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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century 7 Illustrative Case Studies The committee that authored the report Alternative Agriculture (NRC, 1989) commissioned case studies of 14 farms to illustrate the wide range of alternative farming systems that were operating in the United States in the 1980s. Those case studies provided important details about the complexity of individual farming practices and the diversity of approaches used to improve the sustainability of farming systems. The committee for this report commissioned two sets of case studies. Initially, the committee followed up with the operators or owners of the 14 case-study farms featured in Alternative Agriculture to see whether their approaches to farming have changed over time and how their approaches have affected the viability of their farms. In addition to following up with those case-study farms, the committee selected nine new farms to serve as informative case studies for this report. The purpose of the new case studies was to illustrate the diverse production and management practices used to improve sustainability across different farm commodity types, to highlight how innovative producers address common challenges associated with moving toward greater sustainability, and to better understand the role of larger social, economic, and institutional contexts in the emergence and development of these farms. The assumption is that successful farmers, operating in real-world environments, are a key source of knowledge for innovative agricultural production systems design and management. The case-study farms were chosen to provide insight into how different segments of U.S. agriculture are implementing sustainability concepts in the 21st century. Each farm is located within biogeophysical, economic, and sociopolitical realms with scales varying from family to farm, local landscape, local community, regional, and global. Their stories are necessarily complex, and their success at improving different measures of sustainability illustrates the balancing of various goals and objectives faced by most real-world farmers. In most cases, their farming systems build on positive synergies and interactions among different aspects of the social and natural elements of their farms, which are manifested at various scales (for example, households, farms, watersheds, and niche markets). Those interactions are dynamic and are expected
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century to change in response to or anticipation of opportunities and constraints. Many of the key technologies and interaction processes for sustainability have been well studied by scientists, and are summarized in the main body of this report. But the current state of farming systems science is far from adequate to effectively model, in a holistic way, the complexities of interaction illustrated by the case-study farms.
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century Follow-up of the Case Studies Featured in Alternative Agriculture The report Alternative Agriculture (NRC, 1989) used 11 case studies that included 14 farms to provide in-depth examples of the wide range of “alternative” agricultural farming systems discussed in the report. The case studies were conducted in 1986 and included 5 integrated crop and livestock farms1, 7 fruit and vegetable farms2, 1 beef cattle ranch3, and 1 rice farm4. The current committee attempted to contact these farms to find out how they have performed since 1986. This type of longitudinal study is a valuable way to identify the factors that influence long-term successes and challenges, and to highlight the organizational and management strategies associated with a farm’s long-term viability. STATUS OF THE FARMS The committee was able to obtain current information and contacted the persons who owned or operated the farms for 10 out of the original 14 farms (Table 7-1). The committee was unable to confirm the operating status of 4 of the farms because it could not locate or reach the current owners, operators, or other people interviewed in 1986. Of the 10 farms contacted, 2 were no longer in business. One farm (Stephen Pavich and Sons) reported that they had ceased operation in 2001 as a result of several unfortunate events, including three insurance claims during the time that the farm was expanding. Although the case-study farm business no longer exists, Stephen Pavich Sr.’s children remain involved in agriculture as farmers or agricultural consultants. Another original case-study farmer (Ted Winsberg of Green Cay Produce) has retired, although other people are farming some of the land he used to farm. Although Rex Spray of Spray Brothers’ Farm and Mel Coleman were interested in providing an update of their farms, they were unable to participate in in-depth interviews because of time constraints. Both farms were still in operation in 2008. Spray Brothers’ Farm was using mostly the same management practices and crop rotations reported in Alternative Agriculture. Rex said that the economic viability of the farm has not changed, but he indicated that weeds and changes in weather patterns were two of his biggest concerns. When the committee reached Mel Coleman of Coleman Natural Foods (known as Coleman Natural Beef in NRC, 1989) in late 2007, he said that the family’s cattle ranch had reduced the size of its herd considerably since 1989 because of drought. Coleman Natural Foods, however, was in a better financial position in 2007 than in the 1980s because of expanded product lines and a premium for its certified-organic and naturally raised livestock 1 Spray Brothers Farm, BreDahl Farm, Sabot Hill Farm, Kutztown Farm, and Thompson Farm. 2 Ferrari Farm, Hundley Farms, Winsberg Farm, Garguillo Farm, Barfield Farm, Stephen Pavich and Sons, and Kitamura Farm. 3 Coleman Natural Beef. 4 Lundberg Family Farms.
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century TABLE 7-1 Description and status of farms featured as case studies in the report Alternative Agriculture (NRC, 1989) Farm Name Location Primary Products in the 1980s Acres Operated in the 1980s Status in 2008 Spray Brothers Morgan, Ohio Milk, beef, vegetables, small grains, soybean 720 acres In operation. Declined to be interviewed. Mormon Trail Farm (known as BreDahl Farm in NRC, 1989) Adair County, Iowa Lamb, beef, swine, vegetables, small grains, soybean 160 acres In operation. Farmed acreage = 320 acres. Livestock = 80 cows, 55 ewes, a small flock of sheep, and broiler operation that was being scaled back. Brookview Farm (known as Sabot Hill Farm in NRC, 1989) Goochland County, Va. Beef, forage, cash grain 3,530 acres of land, of which 815 acres were farmed 500 beef cattle In operation. Farmed acreage = 980 acres. Livestock = 140 beef brood cows and 140 calves. Kutztown Farm Kutztown, Pa. Beef, forage, small grains, soybeans 305 acres 250–290 beef cattle In operation. Farmed acreage = 400 acres. Livestock = 117 cows. Thompson Farm Boone County, Iowa Milk, swine, vegetables, soybeans, forage 282 acres 50 cows, 90 swine In operation. Farmed acreage = 300 acres. Livestock = 50 beef cattle and 90 sows. Ferrari Farm Linden, Calif. Vegetables, small fruit, nuts 223 acres In operation. Farmed acreage = 450 acres. Hundley Farms Loxahatchee, Fla. Vegetables, oranges, sugarcane, cattle 5,640 acres Could not reach owner. Ted Winsberg’s Farm Palm Beach, Fla. Peppers 350 acres Retired. John Garguillo’s Farm Naples, Fla. Tomatoes 1,300 acres Could not find information on farm. Fred Barfield’s Farm Immokalee, Fla. Vegetables, oranges, beef, cattle 1,550 acres, 1,000 Beefmaster cattle, 1,200 cow mixed breed, commercial herd Could not find information on farm. Pavich Family Farms Maricopa County, Ariz. Delano, Calif. Kern County, Calif. Small fruit and grapes, vegetables 1,432 acres Ceased operation. Kitamura Farm Colusa County, Calif. Tomato, vine seeds, beans 305 acres Could not find information on farm. Coleman Natural Beef Saguache, Colo. Beef 21,500 acres owned, 13,000 leased, 250,000 available by grazing permits, 2,500 beef cattle In operation. Declined to be interviewed. Lundberg Family Farms Richvale, Calif. Rice 3,200 acres In operation. Farmed acreage = 14,000 acres. Cash crop = rice
