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Cropping Connections: A Review of Creative Solutions to Changing Markets

Volume 5 Issue 11

Don McMoran and Caitlin Price Youngquist
WSU Skagit County Extension, University of Wyoming Washakie County Extension

Introduction

Due to high regional costs, production of green peas in Skagit County declined from over 32,000 acres in 1968 to just 6,000 acres in 2008 (Skagit County Extension, 2008). In October 2009, the last remaining green pea processor in Northwest Washington announced that it would not be processing green peas at its facility for the 2010 growing season. Green peas had filled an important role in crop rotations in Skagit County, Washington since the 1930s. Peas were sold for the fresh and processed food industry.  Pea vines were used as livestock feed, and they provided valuable nitrogen credits for future crops. This change in the green pea market left farmers in the region looking at alternative crops for approximately 6,000 acres previously contracted for green peas. At the same time, dairy farmers who relied on the inexpensive pea vines for silage and hay were looking for solutions beyond expensive imported energy and protein feeds. In response to these issues, Washington State University Skagit County Extension faculty developed the Cropping Connections project to bring stakeholders together and look for creative solutions. Funding was provided through a WSU mini-grant. The primary objective of the Cropping Connections project was to bring crop farmers, dairy farmers, university researchers, and industry representatives together to share ideas for keeping valuable crop land in production and benefiting the region’s crop and dairy farms. There were three important components to the project: 1) host a one-day, solutions-oriented workshop, 2) establish cooperative relationships between farmers,

researchers and other stakeholders, and 3) collect feedback from area stakeholders via surveys. The primary objective of the Cropping Connections project was to bring crop farmers, dairy farmers, university researchers, and industry representatives together to share ideas for keeping valuable crop land in production and benefiting the region’s crop and dairy farms. There were three important components to the project: 1) host a one-day, solutions-oriented workshop, 2) establish cooperative relationships between farmers, researchers and other stakeholders, and 3) collect feedback from area stakeholders via surveys.
Photo of farm meeting

Cropping Connections

In December 2009, a survey was sent out to approximately 100 NW dairy farmers; 45 responded. Fifty-one percent of respondents said they had researched alternative forage crops within the past three years, and 39% said they were ready to try forage alternatives on their farm. When asked if they were willing to work with WSU Extension or other agencies to test new forage crops on their farm, 41% responded “yes” while 43% were “undecided.”  This interest, along with the changing agricultural marketplace, presented an opportunity for WSU Extension to help develop successful cropping solutions for the various stakeholders through knowledge sharing and establishing collaborative relationships.

Workshop

In January 2010, WSU Skagit County Extension hosted a workshop to provide information about forage crop production in Northwest Washington and expand current relationships between crop farmers, dairy farmers, industry representatives, and WSU Extension professionals. The workshop lasted a full day and included presentations on a variety of topics including current fava bean and forage beet research projects, wheat as a bedding and forage material, dairy manure as an energy source, reduced tillage, and improving soils with forage crops and animal rotations.

Attendance at the workshop included dairy farmers, crop farmers, industry representatives, conservation district staff, and WSU faculty and employees. At the end of the workshop participants were asked to fill out an evaluation. Out of the 71 people attending, 32 filled out workshop evaluations. The response was positive, and comments indicated that participants benefitted from networking connections, learning about forage alternatives, and learning about the topics being studied.  Eighty-six percent of participants responded that they were very satisfied or satisfied with the workshop and the other 14% responded that they were somewhat satisfied.  Most notably, over 70% of participants who filled out the evaluation reported that they left the workshop more aware of networking opportunities, and 80% expressed interest in working with WSU in the future.  When asked what the respondents most enjoyed about the workshop, comments included “Seeing so much effort going into alternative crops and thinking outside the box.  Seeing crop farmers and dairy farmers in the same room together,” and also, “The variation of topics and keeping up a consistent pace to keep my attention and still understand most of what was presented.”

