Stories From the Field: Bonus Episode 1

On this bonus episode, we revisit our talks with Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison, Dusty Walsh, and Moses Boone to hear them share their stories from the field.

Carol McFarland

Welcome to On Farm Trials. I’m your host, Carol McFarland, with the PNW Farmers Network.

The usual focus of this podcast is to dig into on-farm experimentation by visiting farms and talking with growers about what they’re trying in their dryland grain production systems of the Inland Pacific Northwest.

In this way, we hope to share lessons learned and advance cropping systems innovation.

In our interviews, we heard a lot from our producers about many different kinds of on-farm trials.

So we’re bringing you this special bonus episode so you can hear their stories from the field.

This episode features a compilation of stories from episodes number one, two, and four in our interviews with Sheryl Hagen Zakarison of Zakarison Farms and Moses Boone from the Holland Boone Farm, both farming near Palouse, Washington, and Dusty Walsh of TD Walsh Farms and Half Moon Blooms just outside of Colbert, Washington.

Please enjoy this special episode as these farmers share their stories from the field.

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: We’ve really, really tried to minimize how we’re negatively impacting the ecology, if you will. So we really tried to think of it as an ecology.

So one of the other things that we’ve started doing on our farm, and 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 that typically don’t have crop in them, but we go ahead and put the crop in and then it doesn’t come up.

We’ve got bare soil which to me is the worst for us. At least it’s a standard that I have that we need to get everything covered. 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 they’ve got a lot of really great programs.

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

Sheryl Hagen-Zachariason: Yeah, and I, 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, you know, taking tests and doing soil samples etc so they’ve watched us

as we’ve gone in this process and they’ve really helped us.

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 very productive back to back to some sort of habitat,

I think it will help us in the long run. 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 kerns as it’s

developed, because we also in this whole process are beginning to see that part of how we get soil health back and and and help reestablish a healthy economy or ecology and economy is that we probably need to go more towards perennials and trying to

figure that out, and we’ve always 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 hills but that doesn’t keep the soil on the hills, or in your field.

So, part of it was literally just trying to, you know, 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 we farm affects our neighbors, it affects people down the stream from us.

So, we just, I mean we’ve, we’ve always tried to be pretty responsible with how we’ve done things and you know, you know when the other thing is as our weather has become.

It’s swinging to extremes.

It’s also a question of, how do we make ourselves more resilient and the way you do that is you make sure your soils are resilient. I was driving through our Triticale pea crop.

The aphids were just breathtaking. It was like, oh okay this is beyond 10% they’re just up every, you know, every head, they’re 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 Gator.

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.

Let’s see what happens. And there were a lot of lady bug larva, there were a lot of lace wings, a lot of predators. And so within 24 hours, they were gone. They were completely gone. 

Well, we’re lucky because we own all of the ground we farm. So we’re 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. 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 peola, so you mix peas and canola because we don’t have the infrastructure to separate those. It’s 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, they don’t have the same context that Zakarison Farm has. But yeah, but we’re looking at different things. So for example, if we could do something like have 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 so that they’ll actually ensure 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

ensure that. And so then we didn’t, you know, we were not able to participate. That’s a game changer in itself. It really is because we were not in crop insurance in 2021. So then when USDA came in and said, you know, okay, this was a drought, this was, you know, we’re going to help you out.

And we didn’t get to participate, because we didn’t have crop insurance because we were intercropping. It’s like, oh, man, 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,

consumers, consumers, yeah, or eaters, we should say eaters. 

Carol McFarland: Yeah, yeah. What’s your most fun? What’s the most fun thing about trying new stuff on your farm?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison: It’s actually seeing, it’s seeing new plants, new things, new insects, just seeing how things are changing. So it’s digging and 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, you know, just so we can, you know, start putting field borders in.

And so it’s really cool when we have to, when we’re digging into the soil to plant the trees, to look at the soil and see the worms there and see the structures coming back and that it’s looking better that, you know, even though it’s been dry this spring, we have moisture.

And in most places there’s moisture just below the surface. So it’s been a, it’s been 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, it’s like, yeah, we’re on track.

That’s the really cool stuff is to see the changes. They’re slow, because we’re a dry, we’re a dry climate, but they’re there and it’s really cool to see those.

Carol McFarland: What are some of the bigger reasons others might not try new things on their farms?

Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison:

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 and having to rent ground and having to rent a lot of ground.

It comes down to literally not having the time because, you know, in order to make it as a farmer nowadays, especially with that, as expensive as the equipment we need to use around here is that people just don’t dare do it.

