On-Farm Trials ft. Wade Troutman (pt.2)

In the second part of a two-part episode, host Carol McFarland visits with cropping systems innovator and award-winning conservationist Mr. Wade Troutman. Check out episode one of the two-part interview to hear about his adventures trying things on his farm in Bridgeport, WA – from being one of the first to grow canola in WA, to direct marketing of organic ‚ÄėWade‚Äôs Wheat‚Äô, finding sunflower pans for the combine, and how ag and his neighborhood have evolved over his decades of On-Farm Trials!

Carol McFarlandSo can I ask, you know, you’ve tried so many things, what’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned from a past trial?

Wade Troutman

The most interesting thing to me is, you do a trial because you’re trying to achieve a goal and the most challenging things is, what’s the collateral damage? You know, you might get a weed or something, you know, some unintended consequences, but it’s what you didn’t know about the crop it was like with canola that it would break up that hard pan layer and before I ever realized it was also changing the soil microbiology so it’s those things you might be trying a trial because you’re trying to improve one thing and you find out that oh here’s another great benefit that I didn’t even know that was out there so that’s in my experience is there’s been a lot more good things than bad things that happen and I think not trying anything is the most dangerous and yeah you’re not going to lay out the capital and do the whole farm in one year but you get you kind of got to see where it works because just because it works in Iowa or in the labs at WSU does not mean it’s going to work on your farm and and taking that knowledge and adapting it you can glean a lot of knowledge there but you still got to know your dirt and and make it work on your farm.

Carol McFarland

Well so we did kind of talk a little bit about your advocacy for replicating from you know between years or over time and those researchers rubbing off on you how do you decide where to put a trial and how big to make it how to represent it over the landscape and kind of what it might do on the spread across your farm?

Wade Troutman

I’ve thought about this question a lot of times and and the replication is the hardest but we run through maybe a dozen soil types easily in a quarter section and so one of the things we tried what I’ve learned over time is to adapt it to your equipment so you don’t want to do a spot here and a spot there you want to run the length of the field and it doesn’t matter if it’s got a rocky ridge in it or it’s your best ground. I think to really learn how to grow something you know you’re going to have more success on your better ground and our ground is very variable it’s like with direct seed which I’ve been doing for a long time it works I got it to work on the sandy ground a lot better than tillage.

On the hard clays not so much and so I’m still working with that problem. I guess I’m fortunate because I can run a half a mile strip and go through two or three different soil types. You poor guys that are stuck with this one soil type through your whole field and you’d still want to run it across your swells and over your ridge.

Carol McFarland

I’m pretty sure that none of those guys exist in eastern Washington and northern Idaho. Wade Troutmanyou don’t want to put it on your poorest ground a lot of times if when you’re starting out you know I think it might be hard to justify in your mind to take some of your best ground and do it but if you’re going to do it more than one year if you made a commitment I’m going to see if I can make this work. You’ll probably learn more having a little bit of success I mean better ground is going to give you better success and then saying oh okay this is what I know and we’re going a little bit too deep or we’re planting it too shallow or this isn’t working and then expand it to your poorer soils.

Carol McFarland

Oh that’s good advice. So okay how about in terms of where your neighbors can see it do you put it right next to your house do you put it right next to the road do you put it way back you don’t seem like a guy that’s putting it way back on the farthest tucked away corner.

Wade Troutman

Well it’s- I don’t have any neighbors.

Carol McFarland

You said you used to.

Wade Troutman

No it’s well there was I think 10 or 11¬† people farming on the hill when I started farming and now it’s down to two of us and so.

Carol McFarland:

That makes the coffee shop talk pretty lean.

Wade Troutman 

Well there used to be people at the coffee shop and that’s gotten really thin too so it’s but anyway the. It’s- I don’t, I don’t even think about that. My dad was one of those that whatever’s along the road has to be perfect because that’s where the banker drives by. He was more conscious of or the landlord drives by and so if he would do an experimental plot it would be in the back of the field but I don’t give a damn.

