Hay has been harvested in Washington since the arrival of the first European settlers and remains the fourth most valuable crop in the state, behind only apples, wheat, and potatoes. Alfalfa, timothy, and other hay varieties are mown, dried, baled, and used as feed primarily for cattle and horses. Hay fields are common in every county in the state, and hay farms became especially large and productive in Eastern Washington after the introduction of irrigation. In Mabton, in the Yakima Valley, farmers promoted their massive crop in 1915 by building a giant Hay Palace out of hay bales. Hay was traditionally grown for local livestock, but today  about half of all Washington hay is exported overseas, primarily to Asia. The Columbia Basin, in particular, grows hay largely for export. The Port of Tacoma and the Port of Seattle rank Nos. 1 and 3 in the U.S., respectively, among hay export gateways. Washington ranks second in the nation for hay revenues, largely because of its lucrative exports.
The Earliest Crop
Using the strict definition of hay -- forage that has been cut and dried for fodder -- the story begins with the state's earliest European immigrant farmers, who began feeding horses and cattle on grass that had been cut, raked, dried, and stored in a manner familiar to Europeans for thousands of years. Hay was probably the first, or among the first, agricultural crops to be harvested in the state.
Yet wild grass, as an animal forage, had been a crucial resource in Washington long before non-Native settlers arrived. The Yakama Tribe's famed horses thrived for centuries on the lush grasses of the Yakima Valley bottomlands and the bunchgrass of the uplands. As early as the 1840s, Chief Kamiakin of the Yakamas was fattening cows on Yakima Valley grass. In 1836, Marcus Whitman chose a site called Waiilaptu, meaning, "the place of rye grass," as the site of his mission on the Walla Walla River (Thompson). In 1861, early settler Leonard Thorp arrived at a spot near Yakima and described what he found: "The bottom lands were covered with a dense growth of rye grass twelve feet high in many places, while a luxuriant carpet of nutritious bunch grass made the sage brush hills a veritable paradise to cattle and horses. Within five minutes after turning loose the animals, they would be completely lost sight of in the tall grass and could be found only by trailing" (Illustrated History, p. 166).
Grass was also green and lush on the rainy west side of the state. In 1826, George Simpson reported to his Hudson's Bay Company superiors that the Columbia River area near today's Vancouver was "capable of pasturing numerous herds of cattle" -- and Simpson proceeded to do just that at Fort Vancouver (Merk). By 1829, Fort Vancouver had 153 head of cattle grazing in the plain between the fort and the river.
The early crops consisted mostly of what is called wild hay -- grasses growing naturally in meadows and bottomlands -- as opposed to tame hay, planted specifically as a feed crop. In the 1860s, several early Yakima Valley pioneers formed a partnership "to cut wild hay from the Columbia plains near the mouth of the Yakima" and ship it downriver (Illustrated History, p. 155). An account of early cattle ranching in the Kittitas Valley in 1871 noted that the labor consisted mainly "in putting up wild hay and fencing the ranches" (Splawn, p. 303).
During that era, the west side of the state -- with its lush meadows, green pastures, and plentiful rain -- had an advantage over the dry central and eastern parts of the state. Hay fields and their accompanying dairy cows flourished throughout Western Washington. A farmer in Snohomish County diked his land in 1871 and was able to produce, in his opinion, "wild grass hay quite as good as tame hay" ("Stillaguamish Slough"). By 1882, the first year in which records were compiled, Washington had 125,000 harvested acres of hay, most of it on the west side. A farmer just east of Elma in today's Grays Harbor County reported in 1890 that his "ample hay mow creaks under its heavy burden of 32-and-a-half tons of hay, reaped from 12 acres of bottomland" ("A Chehalis County Farm"). Such results could be found all over Western Washington.
Abundance East of the Cascades
However, the advantage was about to shift, because irrigation was coming to Eastern Washington. In 1894, a traveling writer from Harper's magazine, Kirk Munro, arrived in North Yakima (today's Yakima) and described the sudden transformation made by irrigation. An area once cursed by "the hottest of suns, the bluest of skies and a drought rarely broken between April and November" was now watered by the Sunnyside Canal. Munro noted that a farmer who cleared the sagebrush and dug irrigation ditches could plant alfalfa, a legume hay, and produce an income in two months. "The growth of alfalfa, the great forage crop of the West, is so rapid ... that five crops may be cut from the same piece of land during a six month season," wrote Munro (Washington State: A Literary Chronicle, p. 387).
