitz Prairie along the Cowlitz River south of Chehalis. By 1841, the Cowlitz Prairie farm was producing 8,000 bushels of wheat. Simpson described the Cowlitz Prairie soil as "the best quality for growing wheat, consisting of a fine rich loam, running at the depth of 15 inches, into a subsoil of stiff clays" (Scheuerman and McGregor, 25). East of the mountains, near the current site of Walla Walla -- in what would later become the heart of Northwest wheat country -- missionaries Marcus (1802-1847) and Narcissa (1808-1847) Whitman established a mission in 1836, and they had brought with them a jar of seed wheat. They evidently discovered favorable conditions for growing wheat, because the Whitmans were milling their own wheat flour by 1841.

Spreading From Walla Walla

Wheat continued to be grown west of the Cascades in both Oregon and Washington as more farmers arrived. Yet after the 1855-1856 Indian wars, wheat farmers began pouring into the Walla Walla and Touchet valleys. The first crop in the Touchet Valley was raised in 1861 on Whiskey Creek near Waitsburg, some 15 miles northeast of Walla Walla, and a few years later, the Walla Walla area would be boasting of its wheat supremacy. In 1864, a Walla Walla newspaper mentioned that five flour mills were in operation in town and that the "local flour was superior to that produced in the Willamette Valley" (Brumfield, 30). By 1866, so much wheat was being harvested in Walla Walla that the Washington territorial government declared that "wheat cannot be purchased anywhere in the United States at what it is now being sold for daily at Walla Walla, 60 cents per bushel (60 pounds)" (Durham).

State legislators asked for the Mullan Road, a military road running from Fort Walla Walla to Fort Benton, Montana, to be improved so Walla Walla farmers could send their surplus to the Montana gold fields. In 1867, Walla Walla began sending surplus grain to Portland, Oregon, where it was loaded on ships and sent to Europe, via the English port of Liverpool. It was gradually becoming clear that wheat could be grown cheaply and abundantly in the big open spaces east of the Cascades. Wheat slowly and inexorably became an eastside crop and Europe became its most important export market.

From Walla Walla, wheat farms began to spread as newly arrived farmers discovered that acreage growing native bunchgrass could often grow wheat. In this era, "the principal drawback to this region was the distance to market, and the difficulty of getting the grain to the seaboard" ("Wheat Supply and Distribution"). Many farmers had to haul their entire harvest by wagon to the Columbia River. A great deal of central and eastern Washington was still devoted to sheep and cattle grazing, or simply dismissed as too arid for any kind of agriculture. Some far-sighted observers, however, glimpsed the region's future. In 1882, surveyor Thomas W. Symons (1849-1920) looked out on the bunchgrass country of the Columbia Plateau and predicted that it would one day "be a waving field of grain" (McGregor, 157). His prediction would largely come true within 20 years.

In 1883 and 1884, transcontinental railroads finally pushed through the state, which began to solve the problem of getting wheat to market. Wheat farming had expanded northeast to Dayton, in Columbia County, in the 1870s and onward to the Palouse country along the southern stretch of the Washington-Idaho border by the 1880s. "After these areas were settled, farmers moved into the more arid lands further west -- the Big Bend, Horse Heaven, and the western Palouse regions of Washington" (McGregor, 155). In the arid, sagebrush-covered flats of central Washington, "farmers first doubted the likelihood of success amid the sagebrush country, but with careful experimenting, they kept pushing the line of what they called 'impossibly arid' farther and farther to the west" (Kirk and Alexander, 92). That line had moved as far west as Lind in Adams County by the 1890s. Yet it was a region to the east that would prove to be the most important wheat-growing region of all -- the distinctive rolling hills of the eastern Palouse country of southeast Washington.