Carol McFarland

 We got to get those landlords to be really excited about the on-farm trials too.

Thanks so much you’ve tried so many things. Would you share about what things you do now. I think there’s a lot of things it sounds like that you do now as part of your standard management that started as trials.

Wade Troutman 

So canola of course is the big one. What the current trial we’re doing and what we’re working on is is I learn stuff every year and the scientific community learn stuff every year and so this whole idea of having a summer annual as part of the helping the biotica of the soil words that I didn’t even know existed probably 20 years ago but that search for that’s why I’ve got sunflowers and sorghum this year. That search for a summer annual is always ongoing in my mind. When I started raising canola it wasn’t just canola it was mustard and camelina and I’ve settled on canola because it was the one brassica there. I don’t know if camelina is a brassica.

Carol McFarland:

It is.

Wade Troutman 

Okay, and it seemed to be what I could grow the best and have the most potential to meet the goals of weed control and some other things that I was after and actually we had a pretty good crop of mustard like they use in the restaurant I almost died cutting it because I found out I was deadly allergic to it.

Carol McFarland

What?

Wade Troutman 

Well not deadly allergic to it but I mean my eyes watered my skin turned red and I’m going raw mustard is very hot and so I just said I can’t raise this again because if I ever plug up the combine I’m pretty sure I’ll die.

Carol McFarland

Wow that definitely sounds like quite the trial. 

Wade Troutman 

So I’ve never learned from just growing one thing and that’s why you know we got sunflowers and sorghum both but we’re looking for something with a different chemistry and a different growing season. Spring grain has always been very very challenging in this country. I like barley and oats both of them but I could never get barley higher than my rocks and the oats there’s just hasn’t been that good a market for it. I mean the profitability unless you are going to feed it yourself to your own cows which I think is a good crop. It’s a little one that’s a little harder to market but I am still looking for a profitable spring crop to bring into my rotation.

Carol McFarland

Now I haven’t heard you say anything in all of your experiments with cropping diversification about a legume.Have you tried some legumes too?

Wade Troutman

Oh yeah, we raised, believe it or not, yellow split peas and the neighbors have kind of laughed like okay you’re going to have to buy a new header platform by the end of the year but what I love about peas we used them when we were doing organic.

The market for organic yellow split peas really sucks. We ended up selling them on the commercial market because Whole Foods and PCC and some other outlets get their yellow split peas from China and you can’t compete with that. I mean that’s because they get it from a distributor and the distributor was sitting there and so it’s the same as conventional prices so that didn’t work so well on organic profit wise it was putting some nitrogen in. I had 80 acres of peas in last year and then this harvest we came back and put some spring wheat in it and now you know the spring wheat on that particular piece was twice double the yield what my other spring wheat was so and just because I say something not profitable doesn’t mean I give up trying on it.

This is the hard part [of] talking about rotations is- so the peas even though they were in the went about a ton and that’s a good yield in this country. It didn’t really make much money on it even though it’s a low input crop and so then we got an extra 20 bushels on the spring wheat. So how do you know you have to come back? This is the really hard part of it is saying well that 20 bushel came from the rotation. We know that I mean we feel it in our guts but how do you economically account for that and so it’s a real hard problem to figure out.

Carol McFarland

I’m just so excited about the idea of cropping systems innovation for those reasons right you were talking about you know just as a wheat farmer and I’ve worked a lot of giant wheat for most of my career and you know that good stand of wheat is really satisfying but you know at the same time we’re interested in this cropping systems diversification and so much of it is about how do we really give that wheat crop that’s the bread and butter of the system how do we get that to really thrive?

Wade Troutman

Absolutely.

