On Farm Trials ft. Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison

On this episode, we visit Zakarison farms and chat with Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison about the farm that’s been in her family for 4 generations! This episode includes her experience with their enterprise’s recent and big transitions into thinking about their farm near Palouse, WA within an ecological framework, including No-Till adoption, reducing inputs, diversifying and intercropping crops, and their farm’s alternative marketing strategies. She discusses partners in their experimentation as well as lessons learned in what they’ve tried.


Carol McFarland: Today we’re on the Zakarison farm with Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison. Thank you so much for having me out to visit and talk about your on farm trials.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: My pleasure.

Carol McFarland: Would you share a little bit about yourself, your farm, and who you farm with?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Yes, we are just north of Pullman, and so we interact a lot with Washington State University and the USDA research group here in Pullman.

We have been on this farm since about 1935 and Ariel, my daughter, is the fourth generation of our family to farm this land. We have a fairly small farm for this area. We farm about 600 acres and we are going down a path of diversified crops and really taking a look at what and how we farm.

Carol McFarland: It’s exciting. I’m really looking forward to getting to hear more about that today. You started to talk a little bit about where your farm is here outside of Pullman. Could you describe a bit more about your farming conditions?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Ours is a dry land farm, as is most of the area.

We’re on the wetter side, and I say that in quotation marks. The wetter side of Whitman County. So our rainfall is typically around 21 inches a year, sometimes more, sometimes less. And we also have very hilly conditions. So we have to be mindful about how we farm. It also determines our equipment, which is quite a bit different than the Midwest because we have to stay on those hills.

So up until 2019, we were conventional farmers and basically also did a fair amount of recreational tillage. So we had all the tillage equipment and we used it. In 2019, I happened to be doing an analysis because our rotations were the typical winter wheat, spring barley, spring peas. And so I was doing an analysis on our ROI for those crops and that was the year that 2018 was actually when we brought the crops in.

But 2018 was our best wheat harvest ever. We did about 116, 120 bushels of wheat to the acre, followed all of the recommendations with our field representative and just did everything, kind of got all the feedings applied right and the fertilizer, used the herbicides and everything. And when I did the numbers, it was our least profitable – by a lot.

And so at that point you look at it and say, we’ve got to do something different. We started reading some of the books by David Montgomery, so his four books and that- at that point I read The Hidden Half of Nature. We read some of Gabe Brown’s From Dirt to Soil and we started looking at possibly going down that path of a more, I don’t want to say regenerative, because that’s become quite the catch phrase, but a more biologically sound method of farming.

So in 2019, what we did with our spring crops is we traded in our 455 drills, which are kind of a minimum till drill. We parked all of our tillage equipment and got ourselves a set of 1890 drills and put in a no-till crop. But at that point we also did some intercropping just to kind of see what would happen, because I’ve always been a firm believer in having diversity in crops.

It went pretty well. We had some hiccups and we’d learned some things at that point. So then the next year, 2020, we continued and our yields were okay. I mean, our soils are fairly degraded and so we have a bit of work to do before they get to the point where we have a lot of organic matter.

We have stabilized organic matter and we’re slowly increasing it every year and we’ve also stabilized our soil pHs. When people look at them, they still kind of go into apoplectic fits and wonder how we can even farm anything with the soil is at how low they are.

Carol McFarland: Do you want to share?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Oh yeah. Our soil pH is from 0 to 6 inches or anywhere from 5.6 to 6, which is not bad for this area because some of the folks- some of the folks have even gotten down to upper 4s. And then, and then from 6 to 12 inches, six and a half (pH) which is pretty good.

So, um, but we also find that we’ve stabilized this quite a bit. So we’re very pleased with that. The other thing that we did was we decided to reduce our inputs. So we’ve been weaning our ground off of nitrogen fertilizers. We stopped using phosphorus and we stopped using potassium because we had really, really high levels when we tested like really, really high levels.

Yeah. And then what we’ve been doing is slowly reducing our N to- we’ve got it to about 20 pounds that we stream on in the fall with our fall crop and will stream the spring with our spring crops. And then with that we also have really tried to put more carbon into the mix.

So what we do with the nitrogen that we put on, stream on, is we put solution 32, at 20 lbs an acre, but we also put a quart of molasses and a quarter of humic acid. It’s more to feed what’s there. And it also seems to stabilize the nitrogen so it doesn’t tend to volatilize as badly at least.

