Yakima Valley’s less-heralded crops are big contributors

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YAKIMA — Peppers, zucchini, corn and cucumbers may not be as synonymous with the Yakima Valley as apples and wine grapes, but these less-popular crops still carry their weight in the billions of dollars of agricultural exports from Washington each year.

Washington has about 36,000 farms, with the majority of those generating more than $250,000 in sales each year in Eastern Washington.

Visitors come from across the world and country or as close as Seattle to buy Yakima Valley apples, Rainier cherries, asparagus and other fruits and vegetables — the Valley’s “sexier” crops.

But the Yakima Valley also leads the state in producing corn, wheat and several other products needed to make or feed the food you eat, according to a study of the state’s agriculture and food processing from Community Attributes, a state organization that collects data on a variety of different topics.

Here are some of the “sensible shoes” of Yakima County crops and a little bit about the people who grow them:

Peppers

Gayle Kruger’s farm specializes in peppers, which his family has grown since 1937.

Every year around July 31, he gets ready to entertain a new crop of customers who are there mostly to pick their own peppers.

That’s his favorite part.

“I enjoy talking to customers a lot,” he said. “It just seems like each county has its own variety of peppers, so I like to know where the customers are from and what varieties they like.”

He cites jalapenos from Mexico and kimchi peppers from Korea, but that’s not all he’s willing to grow on his nearly 10 acres.

“We say if they can bring us a seed, we can grow it. Peppers from the ‘old country’ is what they call it,” he said. “We have a lot of peppers grown from seeds that someone brought me from the ‘old country.'”

Note: Washington doesn’t even crack the top three in national pepper exports, but many can be found in local fruit stands or farmer’s markets.

Zucchini

All you need is two healthy zucchini plants to have vegetables for the rest of the summer, said Roland Dagdagan of Dagdagan Farm.

Zucchini is one of his favorite crops, but if you’re on his land, it’s pretty easy to figure out the others he likes just as much.

“If I grow it, you know I like it,” he said.

If you enjoy zucchini as much as he does, remember this when you’re picking some up at Yakima’s downtown farmer’s market: When it comes to zucchini, size does matter. The most flavorful zucchinis aren’t the biggest of the batch. The small-to-medium-size ones hiding at the bottom of the bin taste the best.

Note: With zoodles (noodles made from zucchini) becoming all the rage as people try to replace carbohydrates, zucchini is on its way to an image makeover. Make sure to get them before they sell out like they’re the agricultural version of fidget spinners.

Corn

Who doesn’t think of an ear of corn eaten at a neighborhood cookout with a glass of cold lemonade — or an ice cold beer if you’re of age — when temperatures hit the 90s?

“Right now, people are craving corn early,” Dagdagan said. “But remember, the more corn comes in later in the summer, it gets sweeter and sweeter.”

If you like your ears as sweet as can be, hold off until August or September. You won’t regret it.

It’s no surprise corn is popular at this time of the year. Even though Washington ranks second nationally for sweet corn grown to be made into other products, it just hasn’t seemed to take off as much as other summertime favorites.

Note: While Washington ranks No. 2 in sweet corn grown for purposes other than human consumption, it badly trails many of the Midwestern corn belt states in regard to acreage used to grow it. If you want to change that, start eating.

Cucumbers

Do you thrive when it’s hot? Then you have something in common with the cucumber.

You probably never thought you’d read that.

Cucumbers may not be a sexy Yakima Valley crop, but if you’re on a date and realize you have bad breath — and you forgot gum — ask for some sliced cucumber and press it to the roof of your mouth for 30 seconds. Chemicals in the cucumber kill odor-causing bacteria. Of course, holding it in your mouth that long might be as embarrassing as bad breath.

Manuel Imperial of Imperial’s Garden grows cucumbers along with many other crops. To him, they’re no laughing matter.

“They’re all produce to me, and what I can make money on,” he said.