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Opinion >  Column

Front Porch: Good neighbors maintain crop signs along I-90

When I wrote recently about taking a little time to learn about some of the things I see along Interstate 90 as I make my many trips back and forth to Seattle, I was surprised at how many people encouraged me to report back my findings. Apparently there are a lot of us who want to know more about the everyday things we normally take for granted as we pass by at 70 miles per hour.

The first time I wrote about the very visible Sprague Lake and Mount Stewart, places hard to miss but about which I knew pretty much nothing. With my eyes open and my brain actually paying attention, I’ve discovered a lot. And so I share again.

Have you ever looked out at the myriad agricultural fields along the freeway in Central Washington? City girl that I am, I’d wonder what the heck that thing is that’s growing out there. I’m good at spotting corn, but one grain looks pretty much like any other to me, and for the other stuff that’s growing – well, it’s green, that’s all I can say.

But then I see some streamers that catch my eye in the fence line, in between which are signs that identify the names of the crops in the fields beyond – alfalfa, potatoes, wheat, canola, peas. I mean, how nice is that?

Turns out I’m not the only agriculturally challenged traveler out there. When I sought to track down who puts those signs along the fence lines, Pete Romano told me he learned from state Department of Transportation employees working at the various rest stops that travelers often asked them what the crops are. Romano, business unit manager with Quincy Farm Chemicals, a subsidiary of The McGregor Co., right away took the matter to the Quincy Rotary Club, where he is a member.

Rotary, with the Quincy High School National FFA Organization club participating as a community service project, decided to place crop identification signs along the way so travelers would know what’s growing. That was in the late 1980s, and they’ve been doing it since. Quincy Farm Chemicals, a chemical fertilizer dealership founded in 1953 by Romano’s family, maintains the signs, and the FFA members, under his supervision, place the signs. Romano said the Rotary spends about $2,500 a year on this, mostly for the cost of the signs and as a donation to FFA.

When they first got started, Rotary hand-painted the signs. Then with the endorsement of the Department of Transportation, they were able to purchase signs made by inmates at the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla (though the penitentiary pulled the project last year). Then came the tricky part, a part they have to deal with every year – which signs to place and where. Some crops will be in the same place for a few seasons, but since farmers rotate their crops regularly, the signs have to rotate as well, including removing signs at fields that stand fallow.

“We have a big accumulation of signs, so we check with the farmers about what they’re going to plant in which fields, and if a farmer doesn’t let us know what’s being planted, then we watch the fields and wait,” Romano said. “And sometimes they change their minds, but we’ve already put up the signs.”

I do remember driving near George last year and looked out over a field marked “peas” that was filled with tall stalks that sure looked like corn to me. Ah, yes, Romano said, he remembered that one. “Once we spot the mistake, we correct it.”

As for those watching-and-waiting fields, I’m told it can be hard to distinguish between some of the grains until they’re a certain height and the observer is standing close enough. “Yes, occasionally we make the call too early,” Romano said, “and when we get it wrong, they really kid me. I mean, I’m in this business, so I should get it right, right?”

They cover a lot of ground. Along I-90 they put signs out from an area near George (about 15 miles west of Moses Lake) to close to the Columbia River, but they also put out crop signs along Highway 281 from George to Quincy and Highway 283 from George to Ephrata. In all, the Quincy Rotary and FFA members cover about 300 fields along 100 miles of highway.

As far as I’m concerned, they’re allowed to get one wrong once in a while.

What a nice thing it is to see these signs. They’re even specific enough to distinguish between field corn and sweet corn. The Quincy Rotary and FFA do this just to be good neighbors, Romano told me.

And now as I drive across the state and look out at all that wonderful agriculture that enriches the economy of Washington so profoundly, I feel good knowing that there is a nice crop of good neighbors growing out there, too.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at upwindsailor@ Previous columns are available at columnists.

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