Someone needs to do some research on that. I don’t have anything except my nose. And when you put that down, you can’t smell the nitrogen or the ammonia. So it works for me.

Carol McFarland: As we think about our on farm trials, like how is it when we know something to keep repeating a practice.

When you first tried it, did you do it across the whole field? What did you compare it to and a little bit about how you decided to keep doing that?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: With the solution, 32…well, reducing it. I had just read some of the literature that’s out there and then also some of the people who kind of aggregate the research and will kind of give you the basics of the information. And one of the things they were saying is, for God’s sakes, if you can put carbon with whatever you apply, and, it goes back to, if I could quote Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, because that really made an impression, we were talking about the soils at one point and she said our soils are carbon starved. And it’s and, you know, when you stop and think about it, it’s like you’re right, they are. So what we did was we just went ahead and started reducing those inputs for economic reasons, but also for biological reasons, because I’m pretty sure when you put 120 pounds of N on, and especially if you put it on all at once, you lose a lot.

And I know that when we did a soil test, we put 120 lbs of anhydrous ammonia and we stopped using anhydrous, oh, maybe ten years ago because that, really to me, seemed to really harm our soils quite a bit. It made them like concrete. So, but one year we did 120 pounds of anhydrous ammonia. We put it in the troubleshooters and we did NPK, and some thiosol and then we had it tested the next spring.

And so of that 120 pounds that went in, there was only 70 pounds remaining in the profile. And you kind of go, “Well, where did that go?” And I’m sure that some of it volatilized off, you know, because you could smell when you’re shaking anhydrous in, you can smell it. And I’m sure that some of it went through the soil profile and into the water.

When you put a lot of nitrogen, I’m fairly sure that it also chews up a lot of your organic matter, I don’t know that for certain, but that nitrogen is there.

The organisms are going to use it to build their proteins, but they also need the carbon and the most accessible carbon to them would be organic matter. So that’s kind of my reasoning. And what we found is our, the yields aren’t, you know, like when you test the proteins, they’re lower in proteins, which is telling you that you’re missing yield.

But we’re also not worried about yield. We’re worried about the quality and, and the cost, of what we’re doing. So it’s the cost per acre, not the yield per acre or the bushel per acre. So we have really reduced our input costs for the most part. There have been a couple of times where we’ve agreed to put things on that are supposed to be more biologically sound, but economically it’s like this doesn’t work unless you have some.

Yield. Yeah. And so what we’ve really tried to do is be very thoughtful about what we now put on as an input on our crops..

Carol McFarland: One of the things I heard you talk about describing as really interesting to you was the smell and how it decreased that smell that lots of folks in ag know, that comes along with the anhydrous application, but also. So how did you try it the first time? Did you do, you know, a little part of your field? Did you go all in?

And then how did you watch it over time to see what the effects were from that application?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: We went all in, we just went ahead and applied all of it, we’re fairly small and we don’t. It’s very difficult for us to have the capacity to set that out unless we have help. So we just went all in and what we then started doing was soil testing with mainly partnering with Palouse Conservation District.

We did a lot of soil sampling and so we could see what the nitrogen levels were. And so what we found were the nitrogen levels were actually quite high, more than what we put on. So I was like, okay, I’ll take that. so the way we measured it was through both SAP analysis, which we started doing last year and have continued this year.

And then and then with soil tests to see what our nitrogen levels are. the one thing I will say, you know, because we do come with lessons learned, which are usually tough ones, you never want to put a nitrogen source and sugars in a tank and leave them for any amount of time because things grow.

And so cleaning that out was really an incredible deal. And you also have to be really careful with the purity of especially the carbon sources because they can plug your screens, which then causes people to be unhappy and aggravated to a lot of screens and pipes to play around.

Carol McFarland: Yeah, there’s so much busy, so many busy times on the farm that you don’t need extra things to clean out.

Yeah, troubleshooting with that. Well thanks! So it’s been really interesting to hear about that moment when we had gangbuster yield, but your ROI was as narrow as it’s ever been, and so now you’re trying these interesting things and then you’re evaluating your ROI as part of that. Can you talk a little bit more about how you determine your ROI on a new practice?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: We usually just do direct costs and then assign, I might assign some overhead cost to that as well, or an indirect cost, but it’s usually the inputs that we’ve got, as an initial ROI, because it’s not completely accurate unless you put your overhead in there as well.

