Alternative Crop Production:

Addressing the Agronomics and Economics in the Pacific Northwest


Chad W. Shelton, Certified Professional Agronomist
Western Farm Service, Division Agronomist
WFS Inland Division, Spokane, WA.


Western Farm Service is a retail agricultural chemical and fertilizer company with over 100 full service outlets in Arizona, California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Western Farm Service consists of six retail divisions. The Inland Division has over 34 retail outlets in Washington, Oregon and the Idaho Panhandle. As the Inland Division Agronomist it is my goal to research all agronomic inputs and the impacts that those choices may have on Pacific Northwest crop production. It is my sincere belief that there are agronomic interactions between many of the management and production decisions that growers make ever year not only regionally but also within a given micro-climate. Therefore there is a great need for a research program that directly addresses these agronomic choices. Over 8 years ago we developed an Agronomy Program that would allow us to conduct over 300 trials annually. Of these 300 trials 2/3 of the trials are dryland production based and 1/3 of the trials focus on irrigated crop production. Over 40% of the ideas that are researched every year are ideas that growers in the Pacific Northwest(PNW) have proposed. Our goal is to integrate sound agronomics with applied grower economics.

In the winter of 1994 several growers in the PNW thought that with the on set of the Freedom to Farm Bill that the price of soft white wheat may become unstable and fall below $3.00/bushel. As the growers began to gather data on different alternative crops for the PNW, many of them realized that there was a lot of data gaps on certain crops or that there just was not any sound applicable data to fit their region. So during the spring of 1995 we began a program that would focus on the challenges and opportunities in PNW Alternative Cropping. In 1995 we had three research sites with 5 alternative crops and focused on the agronomic viability of these crops. In 1996 the program had ten research sites with 10 alternative crops. The focus in 1996 began to explore the variables in alternative crop production. Studies on seeding date, seeding rate, row spacing, fertility placement, fertility management, rotation sequence, herbicide management and insect management by site and by crop began to reveal some very crucial information. During the 1997 program ten sites were evaluated with over 15 alternative crops. One site was added as a long term annual zero-tillage study. The goal at this site is to mimic the growers farm model and to experiment with new ideas that can be quickly implemented by the grower with reduced risk. Research on the agronomic variables continued. In 1998 we had over 19 research sites with over 20 alternative crops. Six sites were added as long term zero-tillage studies. The study now includes 7 sites that will focus entirely on zero-tillage of alternative crops. The 7 locations range from 4 acres to over 8 acres in plot size. A study with Washington State University on water use intensity by crop over three sites was introduced in the 1998 program.

The first 3 years of the study focused on each crops potential Gross Revenue per acre per location. Gross revenue per acre was the chosen method of reporting due to the great variability within the agronomic inputs (seeding rate, fertility, row spacing etc..) for each crop and the diverse environmental variability within the research sites. Many agronomic and economic failures and many agronomic and economic successes were determined per location per crop over the past three years of research. With over 4 years worth of data on alternative crops coupled with 3 years worth of data on managing the agronomic inputs by crop and location the reports to the growers are now reported as crop net value per acre per location. The focus of this study is to reduce grower risk by combining sound agronomic practices on a variety of alternative crops over many climatic growing conditions that will produce a positive impact on the growers bottom line.

1998 Alternative Crops

Canola Lupines Dry Beans Millet Field Corn
Mustard Soybeans Soft White Wht Sorghum Feed Barley
Linola Leafless Peas Hard Red Wht Cotton Malt Barley
Sunflowers Lentils Hard White Wht Potatoes Canary Seed
Safflowers Chick Peas Durum Wheat Buckwheat Sugar Beets

