On Farm Trials ft. Tom Conklin

In this episode we hear from Tom Conklin of Wittman Family Farms outside of Cul de Sac, Idaho on how their farm team works together to design, track, and evaluate their ‘farm scientific trials’ from cows to water and towards lower inputs and diversification goals.

Carol McFarland

Today, we’re out at Wittman Family Farms outside of Cul de Sac, Idaho, with Mr. Tom Conklin. Thanks so much for having me out to the farm today, Tom.

Tom Conklin

You bet. It’s good to be here.

Carol McFarland

Awesome. Looking forward to this interview. Would you start by sharing a little bit more about yourself, your farm, and who you farm with?

Tom Conklin

Been back here on the farm, I think it’s nine years now. No, eight years. I met my wife— it’s her family’s farm, so Wittman Farms. We met in college at the University of Idaho. Go Vandals.

Carol McFarland 

Hey, wait a second… I’ll allow it.

Tom Conklin

So we met there. I was in the Navy for about fourteen years before we came back to Idaho here and started a family. Started farming with her family operation. So, yeah, it’s been about nine years since we’ve moved back.

Carol McFarland

Well, and you’re part of a farm team here, right? It’s not just you farming the family ground. 

Tom Conklin

You bet. Yeah. So farming here with my sister in law, Corey. So my wife’s younger sister and their cousin Todd. Those are the three owner operators. And then, of course, husband David and cousins Eli and Eric. And Eric, we have a good team out here. We have a number of us all working together on what we’re trying to do.

Carol McFarland

So that’s great. There’s some really fun history here on the Camas Prairie, too. What generation are we at?

Tom Conklin

So we’re fourth generation. Yeah, the family and initially up around Uniontown moved down into this area and started farming many, many moons ago. It’s been a cattle and small grain operation, like I said, for four generations. And we’re just trying to do the best with what we have and have a good team doing it so.

Carol McFarland

Nice and raising up the fifth generation.

Tom Conklin

We’re working on, yeah, raising up the fifth generation.

Carol McFarland

Nice. Do you still got those cows on the place?

Tom Conklin

We do still have cows on the place. Sometimes they’re a lot of fun to be around and sometimes they’re not as much fun, but we do still have cows.

Carol McFarland

Nice. Do you want to talk a bit more about the rest of the system you guys are running here as well as your climate and soil?

Tom Conklin

Yes. We farm between, kind of down in Tammany. So down in the Lewis Clark Valley. I think around onethousandfivehundred, onethousandeighthundred feet lowest elevation and then up to some ground by Craigmont, Idaho around fourthousandtwohundred feet I think is the highest elevation up there on that ground. So a pretty good swath of elevation there, everything in between. And it’s a lot of ridge– ridgelines and canyon-type ground around this area.

And then up on the Camas prairie, just kind of that higher, wetter, colder ground up there. So we go anywhere from oh, twelve to fourteen inches of rainfall down in Tammany up to I think I’ve heard it called twenty-two, maybe all the way up to twenty-four inches annually up there. It kind of varies depending on where you are up there.

So pretty good variation on weather and soil type.

Carol McFarland

Great. And is it– what is the soil type looking like? 

Tom Conklin

It varies. It’s very variable along the ridges and canyons. So that’s the right way to say that.

Carol McFarland

It’s all variable. 

Tom Conklin

You got it. So we have a little bit of everything as you run from the higher elevation wetter ground down to Tammany.

Carol McFarland

Now we recently had a conversation where I showed you the Agro Ecological Classifications.

So the agro ecological classification map has this area as transitional fallow. And you were telling me that that is wrong, that you guys are mostly annual cropping. 

Tom Conklin

There is– it’s not that the area is wrong. There are more people moving to annual cropping in this area. There’s not as much fallow as there used to be, but that’s, you know, probably more practice based than it is kind of how those maps are traditionally set up. It seems to me like there’s more of a movement towards the annual cropping, especially as you get into the higher elevation ground around here.

But I guess it is variable. There are still farms that do more fallow operations around here as well.

Carol McFarland 

You guys are mostly annual crop? 

Tom Conklin

We are. 

Carol McFarland

Okay, and you’ve been in no till? 

Tom Conklin

Yeah, I was just trying to think about that before we started. So before we came back to the farm, the family started using no till drills I think in the early eighties. It wasn’t until the mid to late nineties that it was a full transition to the whole farm continuous no till, so still quite a while there with continuous no till operations.

Carol McFarland 

It’s been a really fun pattern to notice as you hear people talk about transitioning to no till and you know the people who have been it– been in it for a long time, still had a pretty reasonable transition period to get into it.

Tom Conklin

So my father in law’s generation, Dick Wittman, was part of the Direct Seed Association early on when it started. And that was a big group of farmers in the region that were trying to figure this out. And I think it came down to if we’re going to figure this out, we really have to start doing this instead of like, ‘hey, we’re going to do a little dabble here and a little dabble there,’ because the system wasn’t improving itself that way.

So they got together much like a lot of us are kind of working on this whole region ag movement now and trying to figure out like, ‘hey how does some of this work, what are our downsides? What are the– what are the ways we make this work by sharing knowledge?’ And that was a big part of that.

You know, that is the start of the Direct Seed Association, and it’s pretty cool how it’s gone from there. That’s definitely how I’ve gotten more involved in the farming community in the Northwest, coming from not a farm family and not from this region being originally from the Midwest, you know, that was a way that I really get tied into a lot of folks around here and got a lot of education on the job, if you will, through those different organizations.

Carol McFarland

Well, thank you for your service as the outgoing president of the Direct Seed Association.

Tom Conklin

Absolutely Fun times.

Carol McFarland

No, actually, we recently had Russ Zenner on the podcast, so that was a pretty fun interview, talking about some of the early days of the No Till and the Direct Seed Associations.

Tom Conklin

And Russ has a wealth of knowledge.

Carol McFarland

Yes, with, with that. Would you describe some of your firm’s management goals and how they might be different on the whole farm versus kind of per crop or by field or by year?