But it’s just our input costs based on the yield, we get to see what we’re getting. So for example, we decided not to burn down the volunteer triticale that we have in, and so we’ve got nothing into it at this point. And then we decided to go ahead and foliar feed it and give it some micronutrients and it’ll end up being about $30 an acre.

So all the costs we’ve got in there until we come in and harvest and then you have the, you know, the costs of fuel and, you know, depreciation, etc.. But our ROI you know, we can manage to have a less optimal yield. We’re not going to get 100 bushels on it this year at all. We’ll probably get about maybe 50, but at 50 bushel for how much we sell it for it’s a good ROI. you know, I think I figured it’d be about $130 an acre, which is not bad.

Carol McFarland: That’s awesome! Thanks so much for sharing some of that and your thinking around that. Maybe you can expand on it a little bit because I know you’re doing some interesting things in terms of your marketing.

Can you describe a little bit more about, you know, what or how much is going into the traditional commodity market versus maybe some other fun things you’ve been trying?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: We at this point are not selling anything in the traditional commodity markets. We pretty much direct market all of our grains through our feed operation. So what we do is, we will take all of our grains, grind them into a feed and then sell them to other farms in the area.

I think we’re supporting about 150 small farms in the area. So we also provide feed for 4H, the 4H projects, buy food from us for their steers and their picks. And then we have people who have pastured poultry that they sell and they- they purchase feed from us for that. So the majority of our…our crops are all of our crops going into that.

And then we have some livestock that we’ll direct markets, some of those. We’re in the process of deciding how much we’ll expand that in the next few years and how we incorporate that into our farming as well. So as a small farm, we have to be far more flexible. We can’t rely on the commodity markets because we don’t have the economies of scale that make that possibly profitable, because I’m not so sure that it’s as profitable for most people, you know, as they hope it will be. So mainly because of all the input costs…

Carol McFarland: There’s a lot of different directions that can go. You can definitely spend as much as you want to per acre. And and that’s, I think part of what we’re trying to do here is explore how to make sure that what we’re putting in, we’re getting getting that return on investment out of and how do we know as we try to- try new things and I actually heard Dr. Dave Huggins break it down is: soil, oil and toil.

I heard you talk a little bit about those things in addition to the input costs. So are there other things when you think about your ROI? What other outcomes are you looking for? I mean, I hear you talking about soil testing and maybe organic matter contributions as part of your return on the investment in addition to actual dollars.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Well, at this point we are pretty much the only operation that even penetrates the soil is when we put the drill in the ground and then it’s single disc opener, slices it open and in theory covers it back. We’re actually investing in a new John Deere drill. It’s the newest generation of the single disc opener drills and we’re really excited because it also puts us more into precision ag, which I think is important. There are really important components to precision ag. So ROI is one way to measure it,and to me it’s not a complete picture. It’s kind of like saying no till or direct seeding is a complete system. It’s not. It’s a tool. And I think we really can run into trouble when we think of a tool, as a system.

And so ROI is a tool as well. And so what we have tried to do here in the discussions that we’ve had is what is our metric, What do we want to have happen? And what we want is to make sure that we’re here. We have a sustainable and profitable farm that is doing well over time, but also that we are building the soil back.

We’re also allowing the ecology to come back in some parts that we shouldn’t, economically we can’t farm. So some of the other ways that we measure it is, you know, what’s the wildlife, what’s the bird population, you know, what’s our insect and beneficial populations, How does our soil work? Are there worms coming back? Because, you know, you tell worms don’t like that so much and they don’t like anhydrous, either.

It dries them out. So we’ve really tried to expand how we see things. So as a consequence of that, because to us ROI is an important part. But equally important is diversity. And, what are those signs? So, you know, do we have beneficials? So we don’t use insecticides, we stopped using insecticides about six years, six or seven years ago, and we stopped using seed treatments, although I did blink last year and used them in our pea crop.

And I don’t think I’ll do that again because the winter peas with the triticale, none of that seed was treated and those winter peas actually did better. And it’s probably a varietal, but I can’t help but think that you know it also…I don’t know that. Well most seed treatments from what I understand and there was an entomologist who was talking at Palouse conservation district talk who said that basically a lot of times seed treatments are not effective and are prophylactic.