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century and products. The beef division of Coleman Natural Foods was sold to Meyer Natural Angus (another firm) in June 2008. The committee obtained information on Kutztown Farm from Jeff Moyer of Rodale Institute. However, that case-study farm is not included because NRC could not reach the owner of the family farm to obtain informed consent for using it as a case study. The committee commissioned consultant Susan Smalley (Michigan State University) to conduct follow-up interviews on 8 of the 14 farms featured in Alternative Agriculture (NRC, 1989) using a protocol designed by the committee (see Appendix D for protocol). The follow-up interviews included the 2 farms no longer in business and 5 farms still in operation—Mormon Trail Farm (known as BreDahl Farm in NRC, 1989), Brookview Farm (known as Sabot Hill Farm in NRC, 1989), Thompson Farm, Ferrari Farm, and Lundberg Family Farms. COMMONALITIES AMONG THE FARMS The follow-up interviews include examples of farms that used conventional and organic practices. Although organic farming has become much more common since the mid-1980s, two of the farms (Mormon Trail Farm and Thompson Farm) suggested that conversion did not seem suitable for their situation. The three originally organic farms (Brookview Farm, Ferrari Farm, and the Lundberg Family Farms), however, have increased the proportion of or shifted completely to organic production. Nonetheless, all of the 1989 case-study farms still in operation appear to exhibit qualities that are associated with movement toward greater sustainability (for example, robustness, resistance, and resilience). In the follow-up interviews, many farmers emphasized the importance of maintaining or building up their natural resource base and maximizing the use of internal resources as key parts of their farming strategies. Those farming philosophies are consistent with the committee’s discussion on environmental sustainability and the importance of a closed nutrient cycle (Chapter 3). Almost all the five restudied farms are using farming practices and management strategies similar to those described in the 1989 report. That observation reinforces that farming systems can maintain or improve natural resource quality and maintain economic sustainability over time. The crop farms emphasize the importance of careful soil management and use crop rotations and cover crops to reduce erosion and manage fertility. Crop diversity has also remained a key feature of these farms, some of which have increased crop diversity (for example, the Lundberg Family Farms). The farms with livestock each continue to pursue management practices that do not use hormones or antibiotics. Despite strong continuity in their core farming practices, most of the 1989 case-study farms have adjusted and adapted their mix of crops and livestock, their scale of operations, and their marketing strategies in response to changes in environmental conditions, their family situations, customers’ preferences, and market opportunities. Their ability to make changes in operations to adapt to new contexts reflects a form of resilience that was discussed in Chapter 2. Most of the 1989 case-study farms participate in nontraditional commodity and direct-sales markets to some extent (for example, Ferrari Farm sells a small proportion of its fruit at a farmers’ market and Brookview Farm sells most of its products via direct sales). They produce some, if not all, their products for value-trait markets—for example, organic crops and organic or naturally raised livestock. Each of the five farms continues to rely heavily on family members for labor and management of farming operations. The Lundberg Family Farms also hires a number of
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century nonfamily workers, through the use of “good” labor practices discussed in Chapter 4, and recently was named California Workplace of the Year by the Employer Resource Institute and the top Small Workplace by a nonprofit group, Winning Workplaces™ Although all the 1989 case-study farms still in operation reported to be robust and successful, a few of the farms highlighted threats to their long-term viability. Those threats include high land-rental costs and rising land values associated with development pressure. Operators of two case-study farms in California (Bryce Lundberg and Wayne Ferrari) mentioned availability of water for farming as one of their concerns. Other challenges mentioned include spread of new weed species.
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century Mormon Trail Farm Mormon Trail Farm (known as the BreDahl Farm in NRC, 1989) is located about 60 miles southwest of Des Moines, directly on the historic pioneer route that runs through southern Iowa. The home place, now owned by Clark BreDahl and his wife, Linda, has been in the BreDahl family since 1927. In 1974, Clark began operating the farm where he and three other siblings grew up. In the 1980s, he and Linda cash rented the farm from his mother. Since their interview for the original Alternative Agriculture study, they have been able to purchase the 160-acre home place along with an additional quarter section a few miles away. Although the farm consists of 320 acres, it is smaller than the Adair County average of 407 acres, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture. The farming operation is similar in many ways to what it was 20 years ago, although several components have changed as conditions have dictated. FARMING PHILOSOPHY The BreDahls’ farming philosophy has not changed over the years. They try to operate the farm using internal resources to the largest extent possible. Farm inputs are evaluated on the basis of how they will affect net income rather than gross production. Sometimes, maximum yields and maximum profits move in a direct correlation, but frequently they do not. The BreDahls stress that concerns for family and the environment often rank equally with economics when final decisions are made. Two examples illustrate this philosophy. First, the BreDahls emerged from the farm crisis of the mid-1980s in stable financial condition. They could have attempted to expand the farm’s land base more rapidly, but chose instead to pursue additional careers for which both had college training and previous job experience. It also fit with Clark’s idea of diversifying the family’s income as much as possible. Shortly after the original study, Linda quit her full-time teaching job to be a stay-at-home mother and farming partner while the children were young. After a 12-year hiatus, she returned to the classroom and, at that time, Clark also accepted a part-time job in the communications field. Thus, one of the biggest challenges with the farming operation in the years since has been tailoring the enterprise mix to fit the available labor supply. Second, the BreDahls have countered state and national trends by steadily decreasing the amount of row crops grown on their farm, moving instead to more grass and livestock—a combination they feel is better suited to their highly erodible soils and the environment. They have also found success with several smaller niche enterprises that, cumulatively, have made a significant contribution to the farm’s income. MANAGEMENT FEATURES Crop Rotations and the Soil The overall mix of crops and livestock on the BreDahl farm has shifted steadily toward livestock over the past 20 years. In 2008, the BreDahls produced only 25 acres of field corn
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century and 45 acres of soybean (the first they had grown in five years) on their 300-plus acres. Typically 40–50 acres of oats and alfalfa are grown, while the acreage of mixed grass-legume pasture has increased significantly. Intensive row-crop production is confined to the best upland soils (Sharpsburg, Macksburg, and Winterset) and river bottoms (mostly Colo-Ely) with high corn suitability ratings and little slope. On rotated acres, corn, soybean, oats, alfalfa or clover, and occasionally turnips or rye are grown. A small apple orchard and planting of fall-bearing raspberries are microenterprises. Although crop rotations and manure applications remain essentially unchanged at the farm, planting practices have shifted heavily towards no-till. For the most part, contact herbicides are used that leave little or no long-term residue. In some cases, resistant corn varieties are used to eliminate insecticide applications. In rare instances where second-year corn has been grown, hybrids with genetic resistance to rootworms have performed as well or better than first-year corn. A heavy emphasis on grass, no-till planting practices, and row crops grown on only the best land have helped cut soil losses from the farm to near zero, a fact affirmed by soil tests for organic matter that show a steady rise. Long-term yield trends on both the home farm where Clark’s father was an early adopter of soil conservation practices more than 60 years ago and the neighboring farm which they purchased have been rising steadily, and year-to-year variations have become smaller. Soils in the area of southwest Iowa where Clark farms tend to have wet, clay out-croppings on hillsides that were once relatively unproductive. Combine yield monitors in recent years, however, have verified little or no difference in yields for many of these spots. Clark attributes the positive changes to better soil aeration resulting from installation of field drainage tile, manure applications to improve soil fertility, no-till planting practices that enhance soil structure, and the regular inclusion of deep-rooted legumes to penetrate any remaining hardpan soils. Crop varieties have also improved. Livestock Livestock numbers (and species) on the BreDahl Farm have also undergone changes. In the 1980s, the BreDahls had two flocks of sheep—one a flock of 40 registered