Peas on earth - but not for long
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:41 PM
"The fields of green peas being harvested on Ebey's Prairie this week will likely be the last large-scale commercial pea crop produced on the island.National Frozen Foods, the company that has contracted for Central Whidbey pea growing for the last couple years, is shutting down its Burlington pea and carrot processing plant after this season and shifting the operation to Moses Lake east of the Cascades. That's too bad, say local farmers who are finding it harder and harder to fill their large fields with crops they can sell.As harvesters rolled through his pea fields this week, Ebey's Prairie farmer Len Engle looked at his future options for commercial agriculture on the prairie. It didn't look good. There's no money in grain, he said Seed crops make some money - sometimes. We're raising some hay but there's only so much of a market for hay. Maybe it's the last hurrah for ag in Western Washington.Droning like giant shop vacs on wheels, the large, mechanical pea harvesters moved ponderously yet gracefully up and down the fields this week, scooping up the low-lying vines, popping the individual peas from their pods and casting the remains back to the same ground from whence it came. National Frozen Foods basically contracts with the farmer to plant the crop. After that, the company oversees the crop's growth and supplies the machinery and workforce to harvest it. At harvest time, the machines run day and night.We stop them just long enough to put in oil and fuel them, said Malcolm Bishop, field shop manager for National Frozen Foods. Teams of drivers take shifts in the cab of each harvester to keep them rolling.Since the company supplies the machinery and manpower for harvesting, there's less overhead for the farmer. That's one of the reasons peas make a good crop for farmers even though they don't bring top dollar at market. Peas are also good for rotation farming because the leftover pea vines and pods can be tilled back into the soil, where they replace nitrogen. National Frozen Foods has operated a processing plant in Burlington for more than 70 years. The company has been predicting the plant's closure, along with that of a similar plant in Chehalis, since the beginning of the year. In a letter to employees, company officials said the move to Moses Lake was to take advantage of lower crop prices and lower employee costs east of the mountains. In addition, Eastern Washington growers can often produce two crops each year because of the longer growing season. Even though Central Whidbey farmers can usually start crops early, there's still not enough time to raise a second crop before fall hits, Bishop said. That makes it hard to compete, despite the fact that Whidbey peas are considered to be of high quality.The question now is what to plant now that the pea market is gone.Nobody's sure. There's no market for much of anything, said Liz Sherman, who along with husband Dale raised about 75 acres of peas on the prairie this year. It's a real tenuous time for farming on the prairie. I don't have a good outlook.With hundreds of acres to fill, Central Whidbey farmers have to think commercially. But with many crop prices at rock bottom it's hard to break even, let alone make a profit, Sherman said. Several prairie farms used to grow feed crops for the former Engle Farm Dairy, but when it shut down a couple years ago that market dried up as well.In all, about 585 acres of Central Whidbey land was planted in peas this year. National also contracted for about 2,900 acres of peas in Skagit County. The Twin City Foods plant in Stanwood is the only remaining processing facility in the area. In the 1960s there were about a dozen. Twin City officials were unavailable for comment but local farmers doubt the company will be coming to Whidbey for product, especially with so many acres opening up in the Skagit Valley following National's closure.Peas have been grown periodically on Whidbey throughout the 1900s. For most of that time they were sold fresh, but beginning in the 1960s the market changed to frozen foods. Bishop said most of National's frozen product is distributed in the Northwest, with a small amount shipped to the Japan.But all that's in the past now for Whidbey pea growers as they watch their last crop head to market this week.There are no magic answers, said Engle with a wistful laugh. I'm open to ideas. Maybe we need to become a wine-growing region."