So…which makes me feel better about not using them because the thing is that the beneficial ones are not just above ground, but they’re below ground. And when you use insecticides and fungicides indiscriminately, you’re just not going to kill the pest,they’re going to kill everything. So we don’t use seed treatments which have insecticides and fungicides because they will harm the beneficials that are below ground as well as the ones above ground.

So we try to think about the whole system so we don’t use fungicides and haven’t for about four years. We don’t use- we try to really minimize our herbicides. So we’ve really, really tried to minimize how we’re negatively impacting the ecology, if you will. So we really try to think of it as an ecology. So one of the other things that we’ve started doing on our farm and it’s, it’s an indirect thing.
I mean, we will not- economically, I’m not sure what it’ll do for us, but we have areas that are wet but typically don’t have crop in them. But we go ahead and put the crop in and then it doesn’t come up and we’ve got bare soil, which to me is the worst- for us, at least that’s the standard that I have that we need to get everything covered and we’ve been struggling because of the weather the last couple of years.

But we’re working on it. But anyway, we’ve identified areas that tend to not produce crops because they’re too wet. And so what we’re doing is putting habitat back into it. So for example, and this is with the help of Palouse Conservation District as well, we’ve got a lot of really great programs.

Carol McFarland: They really do. I love all the shoutouts for they’re definitely great collaborators with the Farmers Network and always deserving of all the shout outs.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: And you know, just so we’re transparent here, I’m on the Board of Supervisors, but as a landowner, I’ve been able to work with them and they’ve, they’ve been on our farm a lot, taking tests and doing soil samples, etc… So they’ve watched us as we’ve gone in this process and really helped us. But we have identified some acres that will go into pollinator and beneficial habitat and work to get the seeds.

And we’re actually- it’s a wet area, so what we want to do is establish the pollinator and beneficial habitat and then we’ll come back in with trees in a little bit. And we are discussing trees that are actually economically beneficial as well. So I mean directly, because having those pollinators and those beneficials and returning that ground that isn’t productive back to, back to some sort of habitat I think is in the long run will help us.

So we’re probably- we’re looking at maybe putting in some hazelnuts just to see what they would do, And we’ve also identified a couple of places where we’ll put in some elderberries so we can, you know, possibly harvest those and market those. So we’re kind of shifting we’re looking at shifting away from annual small grains and seeing if there are other perennial crops that we can use.

We’re looking at maybe doing some kernza as it’s developed because we also in this whole process are beginning to see that part of how we get soil health back in, and and help reestablish a healthy economy, or ecology-economy is that we probably need to go more towards perennials trying to figure that out.

Carol McFarland: Well, and as we think about carbon storage too long term, that is one of the things they also talk about is more perennialization, is more carbon stored.

So I think it’s really great to hear about your journey and you’re also about some of these conversations about your larger management goals. I mean, I definitely am hearing you talk about, you know, yield is a really important goal for farm sustainability because that as part of the economic sustainability and trying to maximize that ROI and it sounds like there’s a lot of other management goals and that you’ve had a lot of discussions with your farming team to understand what those metrics are around those management goals.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Primarily it’s always bothered me since I came on the farm back in the eighties that we’d go out and till it and it seemed to me even back then that we were losing a lot of moisture, that our soil structure wasn’t very good.

We were seeing erosion. We were praying for it not to rain so much in the spring that it crusted everything that we had to go back and harrow and replant and it’s like, why are we doing things this way? Or…when you wake up in December after it’s frozen, been frozen for a while and you hear a horrible rain and you know, the erosion is just going to be horrendous.

And we’ve always, like tried to at least keep the soil on the farm and out of the waterways. So we have grass waterways in between all of our stuff that doesn’t keep the soil on on the hills or in your field. So part of it was literally just trying to, trying to be a little more profitable, but also trying not to have erosion, because that’s that’s the biggest issue,I think everywhere. And also not having nitrogen and phosphorus going into the water systems. I mean, you know, just…it’s like, we are not an island. We affect everyone else in how our farm affects our neighbors. It affects people down the stream from us. So we just, I mean, we’ve always tried to be pretty responsible with how we’ve done things.