Tom Conklin

Yeah, that’s a big question. yeah. How to narrow that one down just a little bit. We have a pretty wide rotation. We do grow quite a few things around here with our, with our cattle. We also have some hay ground. So between the small grains, you know, the wheat, barley, peas, lentils, garbs, canola, we do grow some mustard. Running the rotation and figuring out how to handle that with, you know, chemical history and what’s going on with the market.

Some of those things will change a little bit with the markets, but guessing that one out can be a challenge as well. So traditionally this area, as you know, primarily wheat ground is kind of the baseline crop, but there are so many other things that grow so well. And, you know, especially with canola, seems like it’s– the market for canola has gotten better over the last number of years, garbanzo beans in this area.

Management’s goal is how to take all that, how do we want to take all that and, and at the end of the day turn a profit right where we’re business. So looking at that rotation, looking at those markets and figuring out, ‘hey, what can we do for our ground, that’s going to be the best thing, rotationally for the ground, but also produce a good crop based on that?’

In the last few years, we’ve really looked at like, what can we do to lower some of the input costs as those have gone up? How can we maximize in that regard? And a lot of our tests and trials in reality have been based on that in the last few years, like how can we take some of the previous known quantities and maybe pull back a little bit, put something else in that could be helpful, that could offset that, whether it’s better for the soil or whether it’s that really maybe wasn’t needed at that level and we can do it differently at a different timing. Something like that.

Carol McFarland

Sitting under this super cool planning board that I think you use with your team, your farm team, and I see this wonderful kind of mission and vision document and I guess you don’t have to share the whole thing, obviously. But you know, if there’s some kind of thread from that that you wouldn’t mind sharing and including maybe the process of how you guys put together that document as a team.

Tom Conklin

Yeah. So, you know, years and years ago, you know, Dick and his team putting together kind of an idea of, hey, we need to have a mission, vision and values for the farm so people can get to understand what’s important to us. You know, you have some people that are here for a long time, some people that aren’t. And so it’s good for people to know, like, what do we stand for? What are we, what are we trying to do here?

At the end of the day, it’s not it’s not all about making money. You know, we want to steward the land that we’ve been blessed with and do that to our best ability. And that, you know, in some ways, sometimes that means we’re making decisions that aren’t directly related to this year’s profit, that are related to long term productivity of the farm or, you know, the ability to have that land in a good place as we move forward. 

So moving on with that, you know what you were talking about, with the bond, the board bond is we’ve started– we’re always trying different things, but we’ve realized in the last couple of years where we’re trialing a number of different things that can get very easily lost and confused. It’s like, okay, wait, we tried. We did that on this field, right? And what, which side was on the east side or the west side? And that’s just like you get to the end of the year and you ask a question like that and it’s like, okay, that is not the way you handle this. Like, that is not organized. But we but it’s easy to do and we’ve done it.

Carol McFarland

I hear you’re not alone in that. And really I think that a lot of, kind of these adventures and on-farm trials that we’re trying to support as part of the Farmers Network is how to get meaningful results out of your trials. 

Tom Conklin

So we’ve done a number of different things, but at the end of the day we do a lot of stuff in computer software now so we can map out a lot of what we’re doing. 

But what you’re seeing behind you is a– just a visual representation of some of those field splits and some of the planned, ‘hey, we’re going to do these applications on these fields. Here is going to be where the control is. Here is going to be where the trial is.’ 

It’s not necessarily like the, the best organization when you look at it, but is a visual for our whole team to see so that, hey, if we’re driving, you drive by, you can say, ‘hey, what, what were we doing over there again?’ Okay. Yeah, that trial went on there. And this is the control, and that looks really interesting. And that didn’t look like we thought it was going to look, which never happens.

But with some of those trials, you know, a couple of years ago, we sat down to and said, hey, what’s our goal here? As we start to try some of these different products, what’s the point? And so we looked at and said, hey, we’d really like to reduce some of our quantity of synthetic inputs that we’re putting down because they’re one, they’re expensive. And two we’d like to see if we can do more with less. Not necessarily less overall because that you can’t just pull everything off, pull everything out of the system right away. But can we supplement with some of these other things that might be good additions to the soil to keep things going better over the years? Maybe we find some other things in that. Like maybe we reduce these disease pressures and weed pressure based on some of these things we’re doing.

It’s hard to know until we do it. But based on, you know, things we’re reading about, things we’re hearing about it at different meetings, presenters and say, hey, you know, until we prove how that works on our farm– not that it works because obviously somebody has already done that and they’re saying it works, but how does it work here? How does it work at, you know, threethousandfivehundred feet on ground where the rainfall happens at this time of year and it’s this much and then it gets completely baked and dry after that. Maybe that’ll happen a little differently. Maybe we have to tweak it just a little bit.

Carol McFarland

Yeah, it seems like there’s just so much out there at this point. And so that process of trying stuff on your farm to see how it works on your farm and not just, you know, what does it working look like, what are your metrics? And also a magnitude, you know, we had another podcast guest  talking about, well, you know, is it six%? Is it twenty%?  At what point is it worth it? If you have five things that give you six%, then maybe it is worth it. But, you know, there’s so much that goes into that and it’s so different for each farm. So I guess how does your mission and vision help you guys evaluate from that kind of lens?

Tom Conklin

I think when it relates to like, what we’re going to do, how we’re going to evaluate– with our with our mission, with our vision is, hey, what do we what do we see as important? And like I said, like we are stewards of this land. And so, yes, we have to– if we want to keep doing this, we have to make a profit so that we can pay the bills and so we can keep doing this.

But along with that, like you can make a profit farming and do it to a point where you’re not going to be able to continue doing that for a long time if you do certain practices over and over and over and over. So we want to look at it and say, hey, how can we, how can we make things better as we go? And what does that look like? And we don’t have all the answers on that, but there’s a lot of terms out there conservation, farming, regenerative agriculture. You know, there’s a lot of cool visuals along with that. And how do you, how do you make all that work around here? I don’t, I don’t know, onehundred%. But there’s some really cool stuff that seems to be happening in our region and people are doing and we’re we’re trying some of that. And there’s just been some really cool things we’ve seen. And then there’s been some things that are like, that didn’t. that didn’t pan out the way we thought. But we’re trying it and that’s, that’s the neat part 

Carol McFarland

I call it cropping systems innovation and soil health. Yeah. So I guess that was kind of an ROI question, right, is how you’re evaluating your trials as you go against not only the kind of dollars side of, the ROI, but if you guys have went so far as to create a mission and vision for your farm…

Tom Conklin

Right

Carol McFarland

How does that play into your ROI when you’re evaluating things, you’re trying.