1998 Alternative Crops Sites


Tillage System

Length of Study
La Grande, Ore. Zero-Tillage Annual Spring 1st year of seven years
Helix, Ore. Minimum Tillage 1st year of seven years
Pendleton, Ore. Conventional Tillage 2nd year
Clyde, Wa. Zero-Tillage Annual Spring 1styear of seven years
La Crosse, Wa. Zero-Tillage Annual Spring 1st year of seven years
St. John, Wa. Conventional Tillage 3rd year
Pomeroy, Wa. Conventional Tillage 4th year
Rosalia, Wa. Conventional Tillage 4th year
Anatone, Wa. Conventional Tillage 1st year
Reardan, Wa. Zero-Tillage Annual Spring 1st year of seven years
Ritzville, Wa. Zero-Tillage Annual Spring 1st year of seven years
Harrington, Wa. Zero-Tillage Annual Spring 3rd year of seven years
Coulee City, Wa. Conventional Tillage 1 year
Almira, Wa. Conventional Tillage 4th year
Lind, Wa. Conventional Tillage 1st year
Davenport, Wa. Zero-Tillage Annual Spring 2nd year
Tammany, Id. Zero-Tillage Annual Spring 1st year of seven years
Genesee, Id. Conventional Tillage 1st year


1998 Alternative Crop Challenges

Alternative crop production challenges from 1995-98 varied greatly from year to year. After the second year of the study, all we needed was two consecutive years of consistent weather patterns to help use begin to develop a crop response curve to the agronomic variables, but as we all know in agriculture there is no such thing as a normal year, not to mention 2 years of normality. One thing that is definitely assured in this study is that many years of data can help limit the risk to growers regionally but management within micro-climates will always be very important. The production year of 1998 would prove to be one of the most challenging years for the alternative crop production study in the PNW. The challenges ranged from trying to manage 19 alternative crop research sites to an unusually cool and wet spring to a prolonged period of excessive heat during crucial growth stages.

Seeding dates had the greatest impact on yield and quality production with many of the late maturing crops such as safflower. Cool and wet conditions in the south to dry warm conditions in the north during planting time made it difficult to use guides that were developed in previous years. Yield reductions of 30% on some crops occurred because of seeding dates that were one week apart within 10 miles of each other.

Insect management was also very important in 1998. Pests which were at extremely high levels such as flea beetles, aphids, pea weevil, grasshoppers and wire worms played significant roles in alternative crop production and crop yield reduction. For the first time insecticide applications had to be made on soybeans to control excessively high levels of pea weevils.

The 1998 program also had some very unique challenges with weed control in some of the alternative crops. Weeds such as russian thistle, kochia, canada thistle, marestail and china lettuce were problems in some crops under certain management systems.

Zero-tillage plots that went unsprayed in 1997 could have been sprayed two or three times in 1998 depending on the crop.


The challenges for PNW growers will be many but there will be equally as many opportunities. One of the biggest challenges for growers using zero-tillage and planting alternate crops in the PNW will be adapting to the ever changing environmental conditions from year to year. To do this a data base on what crops to plant, when to plant them, fertility requirements based on per unit of production, etc. during a given climatic cycle will be crucial. The second biggest challenge will be mastering the art of patience. We have to learn to plant specific crops at their optimum soil temperature and become less focused on the date on the calendar.

1998 Alternative Crop Opportunities

Alternative crop production opportunities from 1995 through 1998 depended greatly on the region in which the crops were produced. Since this study has been performed at over 19 sites in over three states it is very important that we do not draw conclusions on a given crop based an generalities. This study certainly does prove that what may be beneficial in Pendleton, Ore. may not be the best economic or agronomic choice for a grower in Coulee City, Wa. The agronomic variability of each crop that results in a direct impact on the growers profitability from varies from site to site and crop to crop. The opportunities and agronomic enhancement from alternative crop production extend far beyond the economic impact of a crop during its cycle, it also extends into crops yet to be grown. Enhancements such increased water infiltration, water use efficiency, disease reduction, weed pressure reduction, increase in organic matter content are only a few of the added benefits of alternative crop production.

1998 Alternate Crop Yield Results

The following graph includes all crops at all 19 PNW research sites.



Pacific Northwest growers will be exposed to actual net income/acre per crop by location so that the varying agronomic practices performed to successfully raise the specific crop will impact the growers bottom line. The research has shown that some crops can be raised agronomically, but do to excessive input costs(increased risk) the crop may not be a profitable alternative in a given production area or region.


Chad W. Shelton, CPAg
Western Farm Service
Inland Division Agronomist
10424 West Aero Rd.
Spokane, Wa. 99224
Phone: (509) 838-5007
Fax: (509) 838-5307