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New Crops

Starvation and malnutrition will continue into the next century, but many of the world’s peoples are moving beyond subsistence-level diets, creating growing markets for Washington exporters.

Washington farmers who want to compete in overseas markets will have to satisfy the increasingly sophisticated tastes of consumers worldwide. Feeding the masses will mean not only continued attention to traditional markets, but filling non-traditional agricultural niches as well.

Washington State University researchers play vital roles in both arenas. Major attention goes into developing new wheat varieties, which resist diseases, have improved yield, and meet increasingly demanding quality standards.

Other WSU scientists are helping Washington growers develop niche markets by growing crops that are new in the Pacific Northwest. Washington is well situated to adapt to changing world tastes because the state is blessed with a variety of climates, soils and topography.

Washington farmers are beginning to sell azuki beans and wasabi to Asian customers and they are looking for a processor for edamame, an ancient bean crop in the Far East. The sweet, nutritious bean can be prepared in stir-fry dishes or boiled and eaten right out of the pod.

Seed cost of $300 to $400 per acre is an obstacle to commercial production of edamame in Washington, said Tom Lumpkin, WSU agronomist and chair of the crop and soil sciences department.

Edamame pods crack and drop their seeds to the ground, where they must be harvested by hand, Lumpkin explained. Scientists hope to genetically engineer, within a few years, a non-shattering pod that would allow machine harvesting and lower seed costs.

Japan is a major importer of azuki beans, which are processed into a sweet paste used in cakes and candies.

Washington growers already produce azuki on a limited scale, Lumpkin said, and an estimated 1.5 million pounds of the beans will be processed into the value-added paste this year at a Moses Lake plant.

China competes with U.S. growers for the Japanese azuki market. The growing affluence of China, however, likely will make that nation an eventual azuki importer, Lumpkin said.

At the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, Bill Dean is exploring the potential for growing a pair of vegetables — burdock and lotus root — for the Japanese market.

Those projects are in their early stages, Dean said, but it appears burdock might be a suitable alternative crop for Washington’s east side, lotus for the state’s west side.

Both pose harvesting challenges that would have to be met if they are to become commercially viable propositions for growers. Burdock, Dean explained, produces a long tap root that must be harvested; lotus is an aquatic plant, and the water must be drained to harvest the vegetable.

Lumpkin is looking at millet as a possible alternative to wheat for the driest of Washington’s dry-land farms. Millet, which uses water more efficiently than wheat, was one of the foundations of Chinese civilization, Lumpkin said.

Millet is a grain. In the United States, it is used primarily for bird seed, but the plants themselves make an attractive forage crop for livestock. Millet is eaten by humans in many countries, especially in Africa.

Wheat is certainly no newcomer to Washington, but WSU researchers are rethinking even that staple crop.

Long-term prospects for wheat are excellent because of an East Asian trend away from rice consumption in favor of wheat. Trade representatives warn, however, the Northwest will have to work hard to capture its share of the growing Asian market. That means delivering wheat with milling and baking characteristics desired by foreign buyers.

The soft white wheat grown in Washington makes fine crackers, cookies, sponge cake, Asian-style noodles and Middle-Eastern flat breads. WSU and USDA scientists are constantly breeding and testing varieties suitable for various end uses.

Washington farmers’ experimentation with a commercial chickpea industry ended abruptly in the mid-1980s when disease devastated crops in the southeastern part of the state.

WSU responded by developing blight-resistant chickpea varieties, and the industry made a strong comeback in 1995. Growers were rewarded with good prices when poor weather damaged chickpea crops in other parts of the world, leading to shortages of the commodity.

Turkey, Mexico and Australia are among the major players in world chickpea production. Like wheat, chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans, come in many varieties, each with their own characteristics. Trade experts hope to find permanent niches for Washington varieties among customers in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

In the livestock arena, WSU research is at the heart of a growing Wagyu beef industry in Washington.

Wagyu cattle, a breed native to Japan, produce highly marbled meat that fetches prices as high as $150 a pound in Japan.

David Youmans, WSU extension trade specialist, is exploring the possibility of adding meat goats to the state’s existing dairy goat industry. Goat meat is prized among some cultures, including Hispanic peoples, who consume the meat at festive occasions.

Youmans is looking at the potential for bringing Boer goats, a South African native breed, to Washington. Boer goats will graze on vegetation most animals ignore such as yellowstar thistle and other noxious weeds.

The goats could be used as a tool for integrated range management. Managing the goats themselves would pose its own set of problems, Youmans said. Researchers would have to experiment with strategies such as tether grazing and fencing the animals to keep them out of trouble.

“Managing goats is kind of like managing cats,” Youmans said.

Whether it is introducing an entirely new crop or developing new and better varieties of old standby crops, research and extension work play a key role in keeping Washington’s agricultural economy healthy and vital.

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