Natural Advantages of the Palouse Region

The natural advantages of the Palouse region were described in an overview of Northwest wheat farming history:

"The Palouse Hills [area], named for the Palouse River, provides the best soil and moisture conditions for wheat culture in the Pacific Northwest. It is characterized by rolling hills of wind-blown soil at an average elevation of 1,000 to 3,000 feet. The area extends southward to the Blue Mountains. It includes parts of Spokane, Whitman, Garfield, Columbia, Walla Walla and Franklin counties ... . Originally a sparsely populated land covered with bunchgrass, pioneer farmers discovered the Palouse soils to be ideal for wheat. The soil is wind-laid in a deep mantle over basaltic rock, and is finely textured, fertile and highly retentive of moisture. Although generally sloping, the loess soil readily absorbs moisture. Precipitation averages 15 to 25 inches annually. A reliable seasonal snow cover protects winter-wheat from winter-kill. ... The disadvantage of the Palouse Hill terrain is the steep slope of some fields" ("Wheat Supply and Distribution").

The Palouse agriculture industry had begun with sheep and cattle grazing -- like the rest of eastern Washington. A few farmers in the Palouse had begun experimenting with wheat in the 1880s, with indifferent results. Wheat strains suited to wetter, cooler climates broiled in the sun. Ground squirrels and grasshoppers ate the shoots. It took "two decades of experimentation" before the Palouse came into its own as a mecca for wheat (McGregor, 156). By the turn of the century, cattlemen and sheepmen had been won over. They were converting their land to wheat in huge numbers. This change was reflected in the state's agricultural statistics. In 1896, Washington farmers produced 6 million bushels of wheat; in 1905, they produced 25 million bushels, almost all of it coming from the Columbia plateau.

A 1903 brochure advertising the sale of eastern Washington wheat land extolled the advantages of central and eastern Washington wheat country. Quoting U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, it said: "The highest average yield of wheat per acre in the entire United States for 1901 was in the state of Washington. It was 29.1 bushels to the acre, while the general average for all of the states was but 15 bushels" ("Washington Wheat Lands"). It had taken a great deal of trial and error to attain that kind of yield. Many early farmers had been lucky to get 10 bushels an acre. They endured a host of setbacks, including a plague of ground squirrels. "When the crop was two or three inches high, hundreds of those squirrels would take the seed and ruin the field," said one pioneer near Ritzville (Brumfield, 35).

In Spokane County, the county farm agent sponsored contests to see which elementary-school class could poison the most ground squirrels. Jackrabbits were the main scourge in other wheat-growing areas. Then there was the perennial farmers' problem of too little rain -- or too much. In 1893, the grain was too wet, and much of it spoiled. The more common problem was lack of moisture, and farmers in the drier parts of the region learned that they needed to let their land lie fallow every other year to collect moisture.

Manpower and Horsepower

Wheat farming in those early days required plenty of manpower and horsepower, along with a considerable investment in specialized machinery for harvesting. The two most important machines were the header and the thresher. The header cut off the heads of the mature wheat stalks with a device somewhat like a giant reel mower. A header required six horses, which pushed -- not pulled -- the machine through the fields. The header also had a conveyor belt that catapulted the heads into a wagon alongside. The wagon would then take the heads to the second key piece of machinery, the thresher. This was a huge, complex contraption that knocked the grain from the heads. In the early days, the thresher (also called a separator) was horse-powered, requiring 12 to 14 horses. By the late 1880s, big iron steam engines appeared on the scene to power the threshers. These 42,000 pound behemoths and their engineer-drivers traveled from farm to farm at harvest time.

Harvesting required an average of 20 men on every farm. Beginning in July, dozens of workers would arrive by train in wheat towns and wander "up and down Main Street, looking for work," as a 1968 history recalled:

"They came from everywhere. Some could tell of following the harvest from Texas up through the Dakotas into Canada. Others had farms of their own in the Willamette Valley and were out to make a little extra to help with the mortgage back home" (Brumfield, 109).