Tom Conklin

Yeah, it’s funny to think about that way because our ROI, I always put a dollar number to that statement, right? But there is more to that. You know, at the end of the day, to that process, we try… how did that go over with the team? Right. Something maybe turned out really well, but the logistics to make it happen did not go over well with everyone doing it. Or maybe the cost side worked out really well, but that just didn’t feel like the way we wanted to go with that.

Carol McFarland

Do you want to talk a bit more about what experiments and trials you currently have going on in the farm and what, you know, we’re we’re sitting here kind of at the cusp of spring. And what are you excited about seeing this year?

Tom Conklin

Well, right now I’m kind of wondering if we’re going get that second winter that Idaho is famous for, but…

Carol McFarland

We’re in Fool’s Spring, right?

Tom Conklin

Right. Right. Now we have, we have a lot of foliar trials, which is kind of a route where we’re trying to figure out can we, can we do some reductions in upfront fertility to get more efficiency out of our fertilizer use? 

So, you know, traditionally we’ve put with the no till system that we’ve run– we’ve put a large amount of our fertility down upfront. So if you’re planning a winter, you know, winter wheat crop in the fall, we’re putting a lot of fertility down in the fall that’s then in the ground there with that plant all winter long. And there’s there’s a lot of research out there right now that’s showing that our efficiency with that kind of a system– not just here but everywhere– the Midwest is actually where a lot of that’s coming from because they’re having a lot of leaching issues.

But our efficiency isn’t ideal either. So how can we space that out and how can we potentially put that down in better timing, different formats and then pair that with some with some amendments that potentially make that work even better. Make that work even more efficiently for the plant, and for the soil as we’re going there to boost some of the microbial activity, whether that’s from not over-applying early or whether that’s from applying things that actually help the soil biology throughout the year.

So some foliar trials are– most of our trials we’re not doing small strips just because of logistics. We’re taking a field and cutting it in half or trying to take like-soil types or like-areas and having two different, you know, a control and a test, test area to that. 

I’d say the majority of our testing this year is on winter wheat, just because– like I said, that’s kind of a primary crop.

They’re doing some on some winter peas. They’ve been, we’ve always grown legumes, but winter peas have kind of taken more of a place around this region, especially as our weather– it seems like our, our springs are wetter a little longer anymore. It’s kind of nice to have a little more in the ground in the fall when you can make that happen.

Cover cropping is, is one that still really challenges. We’ve tried multiple variations of cover cropping and I feel like that’s one I go back to– I go back to that no-till discussion we were having earlier of how they were kind of let’s try this a little bit and let’s try this a little bit. And I feel like we’re doing that and I’m not saying that’s the wrong way to do it, like we don’t need to go full hog, but it’s just been a challenge. Like we’ve had a couple that have worked out really well and then we’ve had a couple that now whether it’s because of chemical residual or whether it’s because of timing or, you know, you put you put a cover crop in and then you’re like, well, we didn’t get any of that fall rain that every once in a while comes. 

So those are challenges you can expect, but set challenges in the agricultural world that we have of you kind of get a shot and then you got to wait until next year, and so that– it is what it is, but man, it can be challenging at times because then you have to wait for that whole next cycle or next season to kind of revamp and tweak that.

If you don’t keep good records, man, that’s even more challenging, right? Because then you get to planning season again and it’s like, okay, wait, we said, we’re going to do what differently and how do we do that that we didn’t like? And man, we hopefully we kept really good notes on what we wanted to do.

Carol McFarland

So that definitely, I think helps keep things moving forward in the most kind of constructive way from what I’ve heard. Is kind of tracking things and being able to really pick up after time, knowing where you left off. In one of the episodes we call that failing forward to if it didn’t work out quite the way you wanted to the first time.

Tom Conklin

Right

Carol McFarland

So making sure it’s not a total loss.

Tom Conklin

But the interesting part is we, you know, keep really good notes on things when they go well, when things don’t go well, if you don’t keep those same good notes, you’re what is that? You’re… if you don’t study history, you’re bound to repeat it. 

Carol McFarland

That’s, that’s a fun, kind of grim take on it.

Tom Conklin

But at the same time I mean, how often– when do we really, I mean we do, but how often do we take just as good of notes when things don’t go very well? Normally you kind of want to forget about some of those things, but at the same time, they’re just as valuable. They’re just as– if not more valuable. In that case, to say, ‘hey, I don’t want to do that again’ or ‘I want to learn from that, so let’s figure out right now while we have a minute, what could we have done differently? What potentially failed so that we can improve on that for the next year?’ 

Carol McFarland

Mmhmm. No, that’s a really great perspective. Thanks for sharing that.. So you’re talking about cover crops for your place. What do you hope to get out of them?

Tom Conklin

This is probably the reason why cover cropping has been so challenging– is that anything you ever hear on cover cropping before you start, what do they always ask? What’s your goal? Like, what’s your goal with this cover crop? Well, there’s certain websites where you can go and you can use a little calculator to check boxes and figure out like, hey, what’s going to work and what do I want to use? And I find that I check all the boxes because I want all of those things, right? Like I want to, I want to improve nutrient cycling. I want to potentially graze some cattle. I want to lessen weeds and we want to, you know, improve the fertility– so you can’t have all those in the same shot.

Carol McFarland

Oh yeah. No I totally did that, and I think it only gave me like maybe two plants.

Tom Conklin

Right. At the end of the day, the challenge is coming down to like, okay, we got to we got to pick one or two things that we’re really going to target here and see how we can make that cover crop work for us. The most success we’ve had– and it’s funny too, I don’t even know if cover crop is even the right word– just a mixed species either a mixed species forage or one season we had a mixed species intended to be a cover crop turned into a hay crop. We actually hate it because it grew really well and the timing worked out that we came through with the swather and put it in bales and it was great. That wouldn’t have been the traditional cover crop mindset going out and starting and thinking, ‘hey, this is what I’m going to do with the cover crop. But that was only because I wasn’t thinking about it that way.But it turned out that way and it was a big win. 

