Stories from the Field: Bonus Episode 3

Garrett Moon

I farm on the ground that’s been in my family since about 1941 and we are 100% no-till on our operation. We are on some extremely dry and light soils, very windy conditions and so we have to be very careful with how we treat the ground. That’s what drove us to no-till and we’re always looking for ways we can do things that are environmentally responsive with some of the people who are downwind from us with growing metropolitan areas and just to try to find ways that we have minimum erosion and we can make the most out of the little bit of water that we get.

Garett Heineck
I’m a research agronomist with the USDA ARS now for two years. Before that I was at the University of Minnesota and then I was at Washington State University for a short while in a postdoc. my role here in the Northwest Sustainable Agroecosystems Research Unit is to study cropping systems throughout our LTAR long-term agroecological research site which extends across most of Eastern Washington, Northeast Oregon and Northern Idaho so it’s a very large swath and the Horse Heaven Hills is one portion of that that I’m very interested in doing research on. A lot of what I do is on-farm so I’m working closely with farmers across this region

Wade Troutman
Well I’m in my 70s. I’ve farmed all my life. I was, as a child out with my grandpa and stuff. And so I’ve got to see the farm transition over all these years. All I ever wanted to do was farm.
Our farm wasn’t very big and so I really didn’t have an opportunity. There wasn’t the income for a couple of generations to live on the farm and I was encouraged to get a job elsewhere.

So I did go to college but all I wanted to do was farm. I was able to start and farming and then we’ve just built from there and this country is maybe 10 inch moisture. It’s a couple thousand feet in elevation but it’s fairly far north and the glacier covered it and left a lot of rock on the ground and because it’s not the best ground in the world, when I was starting farming, when people retired and their children had left or they didn’t have children, there wasn’t a lot of competition to lease other ground because people would look at it and say, who in the hell would want to farm that? And I took the ground that nobody else wanted. I know I did one early soil test and it had .3% organic matter in it.

Andy Juris

I farm with my dad. I’m the fourth generation on the farm. We started here. My great grandfather came in about 1904 and I think he started out on his own about 1930. So we’re latecomers to the country and farm about four miles east of Bickleton. 12 inch rainfall zone is what they say on paper, but it’s a really good year anymore when we see that. Some of our drier grounds in that six, sometimes four inch. So shallow soils, if you get two, two and a half feet to bedrock, it’s pretty good. So it definitely is a challenge. High altitude. We’re about 3000 feet up here. The high school gyms at the same level of Snoqualmie Pass.

So it doesn’t feel like it, but we are in the foothills of the Simcoe Mountains. So you can see the trees. We got a lot of scenery. That’s about, that’s our biggest commodity, I guess, is scenery.

For years [we] have been a wheat fallow operation, like everyone. And we’ve moved in the mid 1990s into no till, have been no till now. Since then, up until the last couple years, we started having to incorporate a little bit more tillage for some weed resistance issues. Rotation wise now, one of the problems that we did deal with in the fallow days was erosion, due to the fact that we could not hold two years worth of moisture in the shallow soil profile. And some of our acres then transferred to annual crop. We’re in a low rainfall area. It’s weird to do that.

Wade Troutman

There’s a lot of factors going in and one thing is because our weather is very variable, we’ll go into periods of drought, we’ll have some lack of snow cover some years. So adaptive management is the key. You got to kind of listen to Mother Nature and see what she’s going to give you this year and kind of guess how it’s going to go.

I think you always have to be positive. You can’t say, well, it’s never going to rain again, You try not to ever go for the highest yield potential because that can bite you really bad if you’ve laid a lot of cash out to raise that 100 bushel crop on ground that you’re lucky if you raise 50, you’re happy. So you adjust to what you see going on around you.

And then trying to stay current. Maybe the main goal I saw 40 years ago was we didn’t have any
organic matter.And then I realized we were compacting our soils. And so a lot of the management is how much of this can we fix in a lifetime?

How much can we go back to when my grandpa came out and it was Virgin Prairie? How far, because they raised pretty good wheat for the first 15-20 years.

No fertilizer, very little inputs, and they were successful.
And then as far as I’m concerned, they lost the organic matter. And it’s been a battle to get back to that point. And so I guess we manage for the future. We try, even though you’re caught up into making a profit this year, you still, the long-term goal is always the underlying management factor.

Garett Heineck

We are in a wheat fallow system because we’re so dry and it’s not the best system but it’s the only one that works and many of the challenges that come associated with the fallow with chemical resistant weeds and with loss of moisture the fallow is not particularly efficient but it’s just enough efficient that we can grow successful crops with it so I’ve been very focused on ways we can shorten or improve lessen the cost lessen the problems associated with the fallow period

It’s so much targeted towards the dry dry land and this region that we’re in which has struggles that are unique but I think also applied to other areas and concerns with climate change and many other things so we are on the leading edge of it here when it comes to the dry country and I think that’s why we’re glad to have him.It’s been fun to to do work in the one of the driest rain-fed wheat production regions in the world simply because you know if you can kind of figure things out here it it gives you an edge in other places as well so I can it’s it’s hopefully a two-way street right like I’m garnering a lot of information from you and your farm and your experience that I wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else.Yes yeah things like the Kernza you definitely get to plumb the downside potential of crops and systems and things that you want to try by trialing them in the Horse Heaven.