Rambouillet ewes and another of approximately 150 commercial crossbred ewes bred annually to produce market lambs. They also maintained a small sow herd in a farrow-to-finish swine operation, and sometimes purchased lightweight beef calves that were fed to market on homegrown grains. Two successful livestock enterprises that emerged on the BreDahl farm during the 1990s were the custom finishing of feeder lambs for other owners and the addition of broiler chickens sold direct from the farm to customers. Lambs were brought in from ranches in western range states, finished on grain, and marketed to Midwestern packing plants. The BreDahls were paid a monthly fee for the animals’ care, plus the feed they ate. The arrangement worked well because it gave western ranchers a new marketing option for their lambs while adding a predictable source of income for the BreDahls’ labor and a portion of their grain. Broiler chickens emerged as an enterprise almost by accident. A few chickens raised strictly for family use while Linda was pregnant with their second child mushroomed by word of mouth into a business that eventually attracted customers from as far away as Des Moines and Omaha. An additional benefit was that chicken customers visiting the farm frequently asked about other meats, leading to the direct sale of beef, lamb, and, initially, pork. Broiler chickens were a labor-intensive project, but worked well for their young family. For 17 years, the BreDahls grew, processed, and direct-marketed up to 1,200 broilers
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century per summer season with the help of their daughters. As their last daughter leaves home, Clark and Linda are in the process of phasing back broiler production, but direct sales of beef and lamb remain strong. Pork is no longer included in the direct-sale mix as outdated facilities, poor prices, and competing outlets for their labor led the BreDahls to exit pork production in the late 1990s. Part of the product appeal of the BreDahls’ poultry, beef, and lamb was that they were marketed as produced “naturally” without any introduced hormones or antibiotics. While the BreDahls experimented briefly with organic production, they learned that most of their meat customers were more interested in natural husbandry practices than organic certification. This was especially true as those customers discovered that organically produced meats came at a significantly higher price due to higher production costs. Although direct sales represent only a small part of total beef and lamb production (about 10 percent), they have been an important source of additional revenue to the farm. Because the BreDahls have the ability to set their own prices on direct-sale items and those prices remain relatively stable, they provide critical income support, especially in years when commodity prices are low. In 2008, the BreDahls still ran about 55 commercial crossbred ewes along with a small flock of registered Finnsheep. Lack of competitive markets for their commercially grown lambs has limited growth of that enterprise. Partially offsetting that obstacle, however, are lambing percentages well above industry averages with the inclusion of the prolific Finnsheep in their crossbreeding mix. A big gain in livestock numbers has been growth of a commercial cow herd. In 2008, the herd numbered approximately 80 cows, with ownership of all calves retained through slaughter. Growth of the herd, started in 1988, was “haphazard” until Clark began identifying all newborn calves with ear tags and keeping detailed records on their growth characteristics and carcass merit. He also began purchasing bulls based on their expected progeny differences (EPDs). EPDs use measured data to scientifically rate an animal’s ability to pass along key genetic traits to its offspring. Some of the traits evaluated include birth, weaning and yearling weights, calving ease, and factors related to carcass quality. The combination of using performance-tested bulls, maintaining detailed cow herd records, and basing cull decisions on hard data has led to steady gains in productivity. Feedlot and carcass data gathered on all slaughter cattle have charted similar improvements in rate of gain, percentage of carcasses grading choice or prime, and number of animals qualifying for the Certified Angus Beef® designation. Participation in a producer-verified program (PVP) that documents the origin, age, and history of each animal nets the BreDahls an additional premium for their commodity cattle that end up in lucrative foreign markets. As pasture acres have increased, so has the intensity of production. The BreDahls use a system of planned grazing that limits the amount of time animals spend in each pasture. By grazing quickly, removing the animals, and giving the forage more time to rest and regrow, stands are improved and production increased. Electric fence, centralized watering sites, and careful attention to maintaining mixed stands of grasses and legumes have been key tools to making the system work. Another change related to the livestock business has evolved out of necessity. In recent years, the farm has gone to composting nearly all the dead animals. They started by composting waste parts from broiler chickens that were processed on the farm. The practice worked so well that when commercial rendering companies quit accepting sheep and drastically increased their fees for removing cattle, the BreDahls began composting those species as well. Using mainly cornstalks, straw, and other bedding materials as their carbon source, they have found the practice to be clean, odor-free, and much less expen-
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century sive than commercial disposal. The process also results in valuable recycled nutrients to return to their fields as fertilizer. All of these efforts represent examples of using internal resources—time and knowledge—to add value to the farm’s production. LEARNING NETWORKS Clark has been involved with several farm organizations—Farm Bureau, Practical Farmers of Iowa, and numerous sheep and cattle groups, and he has served on the steering committees of two university research farms in his area. He likes attending field days and open houses to observe first-hand how practices work, often recalling his father ’s advice: “You won’t live long enough to make all the mistakes yourself, so do your best to learn from others.” He has seen what he considers a positive shift in attitude in recent years by some of the larger farm organizations and the Iowa Department of Agriculture to provide more support for small, beginning, and niche farming operations. Overall, he thinks that type of assistance is more readily available today than it was 15 or 20 years ago. Countering that, in his opinion, are traditional farm commodity programs that reduce risk for established farmers, but make it harder for beginning farmers to compete. USE OF GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS As in the 1980s, the BreDahls today use government programs selectively. Twenty years ago, Clark felt that most family farms would be better off without commodity support programs. He also concluded that those programs encouraged many farmers to convert non-program acres to subsidized crops such as corn and soybean at the expense of livestock. History since has tended to confirm that theory as pasture, forage, and small grain acres have declined dramatically in Iowa over the past two decades along with the number of farms raising livestock. Today, most federal and state programs require farmers to follow rigid guidelines or use specific practices in order to qualify for payments. Yet, Clark is not convinced that government agencies know better than individual farmers what is best for their land, their farming operations, or their communities. One size does not fit all, he maintains, and feels it is critical that farmers choose wisely the technologies and funding sources they will accept, even if it sometimes affects revenue. The BreDahls have used funding available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) to assist with some of their pasture renovation, but have largely self-financed farm improvements through private lenders. They began their shift to managed grazing in the late 1970s, long before most current government grazing incentive programs existed. Since then, they have invested heavily, at their own expense, in electric fencing, watering equipment, and solar-powered energizers that allow them to pasture more animals per acre in an environmentally sound manner. Clark believes farm commodity programs have encouraged many producers to substitute the external resources of technology and capital for the internal resources of labor and management. As production has shifted heavily to corn, soybean, and other program crops, farms have lost diversity, become more open to risk, and, ironically, more reliant on future government support. He also feels the security afforded by commodity programs has dampened farmers’ interest in trying new alternative approaches.