And then some of the more traditional aspects of, hey, I want to see if we can get a really diverse multi-species mix to grow here for this short period of time that we can then come in and put another crop in. Some of our weather patterns don’t work for some of the some of the seasons or some of the different mix types that we were looking for.

So you get a little bit of growth and they say, hey a little bit is better than nothing. But, you know, it just really comes down to those goals. What’s our goal with it? Did we achieve that goal even halfway there? Maybe that was a success, but not quite what we thought it was going to be.

Carol McFarland 

I hear you saying to that having the livestock as part of your operation allows you more flexibility. And actually some of the folks at WSU have transitioned to calling them multifunction crops rather than just cover crops.

Tom Conklin

Absolutely. one-hundred%. Like cover crops would– there’s a place for them, I think without cattle. From everything I hear, we haven’t– we always think about it and hey can we graze that because it makes sense to us. The– whether we’ve baled it and fed it in bales over the winter or whether we’ve turned cows out. And some of our, our multi-species mixes that we put down, the cattle love it and it, it is, I think it is visually obvious that what they’re feeding on via say straight grass bale or a straight alfalfa bale or just a field of grass pasture, they– it’s, it’s very obvious that what they’re eating is preferable because they go right into it and tear apart.

The bales are a perfect example. And I know I’ve heard this from multiple other people that if you feed a grass bale and alfalfa bale and a cover crop bale side by side, they will eat that cover crop bale. Most cases, obviously it depends on what you plant. There’s stuff that they don’t prefer, but they will eat that before they will eat the other stuff.

And that to me is just one of those visual things. That, there’s a reason for that. Like how often do we go out and we get a salad with like one specific thing in it? You know, normally people– or something that has a diversity of things on your plate, your dinner plate doesn’t normally just have one thing on it. Although a steak is pretty good, even all by itself.

Carol McFarland

Especially if those cows are eating cover crops.

Tom Conklin

But I mean, there’s got to be something to that. And you can see it when they’re out eating those things. The challenge– and there’s always challenges to this stuff, and this is not an undoable challenge– but it is a challenge logistically of intensive grazing seems to be, from everything you hear, the way to handle those. The way to really get the bang for your buck out of your your future fertility, your future soil health, and for the quality of forage of the cows eating. And the logistics to do that when it comes to this region of water and spacing off the pasture the correct way in paddocks, that’s it’s tough. We’re not flat ground in most places.

Carol McFarland

Well you’re supposed to radio collar them now. 

Tom Conklin

You are supposed to radio collar them. Haven’t quite gotten that one totally figured out, but…

Carol McFarland

No, not yet. 

Tom Conklin

But I mean, it’s something we’re still working on. The water and the fencing piece are a challenge, but not an undoable challenge.

Carol McFarland

So it sounds like an opportunity.

Tom Conklin

There you go, that’s the word. 

Carol McFarland 

You know, Tom, I’ve actually I’ve heard a lot of you talking about different learning moments and different kinds of resources. Do you want to talk a bit more about where you go to get more information and where your team looks for information on deciding which, what things to try next?

Tom Conklin

The output of plug-ins is the Direct Seed Association, right now. Because, I mean, like I said, going to the first couple of conferences and then being able to be a part of that board and really just connecting me with people, and I think more so than a specific group or a specific person that I enjoy listening to what they have to say about agricultural research is being tied in with a group of people that you can share information with.

You know, again, I go back to Direct Seed, we’ve had an Advanced Soil Health Day the last, I think four or five years now, and that kind of opened a window of– and we had Joe Williams and John Kempf early on. And that really kind of put the, put the bug in there of like, okay, I didn’t want to go down this road and and learn more about this.

And then if you I mean, if you look at John Kempf’s podcast, he’s got resources at the end of every podcast that talk about, oh, I used this is the book I read that was really interesting on this topic or this topic, and you can just go down a rabbit hole on that one. And then of course you’ve got, you know, stuff like this podcast where you can just learn so much about what people around here are doing, but I mean that’s really what it comes down to is– people have a hard time it seems like when all we hear is what’s coming out of the Midwest, because they do have a different region. They have

different climate, and that climate as much as their rainfall timing. So what are people doing around here and how are they making it work is really, really neat to hear and and interesting to hear how they’re handling the challenges.

Carol McFarland

Well, And that’s something I actually noticed about this last year’s Advanced Soil Health Days. But it was a lot more centered on local knowledge and how some of these other ideas are being transferred into our region and trying to have it be a bit more regionally adapted. Having been to several of the previous Advanced Soil Health Days, it was fun to see a different direction this year.

Could you talk a bit more about when do you start planning a trial?

Tom Conklin

Yeah, so kind of like we talked about with the going to these different conferences like Direct Seed or the grower meetings or things like that. They spark interest in, not kind of brand new ideas, but they’re like, okay, yeah, we talked about doing something like that. We learned a little more about it. Maybe we should try that. 

So I think a lot of it, a lot of it starts from the previous year, something that we either didn’t, didn’t pan out the way we thought we want to tweak it. Or we keep hearing about this and it sounds really interesting and I think we can make this work and that that’s probably the most often the way things start out. It’s that, hey, this really should work here and this would be really cool if we can make that work. Whether it’s a reduction in some inputs or whether it’s adding a new process, a new type of input. 

Like I said, we’re kind of looking at more foliar trials. There’s been a lot of information out there lately on how you can make those work a little better and more efficiently. So a lot of that starts in the in that brainstorming time in the winter. I don’t know if I’d say we have too much time on our hands in the winter because it never feels that way. But that’s probably why a lot of things come to come to the point they do at this time of year.

And then we get to farming season. We’re like, Wait, why did we say we were going to do all that stuff and make this so much more difficult? But yeah, so I’d say the planning process normally starts, you know, late fall as we kind of wind down and thinking about what we want to do next year. 

We’ve always done planning meetings in terms of, hey, when we’re getting ready to start harvest, we do a pre-harvest meeting, talk about, you know, safety and what the teams can do and what the expectations are.

