With 300 days of sunshine and the added bonus of being nestled along the confluence of the Columbia, Snake, and Yakima Rivers, it’s easy to see why the roots run deep here in the Tri-Cities, and we’re not just talking about the metaphorical ones!

The region’s abundant sunshine and pristine location made the area the perfect spot for an agricultural revolution. However, it would not be without its challenges, as initially, it was an arid region with limited agricultural potential. Still, the Tri-Cities defied the odds to become the thriving hub of agricultural innovation and productivity that it is today.

Tri Cities Agricultural
Farmers adapted to the unique climate and soil conditions, embracing a wide range of crops beyond traditional staples like corn or wheat. Photo courtesy: Washington Wheat

Early Agricultural Struggles of the First Settlers of the Tri-Cities

In the early 19th century, the Tri-Cities region faced immense challenges in harnessing the potential of its fertile soil due to limited water resources. In the beginning, soil conditions in the Tri-Cities were so arid that it was not naturally conducive to agriculture. It was often sandy, rocky, and lacked essential nutrients required for productive farming and the harsh climate made it difficult to grow crops successfully.

The area also experienced extreme temperature fluctuations and limited precipitation, furthering the struggle of these new settlers from regions with more favorable agricultural conditions. This lack of experience and knowledge required to adapt their farming practices to the arid environment, along with irrigation infrastructure being virtually non-existent at the time, resulted in early farmers being constrained to cultivating only small portions of their land, and thus, crop yields were low.

The Struggle of Early Irrigation Projects in the Tri-Cities

With the region so naturally extremely arid, the emerging cities struggled to maintain sustainability, and even Kennewick was on the verge of becoming a ghost town at one point. Thankfully, an ambitious irrigation project in 1892 called the Yakima Irrigation and Improvement Company would promise hope and prosperity.

The irrigation project began to bring water to the dry land around Kennewick, and with it, more settlers arrived, increasing the population to 400. All seemed to go according to plan as a new townsite was platted, and the farmers began to pour in. Sadly, the little town’s hopes were almost immediately dashed when the irrigation company was ruined in the national financial panic of 1893, leaving the project abandoned and unfinished. By 1899 Kennewick was, once again, all but deserted.

Completing the much need irrigation system wouldn’t resume until 1902, when the Northern Pacific Railway took over the project and finished it.

Settlers in Pasco and Richland were also turning to irrigation in an attempt to make this dry land suitable for hay, grain, vegetables, and fruit trees. The transition would be slowest for Pasco. In Richland, one of the earliest settlers, Nelson Rich, built a pump and a ditch in 1890 to help with farming. One of the first ranchers, Ben Rosencrance, made a wooden water wheel the same year.

By the turn of the twentieth century, a plethora of irrigation canals crisscrossed the area, and farmers were snapping up land by the acres. The Tri-Cities was finally transforming into the agricultural hub it was destined to be.

Tri Cities Agricultural
Today, farms like Middleton Farms are able to thrive thanks to advancements in irrigation within the region. Photo courtesy: Middleton Farms

Irrigation Projects Turned the Tri-Cities Into an Agricultural Hub

With the advent of the twentieth century, Tri-Cities embraced technological advancements in agriculture. Though the process had been painstakingly slow, by 1910, vast acres of the surrounding shrub-steppe landscape were covered with green farms and orchards.

 With this growth came the adoption of new irrigation techniques, improved seed varieties, and innovative farming practices contributed to exponential growth in crop yields. Agricultural development came in leaps and bounds over the next two decades. The region’s early growing season made it especially well-known for asparagus and strawberries. The Tri-Cities also quickly became an essential tree-fruit region, with acres of peaches, apples, and cherries. Pasco itself soon sprouted extensive ice-house and fruit-packing facilities to meet the demand.

Farmers in the region became pioneers in implementing advanced irrigation systems, such as drip irrigation and center-pivot sprinklers, which revolutionized water management and conservation. These technological advancements propelled the Tri-Cities to the forefront of the agricultural revolution, setting an example for other arid regions worldwide. They especially played a crucial role in the widespread adoption of drip irrigation in the United States.

Tri Cities Agricultural
Construction on the east half of the Grand Coulee Dam while the Columbia River is being diverted through the west half. Photo credit: Rod Clay

The Columbia Basin Project Furthered the Agricultural Roots of the Tri-Cities

Two monumental engineering endeavors would further transform the arid lands of the Tri-Cities into a fertile agricultural region. The Columbia Basin Project and the Grand Coulee Dam were initiated during the Great Depression as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal to stimulate the economy and provide much-needed jobs, all while providing a reliable water supply for irrigation and hydropower generation.

Construction of Grand Coulee Dam began in 1933, with the Columbia Basin Project being the irrigation network the dam makes possible. It was completed nearly ten years later in 1942, supplying irrigation water to over 670,000 acres of the 1,100,000 acres large project area. It is the largest water reclamation project in the United States, and without it, much of North Central Washington would today still be too arid for cultivation.

Tri Cities Agricultural
Today, the Grand Coulee Dam continues to provide a reliable water supply for irrigation and hydropower generation. Photo credit: Ken DeWalt

Tri-Cities Agriculture Now Blooms in Diversification and Specialization

As the region’s agricultural capabilities expanded, the Tri-Cities witnessed a shift towards diversification and specialization in crop cultivation. Farmers adapted to the unique climate and soil conditions, embracing various crops beyond traditional staples like wheat and corn. The region became renowned for producing top-quality fruits, including apples, cherries, and grapes, leading to a thriving viticulture and a booming wine industry. Additionally, the region played a crucial role in the growth of the nation’s potato, asparagus, and hops production, becoming a significant contributor to the country’s overall agricultural output. What was once considered an unsustainable desert has bloomed into an agricultural powerhouse producing a diverse range of crops and products, enabling the area to thrive as a significant supplier of agricultural products domestically and worldwide.

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