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century TRIAL OF ORGANIC PRODUCTION The BreDahls’ attitude of using internal resources to the fullest ultimately led them to experiment with organic production in the mid-1990s. They were considering organics at the time of their original interview for Alternative Agriculture in the late 1980s. They began the transition process on cropland in 1995 and maintained all of their home farm in a certified-organic regimen for 10 years. Although both Clark and Linda embraced the idea of eliminating synthetic fertilizers and pesticides from their operation, the results of their experiment did not meet expectations. Clark’s biggest concern was soil loss from the tillage associated with organic production. “I knew that erosion on our farm previously had been extremely low and tillage just seemed like a giant step backwards,” Clark said. “Besides that, soil tests showed organic matter starting to decline in some of the fields receiving multiple tillage passes.” Other shortcomings with organic production included marketing contracts that were sometimes deceptive, price premiums that were less than expected, burdensome paperwork, and, in the case of direct-sale meats, customers reluctant to pay the added costs. While organics aligned well with their philosophical beliefs, bottom-line costs and returns did not point to long-term sustainability. BENEFITS FROM THE BIOFUEL INDUSTRY In recent years, Iowa has become a national leader in the production of biofuels, and this new industry has had a positive effect on the BreDahls’ farming operation. While providing an additional cash market for excess grain, the industry has also helped them lower feed costs for their cattle and sheep. They use both wet and dry forms of corn gluten and distillers grains to stretch summer pastures, extend the fall grazing season, and utilize low-quality crop residues for feed that otherwise would have little value. Ethanol co-products have especially improved the efficiency of their pasture and forage-based diets because, with starch removed, those feeds do not upset the balance of roughage-digesting microbes populating the rumen. The BreDahls have relied heavily on research done at Iowa State University to help them turn this new energy source into an asset for food production as well. SUMMARY AND FUTURE OUTLOOK The BreDahl Farm’s management strategy of internalizing operating costs and minimizing purchased inputs while maintaining soil quality and animal health is a key factor of the farm’s success. Their experience shows it is not necessary to farm thousands of acres or rely heavily on government safety nets to be profitable. An active management style, committed family involvement, and diverse mix of enterprises have helped the BreDahls make a comfortable living while improving soil health and contributing to their community. Clark’s outlook on farming remains positive. He still very much enjoys the challenges associated with production agriculture and looks forward to implementing more new ideas as he “retires” to full-time farming again in the near future. Although they recognize change as a certainty, Clark and Linda believe the farm has potential to provide both an adequate living and satisfying life style to another generation of the family. Talks are currently under way, but no specific plans have been made.
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century Zenner Farm BACKGROUND AND HISTORY The Zenner Farm is a family-operated sole proprietorship run by Russ and Kathy Zenner. It is located in Latah and Nez Perce Counties, Idaho, in the southeast corner of the Palouse region. Dryland farming predominates on the rolling terrain of the Palouse. The Zenners currently farm 2,800 acres of land (640 owned, 2,160 leased) and produce wheat, small grains, lentils, peas, and garbanzos. Russ has been a regional pioneer in adopting, learning about, and promoting direct seeding (a method of planting and fertilizing done without prior tillage to prepare the soil). He is a longstanding member of what is now the Pacific Northwest Farmers’ Cooperative, which handles a large portion of the pulse market in the United States. More recently, he has marketed a portion of his crops through Shepherd’s Grain, a new regional value supply chain certified by the Food Alliance. Russ’s family came to the area in the 1890s from Luxembourg. His grandfather managed to get six boys started farming, beginning in 1936. Russ reflects, “We’ve been blessed with where my granddad settled. We’ve got good dirt here.” He says that the first generations of Zenners who farmed had the goal of living conservatively to make future opportunities possible for themselves and their children. By the time Russ was growing up, the family farm included cropland and a cow-calf operation that Russ’s father and uncle ran in a partnership. Russ and Kathy married after high school, and she worked at a bank and helped put him through the University of Idaho. After finishing his B.S. degree in agricultural economics, Russ worked for a while for the Farm Credit System. The couple came back to the farm in 1970. Russ was the oldest of his generation in the extended family who returned for some involvement with the farm. By the early to mid-1970s, the farm was structured as a corporation that involved members of the extended family, including Russ’s uncle, his father, his brother, and various cousins. At that time, the farm involved an extensive (1,500 head) livestock-finishing operation and about 4,000 acres of cropland and 8,000 acres of rangeland. In 1984, the farm split into two separate partnerships, one with Russ and his brother (which included livestock finishing and 2,200 acres of cropland) and the other run by his cousins. In 1993, Russ and his brother split their partnership in two, with Russ’s brother getting the finishing operation and Russ and Kathy taking over the cropland. Because Russ observed consistent profits in livestock farming and had developed his passion for the cropping side, he preferred to turn his full attention to crop farming. His approach and philosophy were influenced heavily by what had been his first volunteer experience: serving for 12 years as Latah County Soil Conservation supervisor. That work opened Russ’s eyes to the dramatic impacts of soil erosion in the region and the role of agriculture in that problem. He says, “I was on a mission early in my farming career to reduce the detrimental influence of tillage on our cropland. I didn’t want to go broke doing it, so we went slow with changes on our farm.” In that way, Russ developed a clear goal early on to question and change long-accepted practices of farming in his region.