We’ve tried to get a little better at post-operational assessments. So like let’s– we get done with the harvest season if we’re not jumping right into seeding maybe we can look at what went well, what didn’t go well. This is a huge part that I think so often we pass up because we don’t think of ourselves as these big teams. But really, no matter how big the team is, whether it’s two or three people or whether it’s twenty people, when you can sit down and brainstorm like, hey, what went really well? Write it down. What really sucked about that harvest? And it doesn’t always take– most of the time it’s not the crop wasn’t very good. And most time it’s like, well, you didn’t communicate very well on this and it was very frustrating, or this truck kept breaking down because we didn’t do the right maintenance on it or– you know, it’s just it’s those things that you wouldn’t necessarily think about being the big thing. But they end up being the big thing because at the end of the day, we’re all working together to get the same thing done and it becomes the little things that are so easy to fix, but you don’t think about them that become the, the– I wouldn’t say wedge because they don’t necessarily drive apart– but they become the the needle that you’re like, we should have, we should have recognized that.

And so you can when you start doing those after after actions– not quite the right word..

Carol McFarland

No, that sounds like a good Navy term.

Tom Conklin

Yeah, a little bit.

Carol McFarland

But no, it does sound like, you know, if we talk about, you know, not to overuse sustainability, but I mean, in terms of sustaining a team like that kind of thing, sounds like it’s really important. And I know, was it– not this last year here in twentyfour. Was it last year at the Direct Seed Conference…

Tom Conklin

Have– it would have been, it would have been in twentythree at the conference.  

Carol McFarland

I saw a lot more on the soft skills turning up at the conference and it was fun to see people talking about ways to avoid throwing wrenches at other people they farm with. Everything from like, okay, checking in at the beginning of the day saying, let’s hear like farm stress number today during harvest and just kind of knowing how you can– how those things can influence the dynamic of your team in terms of getting stuff done. And, you know, I know those times can get pretty intense and that’s just part of the trials.

Tom Conklin

It is. You know, the the mental health part of agriculture has been talked about a lot more, which is great. You know, from a community of people that that don’t often sit around and talk about their feelings. 

Carol McFarland 

Shocking.

Tom Conklin 

Yeah, right. The ability for that to be be at least a discussion point of like, how are you doing? And it doesn’t always have to be this formal check in. You know, sometimes it can be as simple as… like I said, you’re after, after harvest or you’re getting done seeding and people sit around and have a beverage and say, ‘hey, how’d that go?’ Like, it’s amazing how just some really simple conversations kind of open up into things that are really bothering somebody– and it doesn’t have to be on a dire circumstances or dire scenario. It can just sometimes it can just be something that’s frustrating somebody that you never knew about and you don’t find out about until you can sit down and have a conversation about it.

Carol McFarland

It’s kind of nice to find that out before it becomes dire.

Tom Conklin

It sure is. Well, and this leads down the road of when you have a team that, when you have a team that communicates well, you can do so much more when it comes to really pushing, pushing the envelope on what we want to do with the farm overall. When people communicate well, you just get so much more productivity out of the whole team because everybody seems vested in what’s going on. They feel like they can give some feedback on what they liked, what they didn’t like. No matter how you know, no matter how extensive that is, it just it makes everybody feel like a part of that team, which is great.

Carol McFarland

Yeah, that sounds like a really important part of the puzzle, because how can you move forward if there’s more internal fighting that needs to happen and so much more energy goes into that than moving forward together. So that’s really insightful. Thanks for sharing. 

Can you talk about a couple of things that you’re trying this season that maybe you tried last season and you’re looking forward to seeing more, getting more information out of something you’ve already tried?

Tom Conklin

Yes. We’ve been working with a water system that is kind of twofold. It’s going to help uptake of herbicide and uptake of fertility as well. We’ve seen some some really good results. Initially, we had a few things that didn’t work the way we thought. The great part about that is it didn’t end up being from the water system, it ended up being from the combination of things we’re using, how we were applying them.

And so we did learn a lot this last year. Some early on were very frustrating because it kind of seemed like the whole system we were really trying to do was not working. And then it it just turned out that it needed a few tweaks, which was a really good feeling. But, but yeah, there’s some really good input reductions that have come from the use of the water system and kind of more of that in the timing applications. So, really neat to see that we’re definitely going to continue that and take it kind of to the next level of how we strategically implement that throughout all of our seeding and foliar applications. And what can we what can we do with both rates and products to make that really kind of peak use?

Carol McFarland

Ooo. That sounds intriguing. When you try something like that, how do you set up your trials to really understand if you’re getting what you’re hoping for out of it?

Tom Conklin

So…normally I would say it’s based on ease of visibility. Like everybody always talks about– ome people talk about put it right next to road so you can see it and some people are like, put it as far away from the road as you can so if it backfires.

Carol McFarland

You put it right next to your house so you can see it.

Tom Conklin

There you go. But the reality is, is if you can put it somewhere really accessible, you’re definitely going to track that way better. I think for for us, the setting up that trial depends on what it is. Are we going– is it more based on what the drill is doing, what the combine is going to track, or what the sprayer is going to do?

It could be a combination of all those, but the reason I say that is because for us it’s going to be more dependent on like the width of those machines because we’re not doing strips like I said, we don’t have the equipment set up to do your small strip trials. And the logistics of really putting some of that through the drill or the sprayer ends up being so time consuming that most of the time it’s like, hey if it’s, if it’s something we want to try on a really small scale, it’s going to be one pass of whatever that is.

So we run a onehundredtwenty boom sprayer if it’s coming out of the sprayer, it’s going to be onehundredtwenty foot pass through a field. Same thing with the drill. And then for some things, like I said, we’ll split a field in half and just do a full half and a half splits. We can track that a little better with GPS lines for whatever we’re we’re using and whatever we’re doing there.

Carol McFarland

My science brain also heard you say that you try to match kind of topographical features a bit and some soil type you kind of control for variability across the landscape.

Tom Conklin

Yeah. So, you know, obviously you’re taking into account your, your ridges, your draws. Those are really going to throw things. So you know, with the maps behind me that I kind of have set up, if you look closer at them, you’d see that there’s, there’s kind of an even split on some of those things so that you’re not getting all your best field on one side and your worst part of your field on the other side. You’re kind of getting a split as best you can with that. It’s farm scientific if you will. It’s not super detailed. Like this is the perfect spot to put each individual trial. It’s like, Hey, this is something I think we can measure pretty well. And on the other piece to that is depending on what kind of a trial it is, how long do we want to do that?