Carol McFarland: I think there’s a lot of good reasons to…that are also about farm productivity. If you have nutrients going downstream, they’re not going into your crop. And that’s actually like part of your investment going down the stream and we don’t want to see our money being washed away. And also, you know, a lot of the conversation, especially here on the immediate Palouse and other parts of the region where the terrain really is something that that growers face, is the yield stability.

And when we can keep more soil, on our hilltops. You were talking a bit about pH, and I’m sure there’s variation across your fields, whether you know where you’re at on the Hill because of, you know, a legacy of erosion. And you know, you hear about people really thinking about how we can get a bit more yield stability on our hilltops.

You know, it’s all pieces of the puzzle. It’s that agro ecosystem perspective.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Yeah. You know, and the other thing is as our weather has become, it’s swinging to extremes. It’s also a question of how we make ourselves more resilient. And the way you do that is to make sure your soils are…are resilient.

And there is this piece of just changing your mentality to, you know, working with Mother Nature instead of trying to dominate it. And- but it’s also a yeah, I’m not so hot about who’s the prickly lettuce that kind of goes to town and-

Carol McFarland: There’s definitely a reason herbicides exist.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Well, it is, but it’s also a whole thing of when you spend 80 years, 90 years trying to repress or suppress something or eliminate it, and it comes, it’ll come back.

Because once we let go of certain things, you know, the system tries to compensate. And so it’s trying to learn how to work with that. We used to be farmers who had no weeds. Well, except maybe Goat Grass, but no weeds. Our fields were always clean, you know, we didn’t have the best yields because our ground isn’t the best ground around.

But we had pretty respectable yields. And so we’re now to the point where people drive by and go, “Oh my God, they must be out of their minds.”

Carol McFarland: And you are right on the highway here, too.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Yes, on both sides, so people get up close and personal views of what we’re doing. But, you know, it’s okay. I mean, it’s a humbling thing to have shifted what we do and to realize how important what other people think is really. I used to kind of kid myself that it’s like, I don’t care. It’s like, I care.
But there’s also a piece where what I was hoping we could do is kind of learn how to make a transition and then pass some of that on to other people, you know, at least the cautionary tales. So, for example, when we-the first year we put barley and radish together, it did really well. But barley and radish ripen at different times. When you’re trying to combine your barley and you’ve got rather unripe sort of stuff, you know, it causes additional management issues and, you know, ways that you have to deal and store that grain.

So I mean, there’s a lot of things that we’ve learned that I would pass on to others.

Carol McFarland:Ooh, you want to take like, do you have like a top five that we can share? I mean, this is the podcast, kind of, about co-innovation and trying fun stuff and learning those lessons. So what do you got for us?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: So, you know, I guess the first thing is we kind of went at it. We just went, all in.

Carol McFarland: Oh, you did!

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Yeah. And so what happens when you do that is it’s like, okay, when something doesn’t work. And we also- we went all-in 2019 was pretty good. 2020 was pretty good, [2021] was the historic heat and drought.

Carol McFarland: Yeah, 2021 was not good for anyone.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: No, it was terrible, and 2022, I don’t think most people or spring crops did not do super well. It was just too wet, too cold. I, I will say that, you know what we needed when we started this, we talked to a bunch of scientists and sat down actually and said, Do we want to do this? What’s the consequence?

And everyone’s going, “Well, I don’t know.”

Carol McFarland: These are not isolated variables.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Yeah, well, they aren’t. And and so what I would say is what you need to do is identify the first goal is, you know, like, do you want to just cover your soil first? Is that the first goal? And then make your decisions based on that.

You have to tease it out, but with the understanding that it’s not isolated because, you know, one of the things is that if you want to, or one of the conundrums, we ran up against is if I want a fair amount of residue on my ground, if I want it covered. Do I put on more fertilizer to get that biomass?

But the problem is that then you’re also hindering any biology or inhibiting it that would help you break, decompose, because our residue now is decomposing. Sometimes it decomposes a little too quickly.

Carol McFarland: Yeah, that’s not a terrible problem to have for some no-till folks.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: It’s not. And the other thing is and I’m pretty sure it’s because we don’t use a lot of fertilizer, we don’t use a lot of it.