Trends in Production

The goal of Cropping Connections was to equip area farmers affected by the closing of the green pea market with the tools, information, and network to remain economically viable. This market decline created multiple challenges for area farmers. Dairy farmers were required to adjust production to meet silage needs, while crop farmers needed to identify other crops that were economically viable and would fit into established crop rotation patterns.

A comparative analysis of Skagit County’s agricultural data before and after 2010 sheds light on how the agricultural community adapted to the close of a regional green pea market. With data derived from the USDA Census of Agriculture, the tables below identify the top six crop production sectors for Skagit County (in acres) and dairy cattle count before and after the close of the regional green pea market.

Table including Top Production Sectors in Skagit County in Acres

Table 1. Top Production Sectors in Skagit County in Acres.

Table including Head of Dairy Cattle in Production – Skagit County

Table 2. Head of Dairy Cattle in Production – Skagit County

From 2007 to 2012 Skagit County farmers increased potato and wheat production in response to the loss of the green pea market (23.7% and 67.5% respectively). The rise in the potato acreage in Skagit County was due to highly favorable growing conditions along with the high value of fresh market potatoes. Wheat, in particular, was lauded at the Cropping Connections workshop as an alternative solution for the bedding and forage needs of dairies. Table 1 also illustrates that although the acres in production of Skagit County’s top six commodities dipped by 5.7%, much of that land was likely converted to other agricultural enterprises (1.9% increase of acres in production county wide). Between 2007 and 2014 the number of dairy cattle in Skagit County increased by 3.1% (Table 2).

Follow Up Survey

In 2016, participants of the 2010 Cropping Connections workshop were sent a follow up survey about management changes they had made since the 2010 workshop. Twenty-five percent of the participants responded.  From the responses, 21% classified themselves as dairy farmers, 43% as crop farmers, 7% as both, and 29% as neither.

Survey responses revealed that there had been an increase in vegetable, forage crop, potato, corn, wheat, perennial fruits, barley, and Jerusalem artichoke acreages over the past six years.  The greatest increases were in vegetables, forage crops, and corn which all increased by 500-1,000 acres per farm.  The responses indicated very few farms had decreased production acres. Only one respondent claimed to decrease potato acreage by over 1,000 acres.  Participants were also questioned about changes in dairy herd size.  The respondents indicated an increase of 650 animal units.

The survey also asked respondents if they felt that forage crops were currently affordable.  Twenty-five percent responded that forage crops are affordable, 58% responded that they were somewhat affordable, and 17% responded that they were not affordable.  When asked if they were interested in attending another Cropping Connections workshop in the future, the response was 93% positive.  Additional survey comments made were regarding compost to replenish soil nutrients in lieu of peas, information on regulations, and goat dairies.  One respondent commented, “It was a good workshop.”

Conclusion

The primary objective of the Cropping Connections project was to bring crop farmers, dairy farmers, university researchers, and industry representatives together to share ideas for keeping valuable crop land in production and benefiting the region’s crop and dairy farms. Using agricultural census data, we can see the success of farmers in the face of the closing green pea market, based on the overall increase in both crop production acreage and dairy cattle.

Cropping Connections was a valuable opportunity for industry representatives and WSU faculty to hear from crop and dairy farmers about their ideas, concerns, and desires for further research and development topics. The workshop alone cannot be attributed as the reason crop and dairy farmers were resilient through the changing green pea market, but it did set a precedent of solutions-based collaboration between farmers and stakeholders, facilitated by WSU Extension.

Most of the participants left the workshop both optimistic and looking forward to working with WSU Extension in the future; this momentum has been funneled into expanding participation and scope of other Extension-sponsored collaborative workshops. In the years following Cropping Connections, the Western Washington Potato Workshop, Skagit Ag Summit, Cattleman’s Winter School, and Washington’s Small Fruit Conference have all seen dramatic increases in attendance. Bringing farmers, researchers and other stakeholders together in a collaborative setting is part of WSU Extension’s strategic plan for fostering a strong and economically resilient agricultural community.