Carol McFarland

Seems like a lot of these other crops are really integral to making that system the wheat that’s at the core of that really optimizing production or whatever you want to call it. And that’s that’s the problem with the mindset in Eastern Washington is we grew up in a hundred and some years of wheat culture and all of us even the young guys today it’s that they know what that beautiful stand of wheat and you know it doesn’t matter if wheat’s a dollar a bushel it’s still the ideal to achieve and it’s a mindset and but that doesn’t mean that all these other crops can’t work into that mindset and then has it turned out with us canola being more profitable than wheat that’s still the wheat I’m at heart I’m still I still want that perfect crop of wheat out here.

Carol McFarland

You’re still a wheat farmer. Even though canola has made you the most money over the years.

Wade Troutman

But I started raising canola to raise better wheat there is no doubt about it and I think that’s all right you know it’s hard for one of these other crops because the whole infrastructure is set up for wheat in this country and so it’s a more difficult stretch to to say well I’m going to have the greatest crop of safflower ever raised you know you just don’t think that way.

Carol McFarland

That’s one to unplug from the combine isn’t it?

Wade Troutman

Yes, been there, done that. So yeah that torch works best.

Carol McFarlandNo, that’s not a good solution out here either unfortunately. I suppose we should probably ask you another one of these questions. Would you tell me about the most memorable time when you experienced unintended consequences from a trial and how you moved on with that information?

Wade Troutman

I’m almost thinking, well shoot I should have planted some more peas this fall but.

Carol McFarland

Is there still time? 

Wade Troutman

No there’s not and that’s in this part of the country we often have to seed our fall crops before we get done with harvesting last year’s crop and that’s one of the big logistical challenges here because winter comes here a lot earlier I mean we call way down south in Coulee City the banana belt.

Carol McFarland

Oh yeah you know you’re farming at the end of the road at that point.¬†

Wade Troutman

It always blew me away when I did go to school at Pullman is [that] they’d have snow but it wouldn’t last very long and they would have days you know that you could be outside and stuff in the winter and then I’d come back home to the frozen wasteland. It was quite the experience in a way.

Carol McFarland

It’s really amazing, I’m really glad to be out here talking with you and other folks

outside of, kind of, that immediate Palouse Region because there is so much variability across this eastern Washington, North Idaho and into Oregon across the landscape just in terms of climate and soils and it’s just a fascinating place which you know as we talk about trying things on the farm and how variable it is.

All right, what’s your biggest barrier to trying new things on your farm?

Nothing?

Wade Troutman

It’s not in my mind but it’s again going back to time and money and so some of our income is generated from NRCS EQIP and I think those are really good programs but if you’re committed to a program and then you want to do an experiment in a part of the field this is not an easy obstacle to overcome and so something new comes along and say well I want to try that and so when we were looking for this plot to put the sorghum on that came into play not that they were opposed to it it’s just we had a contract and the contract that wasn’t part of the contract and so we had to work around and move it to another spot and what I originally wanted to.¬†

I don’t think it’s a barrier as much as it is an inconvenience. if you put a different seed in your drill first you got to clean your drills out it’s that prep time to put a new crop and then meter your drills and see if it’s seeding right and if you’re only doing 20 acres or 50 acres it’s going to take you longer to set it up than it is actually to do the job and so if you’re going to sow a thousand acres of wheat you know it takes the same amount of time to set up as if you’re going to do a 20 acre plot so it’s that time you lose I think setting up the equipment for an entirely different crop that you have to set aside and I have a good rule of thumb that it’s going to take you twice as long as you think it is.

Carol McFarland

That sounds like farming in general doesn’t it?

Wade Troutman

Well yes but that’s I’ve spent more as much time getting the seed getting the drill metered figuring out the depth I wanted then it’s taken me to seed the plot.¬†

Carol McFarland

I’ve heard it’s worth it to do it right though to really get it and make that time to do it.