And but so, you know, it’s it’s kind of what your first big goal is and then and then try to figure out a way to do that, knowing that it’s not isolated, that you’re just trying to focus on one, but also trying to keep those other principles going, you know, understand and those other principles. And, you know, it’s the principles of soil health.

So, you know, don’t disturb, cover your soil, living roots. And so we also it’s also a matter of changing your philosophy and having a support group of other farmers who have tried things. And you know that you can say, hey, this was my experience. What was yours? Or do you think this is just, I’m being out of my mind?

I also feel like, you know, when you’re doing something really radical, like intercropping with things that people aren’t familiar with in the area, which for us, is a lot of stuff. I mean, where we’ve been pretty conventional and pretty traditional. So intercropping like barley and radish, we did it on entire fields and it took us about two years to deal with the radish issue that we had.

Carol McFarland: One of the lessons learned maybe that I’ve heard from folks with the radishes is that you got to watch that seeding, right?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison:Mm hmm. And we had a pretty low seeding rate, but now we basically put in a pound to the acre, maybe two. If we’re feeling really racy. Turnips are actually a better- turnips are a better alternative. And part of the reason why we like to have turnips and radishes around is because they also provide sugars and carbons later through the season. So then let’s see, really, really need to understand, especially if you’re going to no till you need to understand your drill. Because to me, getting the crop in and getting the crop off are probably the fundamentals.

Yeah, you got to get the crop in, you got to get it all in. So that means that you have to have a good drill and you have to have a good combine and then you need to store it. But we’re marketed. So with the drill that we had, it had some issues, we overhauled it. But I don’t think it was an optimal spacing for us.
And so we definitely shifted that because I think that is a major issue. But you also have to be careful about I mean, with no till farming, you don’t have as much iron. But the iron you have can be kind of spendy, let’s see. And then I think I think people can actually dispense with some of the pesticides that we use that use pesticides in the broad spectrum.

So, for example, I really wonder if seed treatment is necessary. I mean, I don’t know, I don’t think we’ve had issues with seed treatment, every once in a while. My attitude is, okay, if I’ve got some emergency problems, I need to go through a process of elimination. Is it the drill? Was it the soil conditions?

Was there disease or a pest issue? But my attitude is if there’s a disease or pest issue, why is my soil not balanced or am I sowing it properly? And, you know, that’s kind of a tricky question because sometimes it’s the crops that you economically need. So, you know, especially in our current farming systems…

Carol McFarland: Can I follow up on that a little bit? Because I hear you being extremely brave when you just totally cut out all insecticides. I can just imagine some listeners being a bit shocked by that. I’m wondering, maybe you could speak briefly to some of the consequences that you saw from that or how that played out for you.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: So, you know, the one thing that is tough, especially if you’re growing peas, is you do tend to get more shothole peas. And for us, that’s not an issue because it’s fine for feed.

But what I will say is that I haven’t seen an economic detriment. And so last year was a classic, you know, because it was wet and cool and then it got sort of warm. The insects just exploded. I was driving through our triticale/pea in our crop, and the aphids were just breathtaking. It was like, oh, okay, this is beyond 10%.

They’re just up every, you know, just all over the place. And so but as I was driving through, you know, I was focusing on the aphids and just really kind of stunned at how many aphids there were. But when I looked at the top of the gaiter, there were also a lot of predators and I thought, okay, we’ll just, because we’re not going to have insecticides, we’re not going to spray them on.

So we’ll just see what happens. And there were a lot of ladybug larvae, there were a lot of lace-wings, lot predators. And so within 24 hours, they were gone. They were completely gone.

Carol McFarland: All the aphids were gone?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Now they may have flown to the neighbor’s crops, but they were going in and all the predators were there.

Ladybugs. And the really cool thing is because we haven’t used insecticides, we have ladybug hatchlings that are just unbelievable in our grass. In a lot of praying Mantis got a lot of bumblebees. We just got a lot of likes coming back. We’ve got a long way still to go, but it’s been pretty cool to watch.

Fungicides and we don’t use fungicides because we really want to encourage fungal growth in and healthy fungal populations in our soil. And we’re starting to really see the, you know, the nondescript brown fungi coming up in our soils, which is really cool.

But what was it, 20…2020? We had kind of a wet cool weather until about mid-June and we had winter wheat and we had two different varieties in two different fields. The one field didn’t even bat an eye. The other one kind of stood, withstood the, that stripe rust until about the last five days and just boom, just went orange.