Many were immigrants. These were the men who pitched straw, sewed up sacks of grain by the thousands, ran the machinery, and guided the horses. It was a hot, backbreaking, dusty job, and they "put up with conditions that would be unthinkable today -- they did so mainly because there was no other way" (Brumfield, 109). Sometimes operating a thresher was dangerous for another reason: explosions and fires. In the hot summer of 1914, spontaneous explosions wrecked at least 40 separators in the Palouse, sometimes causing serious burns. Federal authorities came out to investigate another rash of explosions in 1915, and concluded that the explosions were caused by a buildup of dust and spores from wheat smut, a pervasive wheat disease.

The Combine

Beginning around 1890, the combined header-thresher -- the "combine" -- appeared on the scene in Washington. It was a complex and expensive piece of machinery, built on a heavy wooden frame, but its advantages were obvious:

"In a single sweep, the grain was cut, separated and sacked. There was no need to haul the headed or bundled wheat to the separator. Instead of bringing the wheat to the thresher, the combine took its thresher to the wheat and did the job while moving through a field" (Brumfield, 119).

By 1905, the combine had become common and before long it had swept away the competition. Some of the biggest combines cut a swath 30 feet wide or more, which made them marvelously efficient, but it also meant they required a tremendous amount of horsepower. Most used a 32-horse (or mule) team, and some rigs on steep rolling farmland required 50 horses. Everywhere in Washington wheat country people were treated to a new spectacle: "32 horses in one hitch, pulling a machine through the fields, which gobbled up wheat in one end [and] discharged filled sacks out the other end" (Brumfield, 120-121). On hills, the combine driver was often faced with the disconcerting sight of his long line of horses disappearing over a ridge. "Even the most experienced drivers had a sense of relief as the combine pulled over the hill and the horses came back into view" (Scheuerman and McGregor, 85). The manpower required for a typical harvest plummeted from an average of 20 to about six.

In the hilly Palouse country, the combine had one serious disadvantage. It could overturn on a sidehill, endangering men and horses. This was solved by an invention called the side-hill leveler, which allowed the header to adjust to the slope, while keeping the main body of the combine level. The leveler was invented in 1891 and put into general use over the next decade. "Only then could the combine be really practical in the extremely hilly Palouse region" (Brumfield, 130).

The era of the 32-horse combine lasted for a surprisingly long time, even after gas- and diesel-powered combines and motorized tractors appeared on the scene following World War I. By 1926, many wheat farmers had turned to motorized combines and tractors, but a wheat-growers study showed that most farmers were still using horsepower because it was a more economical way to farm. However, horses were inexorably disappearing on Washington wheat farms, as improvements were made to motorized combines and tractors.

By the end of the 1930s, the conversion to gas or diesel power was nearly complete. In the old days, a team of six horses plowed five acres a day. Yet by 1941, "great, brightly painted dust-covered behemoths, like army tanks, go charging over the landscape" plowing 100 acres a day, wrote wheat-country newspaper editor Giles French (Brumfield, 157). Harvest crews had dwindled to a mere three. This did not come entirely without cost, especially to the social fabric of the small towns scattered around wheat country. French believed something important had been lost:

"Saturday or Sunday night [in the early part of the century] the whole crew went to town, the boss and wife occupying the seat of the hack, and the children and the hired men filling the back. The barbershop was full of animated humanity, the saloon resounded to joke and song, and the store clerks were busy until all hours. ... Now [1941] the men who turn over fifty acres a shift are lonesome men. They sit a long ten hours, twelve hours, listening to the rattle of the motor; they grab their lunch at noon or midnight between gear shifts and have communication with neither man or beast in their work" (Brumfield, 158).

Factors Boosting Productivity

Yet the changes helped productivity shoot up dramatically through the middle of the twentieth century. Washington's harvest went from less than 50 million bushels a year in 1936 to more than 150 million bushels a year in 1985. Yet mechanization was not the only reason -- or even the chief reason --for such a huge rise in productivity. Three other factors were even more important: advances in fertilizer research and availability; collaborations between farmers and scientists to reduce soil erosion and resist diseases; and new wheat strains and genetic crosses. These new wheat strains and crosses were developed by Orville Vogel (1907-1991) and other scientists at Washington State University in Pullman, incorporating some Japanese varieties of soft white wheat that would turn out to be ideally suited to Washington growing conditions. These three factors, combined with mechanization, increased yields to 70 bushels per acre -- sometimes more than 100. By 1955, the nation's three top wheat-growing counties in the U.S. were all in Washington: Whitman, Lincoln, and Adams.