Wade Troutman

It’s important to do that like even if you sow it twice the rate and say well the drill was sowing too heavy and that’s alright you know we’re not doing that much and we can afford to buy a little bit more seed but at that plant population size you might get a totally different result than if you would have planted it at the right size and then also on these trials people are planting at different rates and it takes time to figure out what’s the right rate for your climate and your soil. You’re not going to get it the first year but sometimes the mistakes work out really well and I don’t know what I was doing one year.

I sit there and use my scale and it was electronic and my eyes are getting poor and it was reading fluid ounces instead of pounds and ounces. So I was very accurately measuring out you know how much was coming out each run andI thought it was odd and I ended up only putting on two pounds of canola of this hybrid instead of the three I wanted and it turned out it worked out really well and I could save myself a whole bunch of money an acre by not on a hybrid not seeding as much as I was with some of the more conventional canola. So you’re going to make mistakes like that too.

Carol McFarland

I mean it sounds like you found out they call canola very plastic plants. I think it sounds like you found that out in practice.

Wade Troutman

So but my point is that mistakes can work out and so I don’t get too upset if oh crap we were supposed to put on 4.5 pounds of sorghum and the way we only got four on or we got six on we’ll go with it see what happens and see where it was thin or where it was too heavy and that’s what the mistake part of it you can learn a lot too.

Carol McFarland

What’s the most fun part about trying things on your farm?

Wade Troutman

I like to problem solve. I mean that just to me that’s the hook is I get too bored I can’t sit around the house and actually I like complex problems and that’s the cool thing about farming is there’s so many problems you can never solve them all.

Carol McFarland

Is that dark humor? 

Wade Troutman

It’s great, because you never there’s never any sure prediction on the weather, especially long term weather, you know. If you’re going to have that and somebody told me you know the billions of microbes and the thousands of species of microbes in the soil,¬† we know a fraction of them. Most of them we haven’t named, and every few feet they change, and so you can’t know everything, and as soon as you accept that, you can solve the problems that are solvable and then take your best shot at the rest of them, but I enjoy that. If it was like an assembly line I think I’d go nuts where you’re doing the same thing every time every day. I don’t think I’m mentally built to do that.

Carol McFarland

Yeah well so how about this one if you had a question for the research community what would that be?

Wade Troutman

I’m not even sure how to phrase this but, I’ve collected data not very good at it but we collect data and the question is always well did you collect this this and that you know we need these data points but everybody’s mind if you invest the time and the money into doing a plot and doing their research if you really believe in what you’re doing which I think is important too then you find a way to justify it and we know we can take any data and take the points we want to to justify the expense and the time we put into it because this is going to be the next cat‚Äôs meow.¬† from the scientific standpoint yeah we’re going to collect data and they can collect data and because it’s so variable even in a test plot but especially across your farm how do you how do you keep from skewing those numbers to justify your investment because the easiest example I can give you is if the neighbor’s farm comes up for sale and you pay for more than what pay for it or more than it’s worth because maybe you coveted it all these years or whatever but you are you need to expand the you can find a reason to make the economics work out and sometimes it’s like well the price of land will go up and it’ll be worth a lot more down in the air if you’re a farmer you have no intention to ever sell them in any way so you know what are the true data points or what is the true economic just because it makes your equipment work better can still cover that ground or do you have to buy that equipment or you just plain wanted it and by golly now we got a farm you know how you take that intuitive part of your brain and make it more analytical.¬†

Carol McFarland

They beat that out of you in graduate school. That’s where they get all the process the methodology and all that replication and statistics to reduce the bias.¬†

Wade Troutman

We don’t have time to do that and and even that I’ve seen a lot of I’ve read a lot of believe it or not university papers¬† back in the 60‚Äôs and 70‚Äôs that is just garbage today it might have been the best thought at the time but they used the wrong data points they used there even though they were very educated people they let their biases get in the way and I read an article every day where maybe it was something archeology that they always thought the men were the warriors and the women did the farming and now they’re finding out that they just assumed that and and now they’re finding scientific evidence that oh they were they were wrong so even very smart people can their biases unintended work into the data so that is a continual problem because I don’t want to go around telling everybody that hey this is what you got to do this is the best thing ever and we just doubled or tripled and I don’t have any of the data worked out I can tell you that spring weed on following peas I know it’s a lot better how much bias I’m putting into it but I didn’t want to raise the peas in the first place so that’s one reason I was pleasantly surprised I had no expectations there so it’s trying to keep your own personal bias out of that. What is the scientific formula for doing that?¬†

