Farm Journal Technology Editor Ben Potter visited this one-of-a-kind region in the Pacific Northwest.
The Palouse is a geographical region in the Pacific Northwest caused millions of years ago from a series of ice age dams bursting and depositing its glacial outwash. The resulting silt dunes hold fertile earth good for a variety of crops. Multiple crops and fallow ground often appear on the same hill as a rotational and erosion control strategy. For example, this hill has garbanzo beans on top and wheat on bottom.
Common crops in this production region include several types of wheat (hard red winter, soft white winter, hard red spring, etc.), plus garbanzo beans (or “garbs,” as locals like to call them), lentils, peas, camelina (an oilseed crop similar to canola) and barley (shown here).
The Palouse Scenic Byway certainly lives up to its name. It winds its way through the hills, offering plenty of photo opportunities.
I was repeatedly warned about watching for rattlesnakes. I successfully avoided them, but was able to spot other animals such as falcons, deer and more. The deer especially like using wheat fields as a cover against predators.
The Palouse boasts two of the premier wheat research programs in the country – Washington State University and the University of Idaho. Despite being in two separate states, the schools are less than 10 miles apart. Pictured here is the wheat breeding facility at Washington State.
The steep hills, with angles often exceeding 40 degrees, offers a unique challenge for harvesting the crops. Hillside combines have special modifications that allow them to navigate the tricky terrain.
In the Midwest, a lot of communities could spring up wherever it was convenient to do so. But the hilly terrain doesn’t afford such luxury in the Palouse. The towns I visited, such as St. John and Colfax (pictured) are tucked into the only flat areas around.
One of the crown geological jewels of the Palouse is the Steptoe Butte. The butte is a 15 to 17 million year old “quartzite island” that offers spectacular views, as it is 1,000 feet taller than the surrounding terrain.
Here is a view from the top of Steptoe Butte. The patchwork of earth below is largely wheat, barley and garbanzo fields. You can see 50 miles or more on a clear day, but the sky was hazy from nearby wildfires when I was there.
Steptoe Butte is a haven for hang gliders and paragliders. A father/son team was taking turns leaping off Steptoe while I was there.
Most of the Palouse sees fewer than 20 inches of rainfall per year, as many storms fail to punch through the Cascade Mountains to the west. As one farmer I talked with joked, “A lot of times we get a forecast for an inch of rain and end up with an inch of wind instead.” Still, an unexpected rainfall caused some harvest delays in the area this year, and ruined two of my three chances to take some good sunset photos.
I still got my photo op, though!