Yet for farmers, productivity was only one part of the economic equation. Prices and markets were just as important, and farmers had to endure many dizzying fluctuations. Because most Northwest grain was destined for export, world events in the first half of the twentieth century had a devastating effect on Northwest grain markets. World War I disrupted shipping to Europe. World War II disrupted shipping to both Europe and Asia. Even the Korean War badly hurt Asian exports. It was not until the mid-1950s that Asian exports skyrocketed and that region became the Northwest's key market. The new soft white winter wheat varieties were well-suited to Japanese noodles.

Meanwhile, completion of Grand Coulee Dam in 1941 and development of the Columbia Basin Project for irrigation had opened up new land in central Washington that had previously been too dry for farming. Some of this land was planted in wheat, with spectacular results. In 1962, "a world record was set on 11 irrigated acres near Quincy in central Washington that yielded 155½ bushels per acre" (Scheuerman and McGregor, 127). Wheat would eventually cover about 10 percent of the irrigated land in Grant County.

By 1990, wheat had been established as one of Washington's main crops for more than a century, and its parameters were largely set. The main wheat-growing region roughly consisted of the entire southeast quadrant of the state. Most of this area was dryland (non-irrigated) farming. The dryland section consisted of two main divisions: the areas where crops had enough moisture to be planted every year (mostly in the Palouse and east of Walla Walla) and the areas called "summer fallow" areas, where farmers planted about half their land each year and left the "remaining half idle to collect moisture" for the following year ("Washington Wheat Facts"). The irrigated portion of the wheat-growing region (only 13 percent of the total) was confined to the area roughly from Grant County south to the Tri-Cities, with an arm reaching up the Yakima Valley.

In 1990, wheat was the state's fourth most valuable agricultural product, behind apples, milk, and cattle, in that order. The state's five leading wheat-producing counties were, in order, Whitman, Lincoln, Adams, Walla Walla, and Grant. Continued scientific advances had boosted productivity to 90 bushels an acre in many cases, and sometimes as high as 125 bushels per acre. About 87 percent of the state's wheat was dryland wheat, as opposed to irrigated wheat. Most of it -- 92 percent -- was winter wheat. About 85 percent of the state's production was soft white wheat, and a 1990 brochure from the Washington Wheat Commission explained the two most common subgroups:

"Two distinct types [of soft white wheat] are grown: club and common. Club wheats have shorter more compact heads than common types. The two are often marketed as a mixture called Western White. It is one of the world's most popular wheat mixes, and is available only from the Pacific Northwest" ("Washington Wheat Facts").

Hard red or hard white wheat makes up a typical loaf of bread, but soft white wheat is used to make "Asian noodles, sponge cakes, steam bread, traditional Mideastern flatbreads, cakes, pastries and crackers" ("Washington Wheat Facts"). For that reason, 90 percent of the state's wheat was exported, as of 1990, with the four leading countries being South Korea, Egypt, Japan, and India, in that order.

Feeding the World

Asia and the Middle East would continue to be the state's primary markets, although the names of the countries changed as global economics and politics changed. Iran was Washington's top wheat buyer for a time until the hostage crisis there in 1979-1981. Then around the same time China began purchasing Northwest wheat as relations with that country thawed. In 1999, The Spokesman-Review in Spokane followed Washington wheat's journey around the world by sending a reporter and photographer to Japan, Pakistan, and Egypt, the three biggest markets at the time:

"The wheat is ground into flour and used to make udon noodles and exquisite desserts in Japan. More often, it's used for simple bread, like the chapati prepared by the Pakistani family. In Pakistan and Egypt, especially, bread is life. It's the major source of calories. It's filling. And it's cheap" (Sudermann).