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century Over the years, Russ and Kathy expanded their land holdings through purchase and developed some long-term relationships to rent farmland.37 For about 20 years, Kathy augmented their farm income by working at the local cooperative. In time, the Zenners had three children—a son and two daughters. The couple also made some sound investments that provided security and enhanced their ability to develop their farming system in accordance with their values and priorities. Russ now enjoys reading about and discussing food, agricultural, and environmental issues. In the summer of 2008, he spoke avidly of ideas he had encountered in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle, and Andrew Duffin’s agricultural and environmental history of the Palouse, Plowed Under. FARM PRODUCTION SYSTEM Russ’s approach to his farm and development of a farming system emerge from his attunement to topography and the health and productivity of his soils. He says, “My main motivation is to farm this ground in a manner that we can build topsoil. That means we can’t do much tillage.” His concerns regarding the sustainability of his farming system thus center first on tillage and the need to reduce disruptions, and subsequently on the impacts of manmade chemistry (that is, how agricultural chemicals might affect soil biology). He describes himself as becoming increasingly interested in “biological farming”: an approach that focuses less on chemical inputs and more on improving the microbiology of soils and plants as a way of enhancing crop health, quality, and yield. Soils and Growing Conditions The soils in the region are unique, young, wind-blown loess soils that are easily affected by erosion on the rolling hills. Tillage erosion, over the roughly 120 years during which the area has been farmed, has exposed clay ridges. As the land has been tilled with moldboard plows initially, and chisel plows and disks today, the soil has been moved further down the slopes so that the topsoil on the upper part of the hills has thinned. The evidence of erosion and knowledge of its impacts have compelled Russ to move to direct seeding. Between Russ’s farmlands and up into Canada, little irrigation is done. However, the conditions are more desert-like southward. Annual rainfall on Russ’s farm is about 22 inches. The weather can affect the quality of the pulse crops he grows. There is good moisture in May and June, and weather can be cool even in the summer. At the same time, moisture has critical effects on the quality of lentils and garbanzos; it can negatively affect the color or can discolor the crop, which reduces its quality. The region can have wet autumns, which can make late-season harvesting difficult. In addition, harvest times differ across the rolling topography. A week’s difference in maturity can affect the quality of the crop with frequent differences between north- and south-facing slopes. Crops and Rotations In this region, according to Russ, winter wheat has been king for a long time. With the shift toward planting more pulse crops, wheat on Zenner Farm now has a place in a more 37 Russ notes that farm expansion opportunities have become very competitive in his area. Today they can be more driven by money, than by long-term relationships. However, in some cases, being a direct-seed farmer can help, as when an older landowner, taking his land out of CRP, specifically sought a direct-seed farmer and leased to Russ.
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century complex rotation of cool-weather crops. The rotation typically involves winter wheat, followed by a spring grain (wheat or barley) or certified seed, and then followed by a broad leaf crop (such as lentils, peas, garbanzos, or a brassica). Within a category, the Zenners try to diversify at least every three years; hence, they rotate garbanzos with peas or lentils to break up disease cycles. At times, Russ has also planted grass for seed. He is exploring the possibility of other rotations, such as sweet clover–alfalfa as a nurse crop for late-season planting, which could be a means to include green manure in rotations and still minimize the need for tillage. In the process of considering rotation options, Russ has looked at the possibility of raising livestock, which was a more typical production option in previous decades than at present. He has considered sheep, which could pulverize the stubble and eat volunteers (and possibly allow less glyphosate use). However, most livestock in this region require an over-wintering facility, which could create concentration-related problems, because deep mud can limit grazing in winter and early spring. In terms of current crop allocations, about 1,200 acres are to winter wheat and winter peas, 800 acres to spring grains, and 800 acres to pulses; another 30 acres are in CRP. Russ averages 1700#/acre production on garbanzos. He averages 95 bu/acre on winter wheat, and 60–65 bu/acre on spring wheat. For winter peas, he averages 2,500#/acre; for spring barley, 5,000#/acre; and for lentils, 2,000#/acre. Fertility Program Russ conducts regular soil tests before every grain crop and applies fertilizer according to Washington State University and University of Idaho recommendations. The requirements vary dramatically by crop. For dark-red winter wheat, he typically applies 120#N/20S/10–20# per acre. He will then top-dress soft white wheat (20#/A of N) and high protein wheat varieties (40#/A of N). He does not put fertilizer on his pulse crops. Russ has seen a general decline in soil pH over time on his farm, but he has no cost-effective source of lime to apply. He has seen a decline in yield for pulse crops, perhaps due to the change in pH and the absence of new genetics for those crops. He has not observed as much change in the grain yield. There appears to be nothing in the literature on work to adapt crop genetics to deal with declines in soil pH. He is particularly frustrated that current management practices are not sustainable because of factors such as declining soil pH. He does not believe that what has worked in the past will necessarily work in the future. Russ monitors pH and Brix in the sap of the plants while they are growing. He has looked at some research into the response of plants to biological agents such as the application of molasses at 1 pt/acre. He has also tried biological foliar sprays, but with equivocal outcomes: “We thought our discovery process would happen quicker.” Direct Seeding As noted earlier, Russ’s service with the Latah County Soil Conservation District after returning to the farm helped him see firsthand the need to create a more sustainable agricultural system and prompted his interest in direct seeding (no-till) as a viable conservation option. The late 1970s had seen a push for no-till, but various challenges from disease problems, inappropriate rotations, poor yields, residue management problems, and the cost of glyphosate all served to create new risks for farmers interested in the transition. Russ observes that in those days, they did not understand, for example, the “green bridge” and failed to anticipate how heavy residues could pose a problem for planting. In a flurry
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century of activity, the result was that a lot of farmers jumped into no-till too quickly and then did not do it successfully. Russ says that “no-till has struggled to be acceptable, to have a good name. That’s actually been another motivation for PNDSA [the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association].” As Russ looked at direct seeding for his own farm, he did not want to lose his certified seed capability (and the associated income) and realized that he would have to figure out how to reduce risk in the system. The transition took seven or eight years and involved considerable experimentation, inquiry, and informal education. For example, he learned a lot from experience of others, including Dr. Dwayne Beck at the South Dakota State no-till research station. Russ sees the transition to direct seeding as key to his long-term profitability. As the Zenners have become established in direct-seed production, they have also adapted and designed planting and spraying equipment that is more efficient and particularly suited to the region and their operations. Russ comments, “We’re so much more labor and equipment efficient than we were 20 years ago. It’s dramatic.” They also provide custom services with their direct-seeding equipment through ViCo (see below and see also a case study on the Zenner Farm by Washington State University Extension38 