Carol McFarland

Yeah, finding the objective data but also, you know, I do think to speak to a little bit of what you said, there is just in that the process and the curiosity and being willing to look at past conclusions and say oh that actually might not have been true, we have more information now how do we move forward with the information we have and I do think that is something that science you know really works to do and so which you know I think there’s room for that that is part of that you know learn learn better.¬†

Wade Troutman

I agree with you that it’s but for these on-farm trials for the farmers themselves we’re just if I we have to justify that time and money we spent and we’re not trained in that we’re not getting paid not you know, I don’t know how to say it but but that that’s not our training we try to be but it’s it’s very difficult not to not to let your own personal biases interfere you know and I’ve seen people just deny looking at something because there’s no way I’m ever going to raise canola so I’m not going to look at the numbers I’m not going to see the numbers and then Bill drives by with a brand new pickup and he’s making money.¬†

Carol McFarland

So what data do you look at when you collect data? What is the most important things that you look at? 

Wade Troutman

How many bruises and scabs I got on me. I don’t look at enough data. I mean, that’s my weakness there’s always more data I could have kept track on, and I’ve tried and tried just to do the economic numbers and then I find out well there’s other stuff that happened and and this is over long term and so it’s not the data so much as the complications that I get really wrapped up into and okay we can grow this where’s the market and how can we develop a better market and I get sidetracked on that I’m not concerned so much about yield per acre it’s like if I can grow this and this looks like a viable alternative how do we bring the other pieces the marketing piece the infrastructure piece into play so that that it can do the economics thing. If I say well this will go you know a ton of acre this year and you know this is the price in North Dakota it actually means nothing and and the things I really want to know they don’t have measurements for us like on the organic, why didn’t I need to put on 80 pounds of and to get 14% protein when I could only really put on about 25 and we still got 14% protein? Because the soil test didn’t agree with it. So data is kind of a mixed bag for me. It’s policy and bringing the community together to create a marketplace is probably more interesting. I’m better at that.

Carol McFarland

What’s the most annoying thing about trying things on your farm?

Wade Troutman

It’s not so much it’s trying things on the farm I guess it’s interacting with people and even though we will have tours people will come out and you got working groups and it’s not that I miss the old days because there was some really hard stuff in the old days hard physical work in the old days that we’ve overcame with technology and stuff but it’s that lack of a larger group of people in your close community to get together with fellow farmers that are kind of like-minded or trying to do the same thing you are you might have it might take a whole state or a whole Pacific Northwest to connect with and it’s still a small group of individuals in your local climate your local soil types and landscape it’s extremely limited and it goes back to like I said when I started farming there was 10-11 farms on the hill and now it’s been reduced to two because the economics dictate that you got to get bigger and the farms and so the most annoying things or the saddest thing I’ve seen in my life over farming is that lack of the agrarian community we still have a lot of people always moving into rural America but it’s a rural culture instead of an agrarian culture and there’s two very different things and this rural culture has kind of developed a life of its own and people come out here to retire so they could hunt and fish people come out here to get away from society it’s totally different than the agrarian culture that I was fortunate enough to be born in where everybody helped each other and I think a lot of people coming to the country seeing that ideal of you know how farmers had started co-ops and all that stuff that they did to survive back in the homestead days and stuff and I think it’s a great idea but they can’t recreate it because they’re coming from such different backgrounds and they’ve came from suburbia and they’ve come from the cities and so it’s not the same culture as a group of farmers sitting around and trying to figure out how to solve the railroad monopoly or whatever.