Spokesman-Review editor Chris Peck wrote, "Wheat farming is our Boeing, generating more than $500 million in export sales in a good year" (Peck).

The total acreage of wheat in Washington remained the same from 1992 to 2012, but the number of farms declined by 57 percent, from 5,032 to 2,871. In other words, farms were consolidating and growing larger. More farms were owned by corporations (including family corporations) and fewer by individuals.

In the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture, Whitman and Lincoln counties continued to be not just the state's two top wheat counties, but the nation's two top wheat counties. The state produced 141 million bushels of grain in 2012. By 2016, that number was up to 157 million bushels, which ranked fourth in the U.S. (Kansas was first). That year, wheat was the fifth-most-valuable crop in Washington, behind (in order) apples, milk, potatoes, and cattle. The three biggest wheat-export markets in 2016 were Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea.

In the 2010s, farmers began using ever-more-advanced equipment, including GPS satellite technology to navigate around their fields. Combines were air-conditioned and had stereo sound systems. New, more productive wheat varieties were constantly being tested and developed. Wheat farming had come a long way from the dusty, sweat-soaked days of headers and threshers. Yet in many ways it hadn't changed at all. Washington wheat farmers said it was still "no easy way to make a living ... profits are at the mercy of a competitive global market" (Sokol). Also, farmers still had to cope with the same perils facing those 1860s pioneers -- diseases, pests, and bad weather. Yet they also had the vast satisfaction, at every harvest time, of knowing they were supplying vital food to millions of people around the world. As wheat researcher Craig Morris of Washington State University said in 2017, "It's a cliché to say that we're feeding the world, but, you know, it's actually true" (Sokol).

Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum.


Richard D. Scheuerman and Alexander C. McGregor, Harvest Heritage: Agricultural Origins and Heirloom Crops of the Pacific Northwest (Pullman: WSU Press, 2013); Frederick Merk, Fur Trade and Empire: George Simpson's Journal (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, rev. ed. 1968); Kirby Brumfield, This Was Wheat Farming (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1968); Alexander McGregor, Counting Sheep: From Open Range to Agribusiness on the Columbia Plateau (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982); Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington's Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990); "Washington Wheat Facts" (Washington Wheat Commission brochure, 1990), Northwest Wheat vertical file, Northwest Room, Spokane Public Library, Spokane, Washington; N. W. Durham, "Wheat Was a Precious Pioneer Commodity," The Washington Farmer, April 23, 1931, p. 6, Northwest Wheat vertical file, Northwest Room, Spokane Public Library; "Washington Wheat Lands," Ashley-Burnham Land Company brochure, 1903), Northwest Wheat vertical file, Northwest Room, Spokane Public Library; "Wheat Supply and Distribution in the Pacific Northwest," Statistical Bulletin No. 1 (Oregon Wheat Commission and Washington State Department of Agriculture, December 1956), Northwest Room, Spokane Public Library; Hannelore Sudermann, "Far Afield: How Northwest Wheat Feeds the World," The Spokesman-Review, June 6, 1999, special section, p. 1; Chris Peck, "The Right Thing to Do Is Market Wheat to the World," The Spokesman-Review, June 6, 1999, p. B-9; Chad Sokol, "The World of Wheat: Growing Grain in Washington," The Spokesman-Review, July 16, 2017, p. 1; "2012 Census Full Report," USDA Census of Agriculture website accessed January 9, 2018 (https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/#full_report); Alexander McGregor, email Jim Kershner, January 11, 2018, in possession of Jim Kershner, Spokane, Washington; "2016 State Agricultural Overview: Washington," USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service website accessed January 12, 2018 (https://www.nass.usda.gov/Quick_Stats/Ag_Overview/stateOverview.php?state=WASHINGTON); "Value of Washington's 2016 Agricultural Production Totaled $10.6 Billion," USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service press release, October 13, 2017, copy available at Washington State Department of Agriculture website accessed January 12, 2018 (https://agr.wa.gov/aginwa/docs/Top10WA_2016.pdf).

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