And we knew that. We knew that that was going to be a risk. And so, you know, and it definitely affected our yields. But I’m not you know, what we learned from that is, you know, do your homework and make sure you have varieties that are pretty robust. So for us, last year, you know, everyone sprayed, and I think they put on at least they sprayed twice, airplaned on fungicides for rust because it was again, a cold, wet, cool, wet spring.

And that’s just conditions are ripe for rust developing and the triticale we had some few leaves down low that pinstripe rust and nothing above so it’s been a process of learning what your boundaries are, as far as what sort of crops you can grow.

Carol McFarland: And I hear that you know, some of your the, the alternative marketing and diversifying your marketing strategies does add some flexibility and resilience into that…

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: And one of the things, though, that is kind of and I don’t know how quite to…how it gets addressed, but what we’re doing we can do because we have a completely different market.

But I sure would like to be able to figure out how things can translate to other people as well.

Carol McFarland:
Well, I’ve got a couple more questions here. I would love to come out and chat with you some more another time because there’s so many fun things to talk about in the space and you’re doing some really, really great stuff.

And we haven’t even talked about all your work with the research community. Maybe some time we can have another interview with some of your other research partners,

But can you talk about one thing that you would really like to try but can’t right now because of some limitations, such as equipment, precipitation, lease agreements, that sort of thing?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Well, we’re lucky because we own all of the ground we farm. So we’re just so lucky that we’re able to do that. It gives us flexibility that we otherwise wouldn’t have. And it would be unfair to ask a landlord unless they were in there with you to take those risks because there are a lot of risks in this.

Carol McFarland: Would love to get the landlords on board with that though.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Yeah, it would be great. It would be great. You know, most of the things that we wanted to try are doing, the one that I would really love to be able to do is I’d love to be able to get this farm more to a permaculture sort of place.

But I, I don’t know. I don’t know how that works at this point. So, you know, there are some things that we haven’t tried just because we don’t know yet. And that’s been a…an interesting process, because this area has been so conventional in some ways that there are other farmers kind of busting out and saying we need to do things differently and looking at organic or biologically sound or regenerative practices.

But the most, you know, some of the most frustrating things, it’s not necessarily for us because we have some flexibility, but it’s really frustrating that we can’t do things on a wider scale like intercropping, where you can do, like pea-ola. So you mix peas and canola because we don’t have the infrastructure to separate those. So one of the things that were part of a pilot program with an organization called the Soil Carbon Initiative, and they’re part of Green America.

And so we’ve been having conversations about other, you know, what can we do to help other farmers, you know, take those risks? How can we minimize those risks for people because they’re not there. They don’t have the same context that we… Zachariason farm, has. And so that’s actually been far more frustrating to me is it’s not what we haven’t been able to implement, because we’ll figure it out and we’ll do it in good time. But it’s, you know, how can we kind of lead other people down the path?

Carol McFarland: Well, thanks for being on this podcast.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Yeah. Yeah. But yeah, but we’re looking at different things. So for example, if we could do something like FSA, extend interest-free loans to people who want to purchase a no till drill and who will then agree to minimize, you know, to go to a certain STIR, you know, they can’t go above a certain STIR factor.

If we could just change crop insurance so that they’ll actually insure intercropping because we got kicked off of crop insurance in 2020 when we said, you know, here’s what we want to do. And they said we can’t insure that. And so then, we didn’t, you know, we were not able to participate.

Carol McFarland:That’s a game changer in itself.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: It really is, because we were not crop insurance in 2021. So then when USDA came in and said, okay, this was a drought, this was, you know, we’re going to help you out, we didn’t get to participate because we didn’t have crop insurance because we were intercropping. It’s like, “Oh, man!”

Carol McFarland: I’m sorry to hear that. I mean, and if you’re I guess theoretically, you know, some of the practices you’re doing builds resilience in your soil over time, which might be a form of insurance in itself, but maybe because you’re still working on this transition…

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Exactly. And in this area, it’s really interesting. One of the things we did learn -the hard way, I guess, is you read and listen to the folks who are doing this work in the Midwest. And I mean, what they are doing is so cool, and just really wonderful. So the Gabe Browns, the Rick Clarks, and but they’re in…their climate is so different, and those summer rains really do make a difference.