So if we can do something and repeat it for a few years– like I said, if we’re going to go from like a wheat to a canola or a legume– we want to try to do some of those things multiple years to see how that’s going to affect the following crop, and the following crop. Is there an issue with weeds after that? Is there an issue with disease or change in disease, or is there just a better yield or protein or whatever that might be for that crop on the following year, the following year after that? Or were there any even noticeable changes at all? Sometimes there is, sometimes there isn’t.

Carol McFarland

You know, now you’re kind of talking about data. So what’s your favorite data to collect in your farm scientific trials.

Tom Conklin

So we’ve started doing some sap testing. I love the idea of it. It’s timing is so challenging, though, because it seems like we always need to be out in the field when that’s going on. So trying to figure out how we’re logistically going to take those sap samples. There’s a few, there are a few labs in the U.S. or some– one at least one that I know of in our region. It’s a little easier to send stuff off to. The timing on turn around, depending on what you want to do with that can be a challenge. But it is some really cool information. Very simple that I’m still kind of learning how to use. 

But Brix reading is kind of a cool, hey, I’m driving by this part of the field every single day because I’m coming from my house. Let’s go out and take a Brix reading on it. Just use a garlic press and a little site window Brix reader and just see what it’s doing. Just again, still learning kind of how to use that. Is it going to change? Is it going to change in the season? Is it going to change based on applications? Is it going to change based on stress? Like I’m not onehundred% sure on that, but kind of trying to look into that a little bit and how to use that. Like everybody we measure yield. We’ve got some protein monitors we put on last year, which could give us some really interesting data with some of the different trials we’re doing and with some of the technology we have with variable rate capability. How we are going to implement that, we’re still trying to figure out exactly. That kind of first round of mapping this year after harvest and and trying to figure out how to overlay some of that and what what the best way to move forward with that. But there are there is a lot of data out there and trying to figure out what’s useful to us and what we can make changes off of kind of go hand in hand there, so. 

Carol McFarland

I’d like to say that’s why I asked the question. Now. I like that term though “Farm Scientific”, because I don’t think anybody expects farmers to do plot trials or, you know, something the way researchers would do it. And so it is to me, what is really interesting is having the conversations of how to get meaningful results on a working farm and how you make that work in through the busy seasons. What data is important? How and when are you figuring out how to measure it and track it and be able to move forward with that information. So thanks for sharing some of your experience with that.

Tom Conklin

I know a lot of people listening are probably in the farming realm, in the agricultural realm, whether on the research side or not, but…

Carol McFarland

Let’s hope so.

Tom Conklin

I– it is I think it would blow people’s minds that don’t have anything to do with agriculture to realize how much of that is actually going on on every single farm constantly, and what kind of what kind of information is being tracked and what kind of things are being studied in a non, you know, classroom research type of environment. And, you know, it was it was surprising to me to to come back to the farm– and I said come back to– come to the farm because I wasn’t from a farm and see how much of that was going on. And it’s really neat. It’s actually pretty exciting part of what we’re doing.

Carol McFarland

I mean, you won’t get any argument from me on that one. 

I would say one of the things that we are doing as part of this podcast is creating some bonus episodes where we’re pulling stories from different, the more agronomy focused episodes and making shorter stories for a more public facing audience. That is, they are not always part of that– creating a space for people who aren’t quite as embedded in the ag scene to maybe– to hear stories directly from farmers around cropping systems, innovation and the way they’re thinking about whether it’s conservation, farming or advances in precision technology that maybe help change some of the perceptions that are out there. So, you know, if you got some friends to share that with that aren’t part of the ag space, you know that that’s part of the resource that we’re hoping to bring out of this podcast as well.

Tom Conklin

There is so much there’s so much to learn. I mean, in any realm that we’re not actively involved in, right? We have perceptions of what people do and what actually happens. And there is there’s just a lot of incorrect information out there on agriculture and the agricultural world of there’s just kind of– it seems like we’re just out there for the money and there’s kind of like this evil we’re going to do. We’re going to put bad things on food. And it’s it’s, you know, I hope that’s changing, but it just seems like that’s a lot of the press that they get to put out there in the non-ag realm. And it would be good that– the more information we can get out there to educate people on the fact that we actually care about what’s going on, on the ground that we farm, would be great.

Carol McFarland

We already did talk a little bit about farmers and feelings, but I mean, I’ve heard that that isn’t everybody’s favorite feeling to be thrown under the bus in that way. the farmers that I talk to very much care about stewarding multigenerational land.

Tom Conklin

Absolutely.

Carol McFarland

That is the core part of hat makes the farm, farm. So yeah, it’s really neat to hear stories directly from our region’s awesome growers and have the privilege of being able to compile them into the resource– for both people who are interested in more of the ag landscape, but also get some of the other stories out there.

Tom Conklin

It seems like a lot of information comes out of the Midwest. But it’s very exciting to see what people in our region in the Northwest are doing and how advanced some of those things are. Like just really trying things that were, you know, five years ago would have been considered completely out there. And people are making these systems work and saying, hey, no, no, this this isn’t organic only, this isn’t this this isn’t this box that people used to put around this kind of a concept. It can be incorporated into a bigger system and is very beneficial and very cool. And I mean, look at the intensive grazing paddock style grazing that people are making work. And that was a very small scale thing I feel like not very long ago. And now people are saying, no, we can make this work on a bigger scale– at least in this area. I don’t feel like you heard as much about that. And it’s out there now and people are talking about and trying to figure out how to do it.

Carol McFarland

Yeah, I’m not sure that Joel Salatin really went into the how to do this on a few thousand acres territory.

Tom Conklin

Right.

Carol McFarland

But it is really neat to have the opportunity to talk with folks who are trying to figure, figure out how to gain the benefits and implement that on a larger scale and hopefully see that they see the dividends both from the land side and the business side and make that work because they’re so important. So yeah, we got some rad farmers in our area. I think anyway. 

So what’s, what’s something you’d like to try but can’t right now because of some limit, limitation, whether that’s equipment, precipitation, but it’s like what’s your pie in the sky innovation trial experience?