Yakima's hot, sunny summers were no longer a disadvantage; they were an incomparable boon to a hay farmer. "Forage crops may be cured at any time in the open air with absolute certainty," wrote Munro (Washington State: A Literary Chronicle, p. 386). Make hay while the sun shines, goes the old adage -- and the sun shone practically all summer. The neighboring Kittitas Valley, also watered by the Yakima River, became a major hay-growing region, and in 1900 it raised 50,000 tons of alfalfa and timothy, a grass hay. Only 15,000 tons were required for "home consumption," meaning 35,000 tons could be sent for "export" (Illustrated History, p. 302). Kittitas and Yakima Valley hay growers had already discovered that there was an international market for their high-quality hay and it was "in great demand in the Alaska market, and not a little of it goes to the Philippine Islands and to China and Japan" (Illustrated History, p. 325).
In most places, however, hay was grown for local consumption. The ubiquity of hay farming was illustrated by an 1898 letter written by a man who went on a walking tour from Spokane to Kamloops, British Columbia. "There is but little chance for grazing stock from Spokane to Kamloops, but almost every farmer has hay to sell at $8 to $15 per ton," he wrote ("Walking to Teslin Lake").
The town of Mabton in the Yakima Valley had a brief period of fame as a hay center, due to a quirky promotion devised by local growers. In 1915, Mabton's farmers decided to hold a Hay Palace Fair to show off their huge hay crop. They stacked more than 1,000 tons of hay bales into a 35-foot-tall Hay Palace, complete with castle-like turrets and battlements. Inside were exhibits of farm machinery. A hay theater stood nearby, featuring brass bands and vaudeville acts. People flocked to the Hay Palace from North Yakima on special train cars, and it was featured in national newsreels. At the end of the fair, the castle was dismantled and the hay bales were auctioned off. It was such a success that Mabton rebuilt the Hay Palace every summer for several years. Finally, in 1923, the Yakima Valley's alfalfa production had dropped off as most farmers had diversified beyond hay. The Hay Palace was discontinued.
Mechanization Sparks Growth
From 1882 to 1900, Washington's hay acreage had quadrupled to 520,000, not far below where it stands today. However, in that era the amount of hay harvested from each acre was about one and half tons, far less than half of today's amount. In 1900, hay was still harvested by horse-drawn mowers and possibly even by scythe on some of the smallest farms. In either case, hay still had to be raked and pitchforked into wagons by hand and hauled to haystacks or barns where it was cured and stored.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the yield per acre began to rise, especially for alfalfa, because of the increased efficiency brought by tractors and other mechanization. In 1934, hay acreage in Washington hit an all-time high of more than 1 million. Hay was fed not only to cows and horses, but also to sheep, which were still being raised in large numbers in Eastern Washington.
Mobile balers were introduced in the 1940s, producing bales that were small enough for a person to lift and stack. In 1950, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin ran a story describing the advantages. "Some farmers are baling hay from the fields," wrote a correspondent from the Gardena district west of Walla Walla. "Modern machinery is being used and making hay harvest much shorter. Three and sometimes four crops are taken from the land each year" ("Gardena District").
Later, balers arrived that were capable of making much larger bales, intended to be loaded and stacked mechanically. However, as late as the 1980s, hay farming still had not become entirely mechanized on some small farms. Pitching hay and lifting bales was a job for an entire farm family, often joined by kids from nearby farms. "I used to have as many as six kids hauling hay," said hay farmer Paul Hudson of Clayton, north of Spokane. "And Charlotte would feed them a big lunch. By 1984, we were all mechanized" (Hval).
A Heavyweight in Hay Exports
Most hay in Washington was still a local product, fed to animals not far from where it was grown. However, beginning around 2000, that began to change with remarkable speed. Farmers in central Washington had long exported some of their hay, but now "advanced methods of mechanical handling and inexpensive international freight rates" allowed hay to be even more easily shipped long distances ("Long-Term Hay Exports"). Demand mushroomed in Japan and other Asian countries for high-quality hay. Washington's hay farmers were particularly well-placed to take advantage of this, due to their proximity to the Seattle and Tacoma ports. U.S. alfalfa hay exports tripled from 2000 to 2019. Washington was the source of more than one-third of these exports, rivaled only by California.
Stacks of giant hay bales, covered with colorful tarps, were now a commonplace sight on the roads and highways of central Washington, as hay was stored in preparation for shipping. Japan, Korea, China, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia were the most common destinations. The reason: They were now raising lots of cattle. These countries had "expanded or improved their dairy and beef production and do not have adequate space or water resources for high quality pasture, silage, or hay production" ("Long-Term Hay Exports"). By 2012, about 35 percent of the state's hay crop was sent overseas and that percentage would continue to grow.