And so for us I talked to someone, oh early in this process and basically said you’re probably looking at about seven to ten years of transition. And that’s right. It’ll be about that. And so it’s like, how do we do this so other people can do it and not take the economic hits because I’m not going to…I’m not going to tell you it hasn’t.

You know, we’ve had some economic hits and partly because of weather and partly because of our own ignorance. But, you know, and we were able to, you know, we’re okay. We can do that. We have the resources to do that, but other people don’t. And so that’s the piece where it’s like, okay, how do we figure this out? So other people don’t don’t have to take those or how do we minimize those risks for other people?

Carol McFarland: Well, and especially I’m hearing that, you know, some of your economic risk might be buffered a bit by the return on investment calculations.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Yes. And yes. And but there are also, you know, for other people, they have other costs that we don’t have, in addition and that are unavoidable.
And so I think it’s it’s we have to do this transition. It can’t just be farmers. It has to be policymakers. It has to be USDA, It has to be conservation districts

Carol McFarland: Consumers?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Yeah.

Carol McFarland: Eaters.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Eaters. Yeah.

Carol McFarland: What is your biggest barrier to trying new things on your farm?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Mm. The biggest barrier?

Well, actually, we should say, why do you try all these new things?

Carol McFarland: Because you like to go all in. That’s what I heard.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Yeah. Somewhat impatient. It’s like, okay, I did this. Probably the biggest barrier is just not not knowing or not understanding. Ignorance I think is our biggest barrier. So, you know, if there’s something that we want to try, it’s like, what does this mean to do this? In some ways our biggest barrier has been our mindset.

You know, it’s been our cultural training as farmers. It’s, you know, how we think, and in what we understand the system to be or and versus what it actually is .

Carol McFarland: Well and I think a little bit about like a really the most zoomed out of applications of the scientific method is really about curiosity and asking questions and trying to figure out how to get meaningful answers.
And so I hear so much curiosity in your processes and so, yeah, as we dive into a little bit of the answers. What’s your most fun with the most fun thing about trying to do stuff on your farm?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: It’s actually seeing it, seeing new plants, new things, new insects, just seeing how things are changing. So it’s digging in. We’re in the we’ve got a project where we’re putting- we’re trying to put native trees and shrubs back into some spots just so we can start putting field borders in. And so it’s really cool when we have to when we’re digging into the soil to plant trees, to look at the soil and see the worms there and see the structures coming back. That it’s looking better, that, you know, even though it’s been a dry spring, we have moisture, you know, in most places there’s moisture just below the surface.

So it’s been a…it’s very gratifying. It’s really cool to go out and be able to pull a plant out and have it come out with roots. And soil is just like, yeah, we’re we’re we’re on track. That’s the really cool stuff is to see the changes, they’re slow because we’re dry, we’re a dry climate but they’re there and it’s really cool to see those.

Carol McFarland: That’s so exciting! Go exo-polysaccharides!

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Amen.

Carol McFarland:All right, so let’s finish up by…what do you think are reasons others might not try new things on their farms?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Um, I think. I think it comes down to cultural biases. I think it comes down to economics. I think it comes down to not owning the land and having to rent ground and having to rent a lot of ground.
I think it comes down to literally not having the time because, you know, in order to make it as a farmer nowadays, especially with as expensive as the equipment we need to use around here is, that people just don’t dare do it. They, you know, because if you make a mistake, the margins are so thin.

Carol McFarland: And that leveling package on the combine is definitely a price premium.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Oh yeah. And the articulated tractors and having the horsepower we have to have in the heavy duty equipment to keep them on the hills, I mean you know, and the margins are so thin for people that to make a mistake could be just deadly, you know. And so I think it really is a situation, like I said before, we’re we’re farmers just can’t do it on their own or shouldn’t be expected to that there has to be a network and and safety nets and I don’t know what that looks like but I don’t think it’s just farmers alone doing it.
I think it’s scientists, policymakers, politicians. Everyone needs to be in there doing it and helping.

Carol McFarland: That is such a great note to end on. It’s been such a pleasure visiting with you today.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: Same here.

Carol McFarland: Thank you so much for sharing all of your knowledge and experience with us.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: We’re happy to do so.