Carol McFarland

Well that’s all the old Grange halls right?

Wade Troutman

How many Grange halls? I mean they’re dead, and you go to a Grange meeting and you’re 70 years old and they call you hey kid, how come you came?

I know it’s not I’m being over simplistic but it’s those rural institutions we used to rely on and like the Granges where they had had the big dances and stuff when I was a kid you know those things are passing and maybe they have run their usefulness but the internet doesn’t replace that one-on-one communication that going out and talking to you know a group of fellow farmers out behind Grange hall and saying well what did you do here and I drove by your field the other day and that looked like crap what happened out here but we’re losing that and maybe I’ve just lost it because I’m not the greatest internet communicator but I do not believe it’s the same as that one-on-one tailgate talk that we kind of grew up with you know where we stopped at the neighbor’s house just to have a chat and trying to figure it out trying to problem solve trying to figure it out what are we going to do it has it’s been raining for a week now you know and the fields are too wet to do anything and so what do you think that that we’re losing that aspect and I’m hoping through the internet the younger farmers can pick that up but that’s kind of telling me it’s getting time for me to retire here.

Carol McFarland

I don’t see a lot of retirement yet your future ,Wade. But hopefully the internet I agree I think in my mind and the work that we do with the farmers network is trying to figure out where to use the best tool in the best place right the digital space like this we have our Zoom soil health coffee hours you know that brings together people that couldn’t normally necessarily easily be in the same room for an hour and then it doesn’t replace that in person on the tailgate.

Wade Troutman

And I want to be sure the viewers at least understand: it’s a numbers game, and if you’ve got a hundred people trying to solve a problem it’s better than you just trying to solve it by yourself but like this agrarian population the people that actually make their living farming and then you narrow it down to dry land farming there’s not enough of us I would I wish the economics were out there that we could have five times ten times as many farmers out there that somebody has two children both of them could farm and that just doesn’t seem to be the case you know and and because with that you get more diversity of thought more more ideas out there and and to me even though you got a hundred gung-ho people in the Pacific Northwest talking about this one subject you know whether it’s direct seed or whatever it is it’s not enough. It’s really a people problem in that we don’t have enough. I truly believe that I think that’s the one thing that’s really missing from when I was young.

Carol McFarland

Hopefully this podcast does kind of help create some of those spaces even though it’s not the same.

Wade Troutman

No, but it needs to create the space, like I said. It’s just the more minds you have working on a problem because we do have a problem. We can’t farm like our grandfathers did. It’s not going to work. It might have worked fine in 1910 when- I’m talking about my grandfather it’s not yours and we over tilled in the 80s and 90s. We know that now. So we have to continue to change and I would like 10,000 people experimenting around there then just a hundred because somebody’s going to get it right. And so it’s a crap shoot at the end. Am I going to try this? Is it going to be successful? But the more people you have trying something now that you know that worked I want to do, that was, I think, the importance of having a lot more farms out there and I don’t see any way to get them.

You know I’m not being a pessimist. It’s just what I’ve seen in my lifetime is, is we need those people but we need them actively farming and we need to be able to have them make a living off of just farming and not having their spouse have to get a real job. That’s the annoying part of farming just to see the population of the actual farmers just drop off the you know scale.

Carol McFarland

I appreciate what you said though about, you know, trying things and trying to make a space to share. I know again this isn’t this podcast isn’t the perfect space for it but hopefully it’s a step in the right direction of working with what we got. So I want to thank you very much for sharing your amazing wealth of knowledge and experience today. Truly you’ve shared a lot of great stuff and I appreciate it. Thank you for having me out.

Wade Troutman

Well I enjoyed it and and we don’t get much company out here so I hope I didn’t talk you

to death.

Carol McFarland

I don’t think that’s a problem. It’s truly been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

Wade Troutman

Thank you.