for a good description of the equipment). Disease and Pest Management Issues Although this area of the country is fairly dry, plant diseases can still pose problems. Garbanzos can be infected with ascochyta blight, which damages the plant (stem, seed, and pod) and is exacerbated by cool wet weather. Solutions have included finding and using resistant varieties (which the USDA Agricultural Research Service has been working on at Washington State University). Nonetheless, managing the problem is challenging, as evidenced by the production moratorium on garbanzos in Idaho from 1988–1991 as an effort to break the disease cycle. Crop rotations, which contribute to more diversified production, also help with disease management. Russ has found a two-year or ideally three-year interval between planting a particular crop helpful in managing diseases. He sees rotation management and incorporation of diversity as critical for his farming system. The use of certified seed also seems to have reduced disease problems. Finally, Russ has made prophylactic applications of some fungicides when grass herbicides are applied to reduce the potential for infection. Overall, the blight has not posed much problem in the past two years. Russ attributes the scarcity of blight problems to farmers in the region commonly using one fungicide application as a preventive measure, having better seed sources, and attending more carefully to rotations. Russ is fairly satisfied with his own current ability to address plant diseases. He also sees his own generally successful disease management as a function of monitoring his fields. Nonetheless, he says, “this issue [of pest and disease management] does bother me. It relates to our dependence on manmade chemistry to manage these problems.” He thinks more knowledge about soil and plant health could be useful for devising other management options for disease. Another important disease issue Russ identified on his farm is “green bridge.” Under minimum tillage or direct seeding of spring crops, the volunteer grain and weeds grow- 38 Mallory, E.B., R.J. Veseth, T. Fiez, R.D. Roe, and D.J. Wysocki. 2001. Direct seeding in inland northwest. Zenner Farm case study. Available online at http://pnwsteep.wsu.edu/dscases/ext_pubs/pnw0542.pdf. Accessed on December 6, 2009.
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century ing between crop harvest and spring seeding can serve as a “green bridge” host for root diseases and other pests. A good fall weed control program has seemed to contain that potential problem. Nonetheless, Russ feels that insufficient research has been done, particularly with regard to the role and function of soil and plant health in minimizing or even suppressing “green bridge” problems. With respect to insects, wireworms can pose a problem in lentils. Russ has responded with early seed treatment and some insecticides. He has also had problems with slugs on Austrian winter peas and has used some baiting. Aphids can be a significant problem in pulse crops; Russ has in the past had to spray as often as twice a year, although that is not the case now. He believes that his overall farming system is healthier now, as his rotation diversity has increased. He has noticed that weaker plants are more likely to be infested and speculates that aphids are more attracted to those plants, which reinforces his belief that plant and soil health needs to be a priority. The direct-seed system, which is at the core of the Zenner farm, is intended to minimize weed competition. However, changes in weed species problems are observable during the transition process. The use of glyphosate as burn down at planting is typical. While in general, Russ would like to see less glyphosate in his farming system, it plays an important role at present. “We’re not close yet to zero [glyphosate] use,” he says. With the use of the direct-seed system, Russ has observed some shift in the types of weed problems he faces. It is more common now to have problems with bedstraw, china lettuce, and rattail fescue than in the past. NATURAL RESOURCES AND WILDLIFE CONCERNS Russ has observed changes in wildlife populations in the years he has been farming. He notes it was rare to see elk when he was a child. But elk, moose, and deer populations have increased in this area, as wolf reintroductions in the high country have chased them southward. As well, farmers see a lot of evidence that the elk and deer love the garbanzos and the Austrian winter peas. However, Russ did not frame predation on crops by wildlife as a major problem. Russ has the impression that bird populations have declined in the area and wonders if the decline is related to bigger fields and fewer fencerows. He also wonders how pesticides are affecting bird populations, but he stresses he does not have the answers to those questions. Russ has participated in an Idaho Fish and Game program promoting buffer strips for wildlife. The agency pays farmers $20/acre, for up to a total of 100 acres, to leave a foot of stubble on lands along existing bird habitat. He and other farmers also participate in the state’s Fish and Game’s Access Yes program, which provides public hunting opportunities on private lands. MARKETING, BUSINESS MANAGEMENT, AND FINANCIALS Preserving identity and adding value to products are central to the marketing strategy for this farm. Russ observes that identity-preserved crops can involve more work (for example, meticulous cleanout of combines), but their greater profitability makes it worthwhile. The Zenner Farm markets about 80 percent of its crops through the Pacific Northwest (PNW) Farmers Cooperative and the remaining 20 percent through Shepherd’s Grain. The Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative emerged in June 2008 from the union of two preexisting cooperatives in Colfax, Washington, and Genesee, Idaho. The new PNW Co-
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century operative now includes 600 farmer members who raise 500,000 acres of cool-season crops: peas, lentils, wheat, and garbanzos. The cooperative has $100 million in gross sales and 13 million bushels of storage capacity. Forty to 45 percent of the sales are domestic, a fair amount under contract. For the past 25 years, PNW Cooperative has focused on providing valued-added products sorted by size, color, and quality, with the goal of ensuring high product uniformity to meet customers’ expectations. The strong orientation toward adding value to products has enabled the cooperative (and its immediate predecessors) to grow even in tough times. The cooperative’s products, depending on destination for export or domestic markets, are either loaded on barges in Lewiston and transported down the Columbia River to Portland, trucked directly to Seattle, or trucked to one of two PNW Cooperative rail-loading facilities in the growing region.39 As a farmer-owned institution, the cooperative, Russ stresses, is an integral part of the local community. Russ has agreed to serve on the board of directors for the cooperative. Russ is also a member of Shepherd’s Grain (http://www.shepherdsgrain.com/index.htm), a marketing label and alliance of farmers in the Pacific Northwest, who use sustainable production practices and market differentiated wheat products together. Shepherd’s Grain consists of 28 farmer-members, all of whom are certified by the Food Alliance.40 It has drawn growing attention from agrifood researchers and activists as an example of new “value chains” that can help support an “agriculture of the middle.” Shepherd’s Grain has emphasized wheat varieties with special flour functionality desired by artisanal and quality markets. It supplies flour, for example, to family-owned Hot Lips Pizza, which has four restaurants in Portland, Oregon. It also supplies to Bon Appétit, a food service company that has become very engaged in regional sourcing. Most of Shepherd’s Grain’s distribution occurs within the Pacific Northwest or northern California. Russ views Shepherd’s Grain as “a very fun project.” It has brought him into greater contact with the Portland food market, which he sees as currently one of the most innovative and sophisticated in the country. Experiences and insights from his participation in Shepherd’s Grain, in turn, are useful for his involvement with PNW Cooperative, especially in terms of how to anticipate and respond to the challenges facing value-added agricultural products and the possible impacts of economic downturn. The Zenner Farm has been certified by the Food Alliance since 2004, the first farm in Idaho to receive this certification. It was certified on the basis of its direct-seeding practice and additional criteria, such as worker safety and chemical storage. The Food Alliance inspects the farm every three years. Russ notes that the certification compelled him to make some changes in areas such as chemical storage. He approvingly notes that the Food Alliance now has a cropping system certification option, rather than only a focus on certified crops. Russ thinks that the certification offers helpful differentiation in the market place, is the most recognizable of the certification programs, and elevates awareness and commitment for sound growing practices. “For what we’re [Shepherd’s Grain] doing, Food Alli- 39 The consultants learned during their field visit that PNW Cooperative now supplies garbanzos to food manufacturer Sabra, which recently entered the U.S. market and now makes hummus on the East Coast. The hummus is then shipped back to the western United States, where it can be purchased in the Lewiston, Idaho, Costco. 