The Columbia Basin, in particular, had converted largely to hay for export, mainly because the foreign market was more lucrative. A 2017 Washington State University economic study found that "forage crops tend to have a very high value added in foreign markets and often generate more than double the value abroad that they could command domestically" (Nadreau and Fortenbery). Columbia Basin hay was especially sought after in Asia because of its relatively high nutrient value. Alfalfa was the main hay crop for export. It comprised 50 percent of the total, with a number of grass varieties in much smaller percentages.
Alfalfa was by no means restricted to the Columbia Basin. It was also the main crop in places such as Twisp in Okanogan County, and was an important crop in counties as far flung as Spokane, Stevens, Walla Walla, and Klickitat. Meanwhile, Kittitas County had become the center of a slightly different, but equally lucrative market. As early as the 1930s, it had been growing high-protein timothy hay for racehorses. At first, it was fed to Washington racehorses and East Coast racehorses, but by the 1950s Kittitas timothy hay had acquired an international reputation and was being exported as feed for European racehorses. By 2005, it was also being exported to the Asian markets for horse and dairy feed. Timothy hay became Kittitas County's largest single cash crop.
One Pasco-area hay famer, David Manterola, explained the typical modern hay-growing process to the Tri-City Herald in 2012. His first alfalfa cutting was in May, with the fourth and last cutting completed by the first of October, the exact time determined by "feel" (Pihl). Timothy was cut around June 1 and September 1.
After cutting, the hay was raked and dried for about four days before being bound into 130 pound bales by a mobile baler. (Some hay was rolled into huge 600- to 1,600-pound rounds, the better to shed water.) Then the bales were stacked and tarped "like a loaf of bread" (Pihl). Manterola sold a portion of his hay to Zen-Noh Hay, a Japanese company with a hay-cubing plant in Pasco. Most export hay from the Columbia Basin was trucked in compressed bales from Moses Lake to Seattle or Tacoma, where it was loaded onto ships. One Moses Lake hay exporter said he shipped thousands of tons per day.
The Port of Tacoma was, as of 2019, the nation's leading gateway for exported hay, with the Port of Seattle in third place (the Port of Long Beach, California was second). Shawn Clausen, a hay farmer in Warden in Grant County who exported about half of his hay, said in 2018 that "it was cheaper to ship from the Port of Tacoma to Shanghai than to ship from my farm to Seattle or Tacoma" (Kostad). Like many other hay farmers, he ran a diversified crop farm, also growing corn and seed crops. He also raised cows -- which he fed with his own hay.
State of the State
Elsewhere in Washington, many smaller producers continued to grow hay to feed local cows and horses. Paul Hudson of Clayton was perhaps typical of a small local producer, growing about 1,000 tons of hay per year and selling it all to local cattle farmers and horse owners, as well as feeding it to his own cows. He said he enjoyed the freedom of his life. "Hay farmers are about as independent as a farmer can get," said Hudson. "Unlike other crops there is no governmental regulation on the price of hay. We set our own price. I like that" (Hval).
Hay is also often converted to haylage, which is hay that has been chopped and turned into silage through fermentation in a silo or pit. This helps the hay retain more of its nutritional value and is often fed to dairy cows. As of 2018, about 119,000 acres of hay was harvested for haylage in Washington.
In 2018, hay was the fourth most valuable agricultural crop in Washington, behind apples, wheat, and potatoes. That year, 760,000 acres of hay were harvested with a total value of $519 million. The state ranked 18th in the U.S. in hay production, yet because of its huge exports, it ranked second in revenues generated by hay, behind only California. The state's leading alfalfa growing region was the Columbia Basin, with Grant County the top producer. Kittitas County continued to be the leading timothy-growing producer.
Yet virtually every county in the state harvested hay of some variety. In fact, the west side of the state harvested 161,000 acres of non-alfalfa hay in 2018, making it the state's leading region for non-alfalfa varieties. The leading hay producing counties on the west side included Lewis, Whatcom, and Thurston. Hay was also being harvested in Clark County -- the same area where Fort Vancouver's cows were grazing almost 200 years earlier.
One of Washington's first crops has remained, over nearly two centuries, a key part of the state's economy. The state's hay acreage of 760,000 was lower than its all-time high of 1 million in 1934, yet because of vastly improved productivity, those acres now produced three times the tonnage of those 1934 acres. Travelers on Interstate 90 through Grant and Kittitas counties could see the evidence for themselves, as they rolled past miles of alfalfa fields, timothy fields, and giant tarped mountains of stacked hay, some emblazoned with Korean company names.
Meanwhile, Mabton added a happy postscript to Washington's hay-growing story. The town rebuilt its spectacular Hay Palace twice, once for the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976 and again for the Washington State Centennial. That year, 1989, Washington residents again strolled beneath hay battlements -- and his time, the castle featured a hay beer garden.
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, videos, and curriculum.