Because if you make a mistake, the margins are so thin, 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, where, where farmers just can’t do it on their own or shouldn’t be expected to that

there has to be a network 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.

Moses Boone: Even something like, like purchasing farmland right now, the prices are so out of line with what might be considered financially viable for a farmer.

The return on investment for a farmer for farm ground who’s not a speculator, who’s not planning to, you know, turn around and sell it for a profit in a few years. If you’re only making money by farming that could be 30, 40, 50 years.

I think one thing that’s really difficult for farmers is we don’t have the ability to control our input costs or the cost of our final goods.

At least not, you know, farmers who grow commodity crops, like we do, you know, it’s kind of crazy you know and most other businesses, when you produce something you get to decide how much you’re going to sell it for.

I don’t think the actual cost of our agricultural products are reflected in the price of the products right now because I know nobody wants their food to be more expensive and, and, you know, inflation is a huge problem that’s affecting everybody in the price of everything’s going way up.

But I don’t, you know, as expensive as food is now, I still don’t think the true cost of what we’re producing is actually in the price, you know, because so much of our food is still produced with these destructive practices.

And, you know, we’re sort of just, just transferring the cost to the future, we’re sort of subsidizing the cost of our food right now at the expense of the future and those costs are going to come back.

Carol McFarland:

So, what is one thing you wish you could change about the public’s understanding of agriculture?

Moses Boone: Well, I think there’s, you know, there’s not a good understanding of, you know, I talked a lot about tillage but I don’t think there’s really any any perception amongst the general public about, about how bad that really is, you know, for for the environment, it’s, it’s, when you’re talking about burning crop residue that’s easy for everyone to see, you know, it’s this big dramatic event.

When you’re talking about tillage practices that may be a road a tenth of an inch of soil per year.

It’s hard to get a lot of people really excited about that.

But if you think about the long term consequences like, you know, food is the ultimate energy resource.

It’s so hard to get it right to begin with.

And I think a lot of farmers don’t want to miss their chance.

It just happens to be the one year where, you know, the combination of the weather and the market, you know, all works together.

The conventional way of doing things is this formula of, you know, use tillage and pesticides to kill everything and then plant your crop and then use pesticides to control the weeds and disease and pests and use fertilizer to supply all the crop nutrition and basically just turn the soil into, you know, an inert growing medium.

That’s just there to hold up the roots and, you know, the farmers supplying everything that the plant needs.

That system, it sounds a little dystopian when you describe it like that, but it works.

You know, it really works.

So when you’ve got so much risk tied up in your farming process already, it’s hard to turn your back on something that you know is going to work.

Dusty Walsh: So we are pretty diversified, right? I mean, we have wheat, canola, sunflowers, cows, hay crops and the flower garden and raising three kids, too.

And it’s like all those things are demands on time, right?

So trying to figure out and then where we’re farming, like the home place here for a while, I think we’re down a little.

It’s like I had like 170 landowners to put everything together with all these little houses and stuff we’re farming around.

So we’re working on paring that down. And it’s not that and those conversations are not bad.

It’s really good to be that face of agriculture to people who move out here who have no idea.

That’s yeah. So that’s a hard balance, right, between how much of that time is worth it because there is return and reward for being able to educate those people.

And most of those interactions have been really positive, but they also take time.

And it’s a hassle to spend more time turning your combine around a house than it is actually cutting the rain, right?

That is one thing that- picking up other ground farther away from housing and bigger chunks.

It’s amazing how inefficient the little pieces really are.

And it’s hard. It’s a hard balance to come from feeling like we’re a steward of this ground. Right.

And even though they built a house on it or break it up into 10 acres or whatever, it’s like, well, we still want to be here to serve to steward that dirt well, right. Show them how it should be taken care of. 

Back to the return on the return on investment for the practices piece to that.

And I’ve had a lot of conversations too about how much long term work do we put into the ground that you don’t have?

I mean, like maybe we have a three year lease on it. Maybe we have a five year lease on it.

Maybe it’s going to be in houses next year. right?

Like it’s hard to put a lot of money and effort into a long term investment in the ground.

It’s that uncertain. So we’ve struggled with that too over the years.

We have three kids, two girls, 11 and eight, and the boy who’s three and they love the farm.

And it’s really- it’s been a really good segue to have the flower farm because it has a lot of hands-on stuff that they can really start doing early.

But then they like, I mean, tractors are everybody’s favorite.

We go check fields or look for calves in the spring when they’re coming and just being able to do all the things with the family is really cool.

That’s probably the most fun part. I don’t think that a lot of jobs offer that much family integration.

So not that that doesn’t mean everything’s a two sided coin, right? So it takes time, but it’s good.