Tom Conklin

I don’t know. There’s it seems like there’s a lot of things that that sounds really cool to try. 

The cover cropping is the first one that comes to mind is I feel like I feel like it should– my gut tells me that bringing more diversity growing in our ground as much as possible is a good thing. And we, we we do– I feel like we do a pretty good job rotating our crops, but we’re still a monoculture. And if you look at some of this really healthy ground with multi-species, multiyear perennials that you’re, you’re grazing or have some kind of a conservation program on, they look like they’re growing well. You don’t see as much weed pressure. I know there’s a lot to that.

I mean, it’s a different system than a monoculture cash crop, But it seems like there’s a place where we could work that into our system. Still, still not quite sure on the how with the timing, with the timing of the rain, with just getting the right things at the right place in your rotation to make it beneficial. Because I talked to a lot of folks that actually are making multi-species cover crops grow well, but then trying to figure out how is that benefiting follow-on crops? How is that– how are they getting a measurable benefit out of their ground?

And that’s the one that I haven’t heard really definitive information on. Not to say that it’s not like I said, I feel like my gut tells me that it should, but how do we make that work in the right way to see a benefit from it?

Carol McFarland

So in that I not only hear you say that cover crops as something that is exciting, but also just the idea of diversification. I’m also riffing off of some of our other conversations of just being able to diversify your crop rotation beyond what the market currently is steering.

Tom Conklin

So this region– very cool area– you can grow so many different things not under a pivot. The challenge– like we talked about before, is the marketing piece. You know, where where can you go with some of these things? And there are a lot of great folks out there working on that trying to figure out like whether it’s your sorghum or your millets.

There’s there’s so many others, too, though. I think that is a big part of it. I think having more of a, more tools in the toolbox, right? Having more things that we can draw from that, hey, we’re dealing with this issue in the field instead of just having these three or four things to to plant and then work around, whether it’s from a weed or disease issue or whatever it might be, There’s so many other things we can grow out here that could potentially help in those scenarios.

Mustard is one example. Mustards a really cool crop. It doesn’t have. It can have pretty good production. It doesn’t traditionally have super high production out here, but it does some really cool things to the ground and it is a great rotational crop. There’s so many other things I feel like that are like that. It’s just finding, then finding a market for this area and how to how to make that work for us.

Carol McFarland

Thanks for sharing that. What’s the most annoying thing about trying stuff on the farm?

Tom Conklin

Sometimes tracking tracking things like you see, like I said– you see the board behind you. The things we’re working on right now. When you get busy, when anybody gets busy, it doesn’t matter if you’re farming or anything else, like keeping track of a multitude of different things, the data– things can fall through the cracks. So I’d say the most annoying part about that is just that to do it right, we have to be paying better attention.

We have to be tracking things. Or maybe you get done with one of these things and you realize that why did I do that? And I didn’t take this soil test or I didn’t take this sap test. I really did this whole year of this trial, and I could have maximized it way better. Those are– I don’t know if that’s annoying– it’s frustrating looking back on those things.

The other one’s a logistics piece. For everybody out there who has used chicken manure. Great idea, great product. Not that appealing to handle. There’s a whole lot of other products that fall in that same realm. And so there’s these things that we, you know, come up with in the wintertime. There’s like, oh, this product sounds like it works really well for this situation. We really need to try this out. And then you go to the implementation and whether it’s a smell, whether it’s a transferability from one piece of equipment to another where there have been a few doozies. I mean, you know, like I said, the chicken manure is a prime example.

Carol McFarland

Oof. I know that smell.

Tom Conklin

We– I specifically had a couple of guys in the operation that said, “this may work really well, but I don’t know that we want to use this again”

I mean, I don’t blame them. There’s just, there’s some of these things that you really want them to work, but, like, logistically, this, this probably isn’t going to keep our team together.

Carol McFarland

Yeah, no it’s that team sustainability.

Tom Conklin

Right.

Carol McFarland

Well, so actually, with part of that, as you’re trying some of these innovations, some of them depend on getting kind of unusual stuff. Like have you– can you talk a little bit more about sourcing some of these materials and your experience with that?

Tom Conklin

Yeah, it seems like one of the, one of the biggest challenges is the quantity of new– new might not even be the right word, the quantity of products out there. Everybody’s got something. So you kind of have to whittle away like, okay, there’s about fifty different options for this one specific thing that I’m looking for. What’s really the best? Is there really a difference? What’s the price tag? You know, some of them are very, very different. And does that, you know, does that matter? Is– are you getting what you’re paying for? 

Some of them are logistics concerns. We’re not, I wouldn’t say were isolated from an agricultural standpoint around here. We do have quite a bit, quite a bit of resource base in terms of being able to get products. The timeliness of it is the challenge. If you plan ahead you can, you can kind of make any of those things happen. If you started thinking about it early. Part of the season, if you need something last minute that can be a challenge. But we do have a pretty good network of people and retailers around here to go find different things that we need.

Sometimes it’s just the quantity piece can be a challenge as well. How much of that do I actually need. Am I really going to truck all that in? Does that really make sense for what I’m trying to do here?

Carol McFarland

So yeah, no, that’s great. Thanks for, thanks for sharing your thoughts on that. Because, you know, sometimes when you’re trying something different, that’s that’s one of the pieces.

Tom Conklin

Right. You talk to, you talk to folks that are doing something and there’s this desire to, hey, they made that work really well. You know, do I want to do I want to try to do something very similar and how do I want to go about that?

Carol McFarland

Okay. So, Tom, what is the most fun part about your on farm trials here on Wittman Farms?

Tom Conklin

I think, you know, it’s it’s pretty exciting to just go and try something new. It’s, I guess it’s daunting to initially try something that you’re not sure quite how it’s going to work, but it is just really exciting when something– you see something working out there, you can take some of these tests– pieces start to click. 