Andy Juris
All of these things kind of play into this attitude of innovation and its purpose. And you’re going to get a different answer from every single. For some farmers, this is what gets them up in the morning. This is what makes them happy. This is what is interesting to them. And for some of us, it’s something that we get drug into kicking and screaming. Where you realize that all your preconceived notions of what is going to work for ever are wrong and you’re going to have to change if you want to be here in the next 10 or 20 years. Whatever reason that gets you there, I guess good, you know. I think for a lot of us, innovation is about survival.

I think for most of us at the base level, it’s about survival. It’s about dealing with problems. And you can define survival however you want, whether it be the continuance of the farm for future generations, whether it is just getting through the next couple of years, we have a wide variety of opinions on climate change and how that is all affected and what’s going on. But I don’t think anybody will argue with the fact that my grandfather used to talk about snow up here in Bickleton that he would ride his horse across the snow drifts. They would get hard enough, he could ride his horse across the snow drifts, they would get hard enough, he could ride over fences. And when he would go to school, it really cut a lot of miles off of his trip. And that was normal. That was the norm for this area. We have not seen that now in the last 50 years.

So there is this change and how are you dealing with that change? How are you surviving with this environment that is changing for whatever reason? And so as you look at that innovation pushing that other areas where perhaps you’re not tied directly so much to the climate where it’s more stable, you get reliable rain, although even in the Midwest, they’re grappling with a couple of years of pretty bad drought. Innovation might be more about trying to either trim the bottom line, might be where you’re really looking to enhance the diversity of your soils or your cropping systems. Maybe where you say I’m really concerned about the environment and I’m trying to orient my farming practices around what I believe is going to be most beneficial for the environment as a whole.

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

Garrett Heinick

we need to define a good question. And if there is a good question, then think about that question enough to develop a testable hypothesis. And any good hypothesis, if approached properly, should be able to be rejected or failed to be rejected, and that is answering the question. So, if we try to bite off more than we can chew, take too big of a question, or have hypotheses that are not realistically solvable, then, in the end of the day, we will have a hard time answering that question. But if not, we are failing forward or succeeding, right?

Wade Troutman
So I think all these trials, if you don’t think you’re doing trials you are. I don’t know of a farmer out there. I remember when they brought out fertilizer anhydrous-ammonia when I was a kid, you know they were trying. Well if you put 20 pounds and then do a 40 pound test strip on your own farm and people would do that. Well at a nickel a pound I can’t afford 40 pounds of nitrogen but they’d try it anyway even though it was going to cost them $2 an acre. God I wish those days were back.

When I started farming it was so many pounds of N and most of us put it on as anhydrous ammonia which was the cheapest and it worked great for a while but then things started going south and we needed more and more and getting less results. We weren’t getting that first few years that people started using anhydrous ammonia. I mean, the yields just jumped but then what we found out is the pH changed in the soil.

You might be trying a trial because you’re trying to improve one thing and you find out that oh here’s another great benefit that I didn’t even know that was out there so that’s in my experience is there’s been a lot more good things than bad things that happen and I think not trying anything is the most dangerous.

You get you kind of got to see where it works because just because it works in Iowa or in the labs at WSU does not mean it’s going to work on your farm and and taking that knowledge and adapting it you can glean a lot of knowledge there but you still got to know your dirt and and make it work on your farm.

We grew up in a hundred and some years of wheat culture and all of us even the young guys today it’s that they know what that beautiful stand of wheat and you know it doesn’t matter if wheat’s a dollar a bushel, it’s still the ideal to achieve and it’s a mindset and but that doesn’t mean that all these other crops can’t work into that mindset and then has it turned out with us canola being more profitable than wheat that’s still the wheat I’m…at heart I’m still-I still want that perfect crop of wheat out here.

Wade Troutman
But I started raising canola to raise better wheat. There is no doubt about it.

Wade Troutman
And that was a big game changer, that and federal crop insurance because the first crop we shipped to Lethbridge, Alberta. And so if we got seven cents on the farm we were doing good.

Some people need the security of a market. I’m just always one that I wonder if I can get this to grow. And so you do what sparks joy in your life and one of the things I’m just very curious in this, like, can I get this to grow and find out some of the benefits later.

Garrett Moon
Probably one of the things that we’ve pushed for more than some other farms have is attempting to market to where we are working directly with millers and bakers and push that direction.

And so we’ve got some bakers that we work with that are interested in that. We work with some malters and we sell some product to them.

Wade Troutman
As he made his bread there he called the loaves from my farm Wade’s Wheat.
And so I’d been farming for quite a while at the time and I’d gone over to visit the bakery and I’d just shipped some but I beat the shipment over there and he’d ran out and I was talking to him and yeah the truck will be here in the morning and this woman come in and she wanted a loaf of Wade’s Wheat. And he says well we don’t have any on hand right now, we will tomorrow, but Wade’s right here.
And we were introduced and she thought we were pulling her leg and then we finally convinced her but for me being a wheat farmer that is the first time I’d ever met a customer of mine and that was kind of cool. And that relationship of direct marketing directly to the baker worked fairly well for me and it brought some much needed cash in at the time and it was profitable even though we were only, you know our yields weren’t that great but we were able to maintain them. The biggest expense was bringing in organic fertilizer, sourcing that all had to be shipped in and then when he retired I could not find that direct access. It was more going through a miller that did organic grain that sold it to a baker that did stuff in volume and then the profit margin went down because too many people were in between.

