The dryland wheat farming region of Washington state is probably the driest place in the world where farmers manage to grow wheat without irrigation, according to Surendra Singh, the new director of Washington State University’s Lind Dryland Research Station.

Because the traditional cropping pattern in the dryland wheat regions of Adams and Lincoln counties tends to alternate between planting wheat and leaving a field fallow and the soil requires a lot of tillage prior to planting, Singh says their risk of soil erosion from wind is high. One of the things he wants to focus on as the center’s new director are cropping systems – including new wheat varieties and cover crops – that will make the best use of the little water that falls.

“And that’s what I’m excited about,” Singh says. “Overall, this will impact our soil health and our ability to deal with herbicide-resistant weeds. I’m not an expert, but as an agronomist, I have to be a jack of all trades.”

A soil scientist, Singh comes to the Lind Dryland Research Station following the retirement in 2022 of the station’s long-time director Bill Schillinger. A native of India, Singh says he grew up on a small farm in the northwest part of the country where his family grew wheat and mustard, and he obtained a degree in agronomy from Punjab Agricultural University. He came to the United States to earn a master’s and Ph.D. Prior to joining WSU, Singh worked at Oregon State University’s Pendleton Station, a branch of the Columbia Basin Agricultural Research Center, where he specialized in ways to diversify that region’s dryland wheat cropping system.

“I joined WSU to pretty much work around the agronomy of even drier land,” Singh says. “I’m really thrilled to be here.”

Casey Chumrau, the chief executive officer of the Washington Grain Commission, said the work done at WSU’s research station in Lind is essential to the success of wheat and barley farming in central and eastern Washington.

“We are thrilled to have Singh on board. It has been a long search for a director and we found somebody who is very capable and we know will take our research to the next level and continue to serve our growers in a very competent manner,” Chumrau says.

Singh says he intends to continue much of Schillinger’s work into new varieties of wheat custom-bred for the dryland portions of the Columbia Basin as well as new kinds of cropping systems designed to protect soil, improve resistance to pests and increase yields.

“I already knew quite a bit about the research he did, and that is how I got my introduction to dryland wheat,” Singh says.

Singh has been joined by his wife Shikha, a WSU soil scientist, who has researched soil carbon dynamics in both forest and farmland. The couple met when they were both students at Punjab Agricultural University.

Shikha says she has been setting up a long-term experiment at WSU’s Wilke Research Farm near Davenport, Wash., that will look at the effect of animals grazing cover crops.

“We are trying to graze cover crops in wheat systems. That is a new kind of study that has not been done, grazing cover crops. So that is something new we are going to evaluate for the region,” she says.

Singh added one of his goals is to see how much work a farmer has to do to a field planted with a cover crop after it’s been grazed.

“The grazing is partly to also cover the cost of the cover crop seeds,” he says. “So grazing comes in after, we may not have to terminate (the field) that heavily because it’s already been grazed.”

Singh says he’s fascinated by dryland agriculture because he grew up in a part of India that would usually only get around 6 inches of rain per year.

They were able to make a go of wheat and mustard because of irrigation, Singh says, but he knows the challenge of trying to grow a crop in a difficult environment.

“The dryland agriculture is the part where it challenges you the most because most of the things you try, you have more failure than success,” he says. “I’ve seen growing up how my parents were struggling to grow a crop. And with a lot of help from science, and I think good collaboration, we are making it work and we can improve on it.”

Singh also says it may have been his destiny to end up in a place like Lind running a major agricultural research station.

“My uncle said, ‘You’ll end up farming somewhere.’ So here I am,” Singh says.

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