Alfalfa seed crop requires unique farm

Native alkali bees are crucial for pollinating alfalfa as it blooms.

By Heather Smith Thomas

For the Capital Press

Published on March 8, 2018 10:58AM

Combines harvesting alfalfa seed on the Wagoner’s farm near Walla Walla, Wash.

Courtesy of Mark Wagoner

Combines harvesting alfalfa seed on the Wagoner’s farm near Walla Walla, Wash.

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From left, three generations of Wagoners: Mark, grandson Troy and son Timothy.

Courtesy of Mark Wagoner

From left, three generations of Wagoners: Mark, grandson Troy and son Timothy.

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Washington alfalfa seed farmers in the Touchet, Wash., maintain alkali bee beds to pollinate their crops.

Dan Groenendale/Washington State University

Washington alfalfa seed farmers in the Touchet, Wash., maintain alkali bee beds to pollinate their crops.

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Mark and Sharla Wagoner and their son Tim grow wheat and alfalfa seed at Touchet, near Walla Walla, Wash., on the farm where Mark grew up.

He came back to the farm after graduating from Washington State University in 1975. Tim graduated from WSU in 2005 and has been back on the farm since then. Tim and his wife, Michelle, have two sons — 3-year-old Troy and 2-month-old Connor.

“Troy enjoys riding in our tractors and combines,” Mark said.

“My father was still involved with the farm when I started, but passed away when I was 32. I’ve been on my own for more than 30 years, so it’s nice to have my son and grandson here,” he said. The farm is 2,000 irrigated acres, currently 1,200 acres in alfalfa and 800 acres in wheat.

The Walla Walla Valley is short on water.

“My grandfather and others who started farming here realized they could grow alfalfa because there’s good deep soil, and alfalfa doesn’t require much water. We put a total of 24 to 26 inches of water on our alfalfa crop each year,” Mark said.

It’s watered in the spring to get it started and again in early fall to get a seed crop. Going without water during summer stresses the plants so they start blooming earlier and put all their energy into blooms rather than more stems and leaves.

Native alkali bees are crucial for pollinating alfalfa as it blooms, but there aren’t enough of them. These ground-nesting bees are similar to honeybees, but slightly smaller.

“We can also use leaf-cutter bees, native to Europe. We buy some from Canada each year because they don’t live more than one season. We can’t increase them here because of bee diseases,” Mark said.

It’s a challenge to control harmful insects without killing the bees.

“We rely on Doug Walsh, an entomologist at WSU, who researches new insecticides. We don’t use any insecticides during alfalfa bloom (when the bees are there) that he doesn’t approve. Doug’s work is critical to the alfalfa seed industry,” Mark said.

Washington is second after California in alfalfa seed production. Eastern Washington has perfect climate for growing alfalfa, and the Walla Walla Valley is ideal because there are no other crops nearby that the bees might fly to and be killed by pesticides.

Alfalfa is planted in the spring, when adequate moisture is available.

“We can also plant some in the fall after wheat harvest because we have six shallow wells for irrigation, putting out 170 to 500 gallons per minute,” said Mark.

The Wagoners plant new seeding every three years.

“We can get 10 years out of a stand, but seed companies give a contract for only three years. They own the plants and we grow the seed for them,” he explained.

The seed is harvested during the last half of August.

“We can’t use any of the residue for cattle feed. We always had to burn the residue but now there’s a pulp mill at Dayton, Washington, that will take it.”

Last year a custom haying company baled and hauled the residue, and was paid by the pulp mill to do it, he said.

After harvest with combines, the seed is shipped to the seed company. “Most of ours goes to Nampa, Idaho, shipped in 3,000-pound boxes, labeled as to varieties. When it gets there, it’s cleaned, packaged, and shipped all over the world,” he said. “About 40 percent of the U.S. alfalfa crop is exported.”

The Wagoners grow many varieties, including several Roundup Ready types. “Weeds are the bugaboo for a seed crop, so it’s great to be able to spray new seedings with Roundup. Established seedings are sprayed in October to get rid of perennial weeds,” he said. “This cleans up our fields and makes our lives a lot easier.”

There can be no Canadian thistles in a field for certified seed. “We used to spend hours spraying Canadian thistles by hand in 100-degree weather. Now we just spray in October and don’t have any thistles,” Mark said.





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