Told there’s no buyer for pea crop, farmers adjust

STANWOOD — For the first spring since the early 1940s, the Thrudvang Farm won’t be growing green peas.

The best peas in the world have been grown on farms in the Stillaguamish River and Skagit valleys, said WSU Extension agent Don McMoran. But the market for frozen peas continues to dwindle, and the area’s leading vegetable processor has announced it won’t buy the crop this year.

“People just don’t eat as many TV dinners as they used to,” McMoran said.

Rick Williams’ family has been on the Thrudvang Farm for four generations. Williams, 59, hasn’t slept well lately. At his farm office across from the Stanwood- Camano Fairgrounds, he’s gearing up for 100-hour work weeks, trying to schedule what he’ll plant instead of peas and which of his fields may lie idle or fallow this summer. The farm’s profit-loss margin is slim, and there’s no room now for error.

The announcement in October that Twin City Foods in Stanwood wouldn’t buy peas this year put Williams in a bad mood. Not that he’s angry at Twin City, a company started 64 years ago by Arne Lervick, a longtime family friend. Set up to process and freeze vegetables, Twin City always has been good to the farmers, Williams said.

It’s more the state of family farming that has Williams upset.

“Only 1 percent of the American population are farmers now. It used to be that our culture revolved around the family farm,” Williams said. “We’re in a minority that people from urban areas just don’t understand.”

Twin City officials said it costs less to grow peas on huge farms in Eastern Washington. The crops are processed at the company’s plant in Pasco. So those peas that are needed for the frozen market this year, that’s where they will come from, said Twin City treasurer-controller Virgil Roehl.

Part of the problem is that it’s expensive to move the slow, hulking pea-viner combines and other harvesting equipment from one small family farm to the next in the Stanwood and Mount Vernon areas, Williams said.

“This recession has been very hard on us. On the east side of the mountains, farmers are welcomed,” he said. “Here, city drivers have nearly pushed our pea-viners off the road in their impatience to speed down the county roads.”

Twin City’s decision not to process local peas has meant that nearly 100 seasonal employees won’t be rehired this year at the Stanwood plant, Roehl said. About half are students trying to fund their college educations.

Last year, the number of farmers in Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties who grew peas for Twin City numbered less than 50. Peas were grown on about 5,500 acres. In the 1970s, the company processed more than double that. Back then, Twin City wasn’t the only game in town, either, with other processors operating with similar volumes in Burlington and Bellingham.

One of the country’s largest, remaining independent processors of quick-frozen vegetables, Twin City Foods still processes sweet corn, green beans, baby lima beans and carrots at its Stanwood plant, primarily for distribution under the labels of regional grocery stores. In addition, the plant’s employees repackage products for overseas export, Roehl said.

“Four generations of the Lervick family have been involved in this company. We have a world-class facility here,” he said. “After a series of heart-wrenching meetings the company decided not to accept peas this year. It’s been tough on the Lervicks.”

The company already has a surplus of peas from previous harvests. It is holding out hope that it can reduce its current inventory of frozen peas. The company hopes to resume buying and processing local peas in 2011, Roehl said.

Farmers are not holding their collective breath over that one, McMoran said.

Some will leave fields fallow, or plant spring wheat and barley or start a crop rotation: two years of grass and another of potatoes.

“It’s a huge waste for such highly productive soils,” McMoran said. “Some farmers are going to fresh market, incubator (greenhouse) crops or just getting out of farming entirely.”

Washington State University Extension’s Skagit County faculty worked this winter to offer area farmers some ideas about what to plant instead of peas. Growing fava beans, beets, crops for local dairy farmers and wheat as a forage and bedding material are some of the suggestions passed on to growers, he said.

The absence of peas is going to create a big void in the local agricultural scene, Williams said. A great rotational crop, peas also are important because they put nitrogen and other nutrients back into the soil. The crop was a natural fertilizer that farmers didn’t have to pay for, he said.

This year, Williams plans to grow spring wheat, field corn for a neighboring dairy farm, red potatoes, perennial rye, vegetable seed crops and sweet corn and pumpkins for fresh market.

He’s also sitting on a silo tank filled with wheat. He’s not going to part with it just yet. Right now it’s worth $1 a bushel less than what it cost him to grow.

Williams’ great-grandfather came from Norway to homestead in the valley where Thomle Road is located. His grandfather began growing peas, and his father, Bill Williams, continued the tradition after he married Erna Thomle and inherited the farm. Three generations of the Williams family also did field work for Twin City Foods on the side.

These days at Thrudvang Farm — Norwegian for “the farm by the river” — Bill Williams, 87, still gets into his coveralls to help out. Grandson Garrett Williams, a landscape architect, lends a hand, too.

“It’s a job that gets in our blood and keeps us going,” Rick Williams said. “We may continue to struggle, but peas or no peas, we’re going to hang on to the land. If it’s paved over, we’ll never get it back.”

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