At the intersection of Cottonwood Creek and a dusty road named after his grandfather, Tracy Eriksen is producing his own field of dreams.
It’s a dream made possible by a congressional decision this year to stop interfering with farmers who want to grow the crops that pay the bills, while sustaining their farms for future generations.
It’s a dream embraced by a growing number of farmers who, during this era of increasing freedom from regulation, are questioning traditional practices and finding ways to maximize profits from crops - not taxpayer-supported subsidies.
“They say you can’t grow corn in Whitman County,” Eriksen says, striding through 40 acres of feed corn, with its broad leaves waving in the breeze like victory banners. “But here it is: knee high on the Fourth of July!”
Inland Northwest farmers, who once shared a common disgust for government-controlled crop production, have wasted little time unleashing new-found independence and innovation under the seven-year “freedom to farm” program passed by Congress.
The action is the biggest change in agriculture in 60 years because it forces producers to farm for the market, not for federal subsidies.
While change may yet be difficult to detect across Washington and Idaho’s 5 million acres of cropland, it shows itself in subtle ways among a minority of ambitious farmers.
In some areas, ground that used to lie bare is lush with wheat, barley and peas. In other areas, crops abandoned decades ago, at a time when subsidies enticed farmers to concentrate on wheat and barley, are reappearing.
No-till seeding machines - once driven by a handful of farm outcasts who dared break from convention - are in vogue. And growers who used to depend solely on crops for their livelihoods are increasingly creating new sources of non-farm income to diversify their businesses.
“With the flexibility of the program, those who want to try something new can take a little more risk and push the envelope a bit,” said John Burns, extension agent for Washington State University Cooperative Extension in Colfax. “There should be opportunities. The sky’s the limit.”
The new farm program lets grain farmers plant anything they want except fruits and vegetables. No longer are farmers required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to plant a specified amount of wheat, a tool the agency used to control production and guarantee consumers plentiful, cheap food.
USDA will continue to pay farmers a flat, albeit shrinking, subsidy payment through 2002. After that, the subsidy spigot, which has tapped taxpayers for $6 billion to $26 billion a year in the past decade, will be turned off for good.
Farmers are taking this serious. Signs that they’re stretching themselves to prepare for a future without subsidies are everywhere.
At a June field tour in Ritzville, an astounding 1,000 people gathered to catch demonstrations of no-till equipment that allows growers to seed directly into hardpan prairie, or wheat stubble, without breaking up the soil in advance.
Extension agents and others say they’ve seen the most interest in years in alternative farming practices.
“It’s almost like the government has given us a seven-year grace period to learn,” says Robert Boleneus, general manager of Edwall Chemical Co., who dreams of supporting his family on his Reardan wheat farm. “I’m going to do everything I can do to learn in that period.”
Farmers this year boosted their wheat acreage by 8 percent in Washington and Idaho to take advantage of higher wheat prices on an estimated 4.42 million acres. The increased acreage may generate record revenue for thousands of farmers and their landlords who are just entering harvest.
But wheat prices, which have hovered above $5 per bushel this year, rarely remain that high for long. Farmers know that the wheat price eventually will drop and they can’t depend on this single crop forever.
At the same time, farmers must make decisions about how to manage land that’s eligible to come out of the federal soil bank, known as the Conservation Reserve Program. The decisions affect 1.9 million acres of CRP land in Washington and Idaho that have been idled for 10 years in exchange for government rent payments. As the program winds down, farmers can break out the sod and expand their operations in various ways.
Eriksen, a 56-year-old farmer who manages 2,200 acres at St. John and Thornton, Wash., began preparing last year to farm in a “free market.” He and a handful of Northwest farmers flew to Pierre, S.D., to inspect innovative farming techniques at the Dakota Lakes Research Station.
Researchers convinced Eriksen that no-till farming could help diversify his crops and reduce soil erosion. By not tilling the soil before seeding, he could keep a blanket of straw ground cover to retain enough moisture to grow a variety of crops.
Eriksen returned home to convert his farm into a year-round food factory that produces everything from bird seed to sunflowers. This year, he has 1,850 acres, or 84 percent of the farm, under production.
That’s a dramatic shift from the days when his forefathers idled nearly half the farm in finely tilled summer fallow to store up enough moisture for another wheat crop.
Eriksen, a member of the board of the Palouse-Rock Lake Conservation District, says the changes will make his dryland farm more profitable in the long run. Wheat, the staple crop of the Palouse, will continue to provide steady income year after year, he says, while corn and other crops will be sold at a premium to specialty markets.
But it’s not easy bucking tradition. The wheels of Eriksen’s tractor are too wide for corn rows, crushing some stalks when he drives through fields to apply herbicides. Moreover, sunflowers and millet, which is used for bird seed, are harvested long after summer when most growers are packing in the combine and bracing for winter.
“Some neighbors are cautiously observing, some think I’m just plain crazy,” says Eriksen, who’s college-educated son, Kye, farms with him. “October is when you go to football games, but I’ll be in harvest.”
Other farmers are skeptical that they can make money growing anything but wheat, or using unorthodox equipment such as a no-till seed drill. Their hope is that freedom from government regulation will allow them to return to old practices such as burning stubble to suppress disease and clean the ground.
“When payments get down to zilch, to hell with it, I’ll do whatever I damn well please,” says Carl Beckley, a 77-year-old producer on a 5,500-acre farm at Benge, Wash. “I’ll go back to my favorite implements - a moldboard plow and a cigarette lighter.”
Despite attempts by Eriksen and others to make radical change, most growers are moving slow. They’ve seen neighbors in the past get excited about innovations such as no-till farming, or new crops such as canola, a yellow-flowered oilseed. And they’ve seen neighbors lose money - and their self respect - in the process.
“Crow gets tough to eat,” says Jerry Stubbs, a Dusty, Wash., wheat farmer who is experimenting with no-till farming to seed more spring crops and boost cash flow. “This is our first shot at it and we have nothing to report until we stick a header in it.”
Other growers believe there is greater promise in developing non-farm businesses that diversify sources of income.
Tom and Debbie Weishaar of Odessa have created the Paradise Llama Ranch. They hope to offer llama backpacking and hiking tours through the naturally formed caves and arches found on the channeled scablands of their ranch.
Gary Wegner, who manages a 1,500-acre Reardan wheat farm, recently began selling Canadian-made aerating pond mills to dairy farmers and city wastewater treatment plants. At $5,000 a pop, the floating mills churn up water in stagnant, algae-ridden ponds to reduce odor and purify wastewater. It also gives Wegner a way to earn money in the winter.
“Diversification is the key to weather the storm over the long term,” he says.
Doug Scoville, the Potlatch, Idaho, former president of the Idaho Grain Producers Association and Pacific Northwest Rapeseed/Canola Association, says the new farm program gave him the opportunity this year to reduce his wheat acreage and experiment with other crops and farming practices.
Scoville, who manages 2,200 acres, says he is producing four different kinds of peas, a barley used by soup companies, an exclusive hard white wheat for Korean flour mills, canola and alfalfa. Next year, he’s thinking of raising condiment mustard.
The downside to the changes, Scoville says, is that he will be growing less wheat at a time when prices are up. But in the long run, he expects to receive income from a greater number of sources while yielding more wheat as the rotation of alternative crops helps control disease and rebuild the soil.
“If we don’t try it, we’ll never know,” he says. “We’re going to have to take some chances.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: BREAKING FRESH GROUND The new farm program lets grain farmers plant anything they want except fruits and vegetables. They collect rapidly shrinking payments through 2003.