40 Many links and overlaps exist between groups such as Food Alliance, Shepherd’s Grain, and the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association (PNDSA). Some direct-seeding farmers saw the potential of Food Alliance certification to provide a value-added marketing opportunity that could reduce the risk of transitioning to direct seeding. From its start, Shepherd’s Grain, comprised solely of direct-seeding farmers, worked with Food Alliance. Furthermore, a significant core group within the Shepherd’s Grain alliance is the Columbia Plateau Producers. Columbia Plateau Producers (CPP) is an LLC with about 14 farmer members, including Russ Zenner. CPP farmers constitute about half the farmers participating in Shepherd’s Grain.
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century ance is the best match,” he says. His long-term goal would be no-till organic, but “we’re not close to it at all.” Financials The Zenners took out production loans regularly in the past, but have not done so for the past four years. Russ notes that the farm incurred considerable debt to get where they are today, but that over the years, he was still able to “push the envelope and have consistent profitability.” His adoption of no-till farming had to meet the test of being “sustainable financially,” which led to a measured and cautious approach and “doing a lot of homework.” In 2008, the Zenners made a significant pay-down of long-term farm debt, so that farm debt is now approaching zero SOCIAL AND COMMUNITY CONSIDERATIONS Labor Despite the considerable number of acres farmed, Zenner Farm has only one full-time, one part-time, and two seasonal workers. Good mechanical skills and an ability to recognize and respond to timing issues in getting critical jobs done have been especially important attributes of the full-time worker. Russ sees a strong technical skill set and reliability as essential for worker productivity. Although communication and social skills are desirable, they might not be as critical as technical skills and reliability. In general, fewer individuals with the needed technical and mechanical skills and interest are available in the surrounding community to hire, in part because fewer farm children grow up in the area. A pending dearth of local labor to work on the farm could become a problem in the future. For the full-time worker, the farm provides health insurance, a retirement plan, a house to live in, and a crop bonus share. The part-time and seasonal workers play important roles during the busy season, but overall their hours are limited. Part-time and seasonal workers tend to be older, retired people, often with rural and farming roots, who have had nonfarming occupations (in some cases, professional occupations) for much of their adult lives. Some of them, Russ notes, “maybe would have preferred to farm.” Learning Russ’s approach to farming is premised on active learning and experimentation: “I’m constantly trying to glean information from someone else’s experience. I’ve attended no-till conferences nationally and internationally.” He has connected with and visited direct-seeding farmers in Australia, and he believes he learned a lot from them. Russ says Australian farmers generally have much tougher weed control issues than farmers in Idaho. He also believes they are much farther along with the “biological farming approach” than most American farmers. Russ’s personal interest in continual learning has spilled over into auxiliary enterprises with others. For example, he is involved with ViCo (stands for “visions cooperatively”), a small LLC he founded in 1998 with three fellow growers in the region to provide innovative farm management services.41 A relatively new company partner is a former extension agent 41 Three of the four ViCo grower partners are Columbia Plateau Producer members, and hence also members of Shepherd’s Grain.
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century who manages “information discovery” on subjects the other partners want to learn more about—essentially more about practices that reduce impacts from chemical and fertilizer applications and other farming practices that can enhance soil health.42 The research-driven work of ViCo is done in addition to managing custom equipment operations. Regarding the motivation for ViCo, Russ said: “To a man, we’re concerned that current management practices we have are not sustainable. We’re not getting answers from traditional research resources and what we’ve done in the past is not going to carry us into the future.” ViCo received an NRCS Conservation Innovation grant for “technology innovation” focused on how precision agriculture can reduce chemical fertilizer applications. It has also partnered with Shepherd’s Grain on a grant project to study the soil health and human nutrition link. They intend to apply for a larger grant. The members of ViCo have shared their farm employees and also sensitive personal financial information. Overall, ViCo emphasizes finding new farming practices and approaches to try, first on a small scale, with a priority to maintain profitability. Russ also interacts frequently with other farmers, which is often a learning exchange: “I don’t mind sharing information. I’ve been blessed. I’ve had some opportunities most people will never have.” His stance on sharing information and learning follows consistently from his admission that “this [farming] is my main passion in life.” Russ’s orientation to learning includes attention to the consumption side of the food system. Among the things he has enjoyed with Shepherd’s Grain is getting into cities like Portland (for promotional events, for instance) to meet and interact with consumers of the Shepherd Grain’s product. “It’s fun to talk to people who really understand how food is produced,” he says. Those events allow Russ to provide information about the realities of farming in the Palouse to the customers of his products and to learn about their preferences. Community Relations and Service Russ suggests that models from the past have affected his views on the importance of good community relationships for farmers. He notes that in his father ’s generation, farming neighbors did not always get along well. Observing those social dynamics “has had a profound impact on how I get along with my neighbors” and made him aware of the long-term implications of social interactions in the community. In addition to his involvement with the Cooperative and the Conservation District, Russ has been active in organizations that conduct research, provide consultation, and support direct seeding. He spoke at a South Australian no-till farming conference and more recently at the first no-till conference held in Finland. Russ has also been involved with the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association, which “was formed in 2000 to provide information exchange and advocacy on conservation policy issues and research coordination that will assure adoption of economically-viable and environmentally-sustainable direct seed cropping systems” (from website www.directseed.org). Russ goes so far as to suggest that as his time has been freed up by direct-seed farming practices, he has more discretionary time for volunteer and public service. He served as a director on a regional (Oregon, Washington, Idaho) bank board. That role afforded numerous regional contacts and insights on the local economy. His role ended recently when the bank was sold. He views his participation on various volunteer boards as an opportunity, 42 Work on Brix measures for garbanzos is an example of research undertaken by ViCo that, thus far, is not being done at the land-grant universities.