So on the organic end what I didn’t like was the amount of tillage we had to do to control weeds. The weed control is the hardest thing to do in organic and unless you got the time and money to go out there and hand pull the weeds it gets really, really tricky.

The market for organic yellow split peas really sucks. We ended up selling them on the commercial market because Whole Foods and PCC and some other outlets get their yellow split peas from China and you can’t compete with that. I mean that’s because they get it from a distributor and the distributor was sitting there and so it’s the same as conventional prices so that didn’t work so well on organic profit wise it was putting some nitrogen in.

Garrett Moon
The Kernza was kind of a natural to do with Garrett because one of the, I think it’s a hard requirement if I’m remembering correctly, is they want to make sure that there’s a market for it if it does become a marketable amount.

Kernza and things like that fall into the realm of things that I’m looking to do because there’s potentially higher value for a farm like ours than just to grow commodity wheat.

Garrett Moon

Probably the two big measures for me would be dollars and dirt, really. So on the dollar side, if there’s markets for it, if it makes me more money, if there’s potential markets that are growing, if I think there’s someplace it can go, those those are all the ways. Right. Does it make me more money or does it save me money? That’s an easy measure. On the dirt side, is it better for the ground? Is it protecting the soils from blowing? Is there less risk associated with it?
Does it smooth out some of that risk, some of the curves we have with moisture, those sorts of things?
So those are really the things I’m looking at to answer those questions.

Garett Heineck
I will say though, regardless of whatever alpha you set.

Doing the research, I kind of harkening back to what Garrett Moon was saying earlier, you can have all of the knowledge in the world of statistics and textbook knowledge of what cropping systems could, should, would be.

But the wisdom that comes from experiences is not something you can, you can easily obtain, or is replaceable with that knowledge, you have to build those skills and experiences.

Garrett Moon
When I first came back to the farm my background was in mechanical engineering. And, you know, it’s a numbers based profession, and I kind of wanted to use that much more than I do now and the way that I approached farming,

My dad is very opposite. My father farmed his whole life and was succes sful at it. that was right here in Horse Heaven where it’s not easy to do. And I would ask him these questions to try to get information that I could use to make decisions.

And it frustrated me a little bit at first because he could never really give hard answers but what I finally came to the conclusion of is my father had very much just internalized the feelings of all these things into something that was very amorphous but he could just walk and like he said about the no till field he could walk outside, stand in the sun, close his eyes, and just feel what the weather was like and tell you that it was time to go to work and start fall seeding and he would be correct.

It takes a lot of years of experience to get there of course but also data is useful but there are so so many variables and the unbelievable complexities of these living systems and how everything intertwines and the mechanical part of farming and the way the iron affects the soil and all these things and that’s where the true value of the experience and the knowledge on the ground comes from is someone that can bring that in and offer these tips and solutions and suggestions to the research. I mean the two interplay with each other very much.

Wade Troutman
I think 10 or 11 people [were] farming on the hill when I started farming and now it’s down to two of us and so.

Carol McFarland:
That makes the coffee shop talk pretty lean.

Wade Troutman
Well there used to be people at the coffee shop and that’s gotten really thin

It’s not that I miss the old days because there was some really hard stuff in the old days hard physical work in the old days that we’ve overcame with technology and stuff but it’s that lack of a larger group of people in your close community to get together with fellow farmers that are kind of like-minded or trying to do the same thing you are.

It’s a rural culture instead of an agrarian culture and there’s two very different things agrarian culture that I was fortunate enough to be born in where everybody helped each other and I think a lot of people coming to the country seeing that ideal of you know how farmers had started co-ops and all that stuff that they did to survive back in the homestead days and stuff and I think it’s a great idea but they can’t recreate it because they’re coming from such different backgrounds it’s not the same culture as a group of farmers sitting around and trying to figure out how to solve the railroad monopoly or whatever.

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

the more minds you have working on a problem because we do have a problem. We can’t farm like our grandfathers did. It’s not going to work. It might have worked fine in 1910 when- I’m talking about my grandfather it’s not yours.

It’s just what I’ve seen in my lifetime is, is we need those people but we need them actively farming and we need to be able to have them make a living off of just farming and not having their spouse have to get a real job.

It’s policy and bringing the community together to create a marketplace is probably more interesting. I’m better at that.

Andy Juris

If I could change one thing in ag it would be more of an awareness that we do have a pretty strong voice when we all speak together still, even though there’s not nearly as many of us as there used to be, the fact that we do an incredibly important, we feel an important role in society that needs to be held up in a way that needs to be held up, and it needs to be held up by more than just a few, it needs to be held up by all of us and we all need to communicate. That would probably be the thing I would change.