I don’t know. I’m not always the sharpest tool in the shed. So like when some of these like, some of these sap tests start lining up with some of the things that I’ve been learning, and you start putting those pieces together. It’s just, it’s really cool to see that and click on those things, you know, in your own mind, not just like, okay, I think I’m starting to wrap my mind about, around what that person was talking about in this lecture I was at or whatever it was. You start seeing it on your own ground. It’s pretty, pretty neat to see it. And then, you know, some of the– I don’t want to focus on the reduction piece, but it’s a big piece. Like it’s not just from a profitability standpoint, but it’s kind of been one of one of our focuses is how do we reduce some of the things we’re putting in the ground, on the plant when it comes to some of the loads of fertility.

And it’s– like I said, not just a profitability piece, it’s also a, you know, what are we putting into the ground? Maybe we don’t need a pesticide application which traditionally did all those things– in my mind, that’s a net benefit. That’s a net positive. Yeah, it affects the bank account. It sure helps when you don’t have to go and buy that product to put it down, but it also it’s just one of the things that it’s– as long as it’s not causing a negative effect for what’s, what’s growing that year, that’s a net benefit as far as I see it in terms of what you’re you’re taking out on the negative side for what you’re putting down on your ground.

So that’s pretty exciting when those things work. When you get done with the year and you’re like, you know what, so many times people talk about, hey, we made this change and we really didn’t see anything. The thing I always want to stop and say is, well, did you not see anything? Because if you didn’t see anything and that change was to reduce something, then you actually saw something. Like you actually made a net beneficial, like you didn’t pay for that. You didn’t have to do that application and you didn’t see anything come of that. That is a positive change. So even sometimes you’re seeing that, hey, there wasn’t really a difference when we made that change. Sometimes that’s a pretty cool thing too, because it’s like, okay, we just took something out of our system that we thought we needed and we didn’t need that. Pretty cool to learn.

Carol McFarland

And that can be kind of a win-win in a few different spaces.

Tom Conklin

For sure. Yep.

Carol McFarland

That’s great. All right. If you could ask a scientist a question, what would it be?

Tom Conklin

So you sent me a couple of these questions at a time, and I thought about this one and, I would have to have a whole group or gaggle– if you will– of scientists to constantly follow me around because my problem is…

Carol McFarland

A gaggle of scientist. Well, we’re getting some good funding for that.

Tom Conklin

Yeah. So my problem is, is that I’ll come up with one question and maybe for one specific person and that– I just go down the rabbit hole. Like, I just want to know more. And the problem is, I don’t know I want to know more initially. Like I always have a hard time sitting down and and, you know, you learn something new, you go to some seminar, you go to some conference and you learn all this stuff. But then I’ll normally find that a day or two later I’m like, okay, I totally should’ve asked about this and this and this. And it just takes me down a road of I want to know more– and that’s the fun part to me of all this is that I yeah, I’m just, I’m really into learning and learning more about what we can do and what’s out there. I didn’t take enough chemistry. I didn’t take enough biology like there’s so many of these things I look back and I’m like, well, that would have been useful to know. Like it could have had. I could have gone to college for about 20 years and probably learned the stuff I, I could probably be using right now a lot more effectively.

Carol McFarland

I probably had more chemistry than you. Still not enough. I’m not sure that place exists.

Tom Conklin

Right.

Carol McFarland

Yeah. No, it’s. Well, especially, you know, in soil especially and on the chemistry/biology interface and, you know, I mean, just from a chemistry standpoint, you have solid liquid and gas in one spot. And so it is so far from test tube chemistry and how all things are moving around. And then you throw in the microbial side of things and it’s just this completely– it’s a an ecosystem that mirrors what is above ground. And it is also invisible. And I think that that’s one of my personal favorite things about soil is you can basically take most disciplines of science and just do them in soil.

Tom Conklin 

Right. 

Carol McFarland

And that is a subdiscipline of soil science.

Tom Conklin

They all work together. What is it? Is it plant nutrition and disease? Is that a– there’s a book. It’s actually one that I found on one of John Kempf’s podcast.

Don Heber is one of the it was a couple authors of that one. Anyway apologize I’m butchering the name on the podcast, the name of the book, but it’s one of those books. It’s a I mean, it reminds me of the college level textbook that I’ll read a page at a time and then just like, Oh man, I did not take enough of that kind of class in college to understand what I’m reading. And it takes me too many times of reading some of that stuff to to kind of pass through, okay, how do I apply that and what are they actually saying? And is that does that make sense to me? I don’t know. I’m gonna have to go, I’m going to have to phone a friend on this one.

Carol McFarland

Yeah, there’s a lot of principles in those. And I think, yeah, how do we work together? You know, with the applied ag community and the research community who, you know, have dove deeper into the principles and how how do we really explore some of these concepts and how they bear out on the ground, especially in a highly variable environment?

Tom Conklin

For sure.

Carol McFarland

Is there any final thoughts you’d like to share? Maybe words of encouragement for people to keep them going and trying stuff on the farm?

Tom Conklin

Okay, so I think what you told me a minute ago. It was something profound and that’s a that’s a pretty high expectation here.

Carol McFarland

I’m sorry Tom. I know you’re up for it, though.

Tom Conklin

No, I you know, I’ll go back to the relational piece we talked about earlier. I think one of the biggest benefits– and this goes to many realms of of life, but finding a group of people that you can share, share experiences and information with has been an absolute key in so many realms, but especially in in our walk in this stuff, trying to figure out, you know, what, what are we doing here?

Mill and bounce ideas off of people. And I’ve been fortunate enough to have that group. And like I said, that kind of came from some of those Advanced Soil Health days where we kind of got together with some folks who are all interested in the same thing and started working together. And you know, people in this realm a lot of times are are very hesitant to share information, but it doesn’t have to be a full disclosure type thing.

You can just find a group of people that you want to just share ideas and bounce ideas off of– and it can be at whatever level– but that has been one of the coolest things. And not only that, but then, you know, you get to get to learn some more things about these folks and you end up, a lot of times you end up hanging out and just having a good time.

It doesn’t have to be all about farming, but very beneficial. Highly recommended.

Carol McFarland

Awesome. Well, I know that I’ve been looking forward to having you on this podcast since it started. Having had conversations with you about your farming and the ideas that you bring into it and what you’re trying and you know, also like reading those letters from the president on the Direct Seed newsletter– just it’s been really great to have you on.

Thank you so much.

Tom Conklin

Well, thanks. Thanks for all you’re doing with this.

Carol McFarland

Appreciate it Tom.