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century not only for service, but also for learning: “There’s some self-motivation in all this volunteering, you know. You can ask the right questions, keep your ears open, listen to different people from different places.” RISKS, CHALLENGES, AND CHANGES Research Needs Russ has become very interested in the possible connection between organic matter, soil health, the nutritional value of food, and their impacts on human health. He believes that connection is under-researched, and the knowledge gained would be very beneficial. He also expresses concern about the sources of funding for research: “Some research efforts and their funding come from the chemical companies, like for glyphosate. I don’t think enough research is being done to monitor the effect on the soil biology of repeated applications of glyphosate.” Such information is important for designing and improving direct-seeding systems. He worked with other farmers and STEEP (Solution to Environmental and Economic Problems), a joint program of the University of Idaho, Oregon State University, and Washington State University, which was an innovative interdisciplinary research and education initiative focused on developing profitable cropping systems technologies for controlling cropland soil erosion and protecting environmental quality. His views about the contribution of public research to his farming enterprise are ultimately somewhat mixed. On the one hand, he recognizes some definite advantages in his location near two land-grant universities (Washington State University and University of Idaho) and has personally experienced benefits, particularly from USDA-ARS work on green bridge management and from STEEP’s work on cropping systems rotation research. On the other hand, he notes the constraints now facing public agricultural research. He says, “Generally speaking, the land-grant universities are not always doing the kind of work we’re looking for [to answer the questions we have].” This, in part, motivates his involvement with ViCo, as discussed above. Russ sees a need for much more research investment in the genetics of pulse crops, where knowledge has lagged the extensive work on corn and soybean. He identifies a continuing technical challenge that research could address—how to avoid the “yield hit” in the early stages of transition to direct seeding. Managing the heavy residue common in this region (which can depress yield) is another area that needs research. Better information and resources for weed control in no- or minimum-till systems would be very helpful, in his view. Transportation A big issue for growers in this somewhat remote region, and of concern to Russ, is dependable and efficient transportation infrastructure. Rail access is particularly important for the cooperative, which is looking to be more strategically positioned in terms of its rail access. The cooperative is also very concerned about the river system on which it relies to move grain from Lewiston to Portland. Environmentalists and sportsmen are pushing to breach the dams on the upper Snake River, but that would make the barge transportation on which the cooperative now depends no longer viable.
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century Farm Transition Concerns Russ and Kathy encouraged their three children to obtain college educations. Given that their children, now adults, are established in professional careers and living in Boise or Seattle, and, as Russ puts it, “none had the passion (for farming) I did,” the Zenners are beginning to think about other options for continuing the farm operation, including hired management. A year before the interview, when Russ had back problems, he felt ready to make the transition. Resolution of that issue made the transition question less urgent, although it has not gone away. Russ notes, “I feel I have some obligation to what my father and grandfather did.” Their hope is to set the farm up with top-level management that can mentor any eventual family members in the succeeding generation. At the same time, they concede that it is difficult to find people who can fulfill all their expectations as well as those of their children. Russ and Kathy have been to a Farm Credit’s succession program on family business transition. They have held several all-family meetings about the future of the farm. Their children say they are not interested in selling the farm and express some desire to keep the farm so that their own children (Russ and Kathy’s grandchildren) could come back to it and know that work ethic. Reconciling the various internal family interests with maintaining profitable farm operations remains a challenge. GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS AND POLICY INVOLVEMENT Russ observes, “I’ve been a significant recipient of farm program benefits over the years, but I think the system is very flawed in terms of ensuring rural communities and sustainable resource management.” In general, he believes that regions reliant on program crops experience a stifling of innovation and diversity. Those regions are likely to find their economic opportunities restricted to those associated with niche or specialty crops. Russ is interested in seeing policies that are more sustainable and that encourage resource conservation and more value-added options at the local level. Russ has been involved with the Dry Pea and Lentil Council, serving as chairman of its research committee in the 1990s, at which time he pushed for sustainable cropping systems research and links to the work of STEEP. The Dry Pea and Lentil Council later sought to address federal policies, but Russ was not involved in that effort.43 He underscored that the system as currently structured does not adequately support sustainable resource management or rural economic health and does not support crop diversity. For example, if a grower has a diverse rotation (grows a crop one out of every three years), it is extremely difficult to develop the yield history required to participate in crop insurance—even though such a rotation would involve less risk from yield loss. Russ has been involved in the Conservation Security Program (CSP) in the Clearwater watershed (2007, his first year, and 2008). He likes that type of incentive program, which he sees as promoting sustainable resource management. He says the CSP application was geared to no-till, so it was fairly easy for him to apply. Zenner Farm is getting full CSP funding as the Zenners are addressing many of the issues that CSP is concerned with, notably water quality. Russ articulates some concern that, at present, CSP does not reward the new biological farming approaches that he believes hold promise for the future. Zenner Farm has also participated in EQIP to develop buffers around streams. 43 In 2002, the pulse marketing assistance loan program came in, but peas and lentils do not have program crop status nor the associated direct payments.
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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century OBSERVATIONS AND CONCLUSIONS Russ Zenner attributes the success on the farm to good soil, his opportunity to exercise responsibility at a young age, involvement on the conservation district board, and his gut feelings about what is strategically important. He has been particularly glad to share his experience and the information he has gained with others. The Zenner Farm has four specific features, which together distinguish its sustainability approach from many other farms: Conversion of the entire farm to direct seeding. Involvement in value-added marketing efforts at the commodity level through the cooperative. Extensive involvement in research and education efforts to increase the use of direct seeding and other environmentally sound practices. Involvement in innovative marketing efforts that connect with discerning local and regional consumers through Shepherd’s Grain. In addition, as true with many of the farmers at the farms studied for this report, Russ Zenner has a very active mind, such that he is continuously looking for new ways to pursue his interests and passions related to farming and to learn more. As Russ says, “The farther I’ve got in my farming career, the less I know. We remain so far from sustainability.”