Washington’s Native Americans relied on hunting and food gathering rather than agriculture to supply their families’ needs. It wasn’t until Fort Vancouver was established in the 1820s that commercial agriculture took hold in Washington, as Hudson’s Bay Company acquired a surplus of cattle to sell to the early settlers. Farming developed slowly west of the Cascades, as the heavily forested land first had to be cleared, and the acidic soils produced minimal yields. As settlers spread east of the Cascades, the wide-open spaces were perfect for cattle ranching, sheep herding, and grain growing.
Agriculture grew rapidly through the early 20th century, when the arrival of the railroads created markets and irrigation projects. Agriculture flourished during the first and second World Wars and quickly rebounded after the Depression, when refrigeration allowed Washington farmers to compete on a national scale.
In 1952, the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project opened up a half million parched acres for farming around Ephrata and Moses Lake. Today, Washington farmers and ranchers produce crops worth billions of dollars annually, over 80 percent of which is derived from agriculture east of the Cascades. The biggest money crop is wheat, grown on three million acres in eastern Washington, especially in the famous Palouse hills near Pullman. Nearly all the state’s wheat is shipped overseas to Japan, Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and other Asian markets. Other important crops are hay, potatoes, livestock, apples, pears, cherries, grapes, onions, and other fruits and vegetables. Washington is one of the few states that grows cranberries, in the southeast corner in bogs near Willapa Bay.
Washington is probably best known for its apples, some 10 billion of which are grown annually, approximately 40 percent of the nation’s total apple production. The center of apple growing is between Wenatchee and Chelan, but orchards can be found in many parts of the state. A majority of the apples grown in Washington are of the Red Delicious variety, though other varieties such as Gala, Braeburn, and Fuji have gained greatly in popularity within the last few years.
One of the state’s fastest-growing crops is wine grapes. In 1972, Washington had just six wineries; today there are more than 170, and visitors come to tour the Columbia and Yakima Valleys much as they would California’s wine-producing regions. Washington is now recognized as one of the prime wine producers in the country, with many award-winning wines and ten official wine-growing regions. Washington boosters point out that these valleys lie at the same latitude as France’s Burgundy and Bordeaux regions. The state’s largest producer of wines is Chateau Ste. Michelle, with wineries in both the Yakima Valley and Woodinville.
© Ericka Chickowski from Moon Washington, 8th edition