After a tumultuous 1997 with the sale of Jacklin Seed Co., the death of a pioneer grass grower and a controversial agreement to end grass burning, many Rathdrum Prairie growers say the future looks bleak.
Some say the end of grass burning would mean the end of grass growing.
With a rapidly expanding population - Rathdrum and Post Falls are among the fastest growing cities in Idaho - more people are complaining about smoke permeating the air.
And that’s bad news for grass farming.
“I’ve been trying no-burn grass and it’s not working,” said Roy Armstrong, who’s been growing Kentucky bluegrass since the 1960s.
Burning causes the plants to produce more seed and eliminates many pests. It also makes it cheaper to clear fields for next year’s crop.
Armstrong said he gets lower crop yields when he doesn’t burn, and that, combined with the looming threat of a complete phaseout of field burning, worries him.
“I think people need to realize that we, as farmers, are not making a killing out here,” said Wayne Meyer, a farmer and state legislator from Rathdrum. “We can’t make a living raising grain here anymore. There’s no profit. We can’t pay the bills.”
He and his wife, Karleen, have been growing grass for just under 30 years and now grow it on nearly 800 acres.
This past season, grass-seed farmers had a particularly bad yield, and without field burning, that yield would have been even worse, Wayne Meyer said.
“It’s not just a convenience; it’s a necessity,” he said.
But many farmers in the area - including Schneidmiller Bros. and Jacklin Seed Co. (now Simplot-Jacklin), two of the major players in the local grass seed industry - have signed a controversial agreement to slowly phase out field burning over the next 10 years.
Farmers will have to find new varieties of grass that don’t require burning, said Kevin Schneidmiller, a partner of Schneidmiller Bros.
As grass growing becomes less feasible or profitable, many farmers are developing their land - ironically bringing in more people who complain about field burning and smoke.
That means more taxes and rising land values, hindering farmers attempting to acquire more acreage.
“You get a lot of a population increase and the farmer has less voice in government,” said grass grower Lynn Bodine. “If I had my choice, I’d rather have it the way it was 20 years ago, but you’ve got to go along with the times.”
Bodine is a third-generation farmer. He plans to keep some land for farming, but he also wants to make a living by subdividing.
The same goes for Wade McLean, a grass grower and manager of Satchwell Farms.
Subdividing farm land for houses is “the last thing we want to do,” McLean said, “but it’s something we could get forced into.”
His wife Wanda’s family, the Satchwells, first homesteaded on the prairie in 1897 and began growing grass there in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Satchwell Farms now has about 1,200 acres in grass.
Schneidmiller thinks development is inevitable.
“Our land is close to Post Falls and Coeur d’Alene, and as those communities continue to grow, that land will be developed,” he said.
His cousin, Gary Schneidmiller, owns former farm land in Post Falls slated for a 1,613-unit housing development.
The Jacklins, too, own land that may wind up being developed and some which already has been.
When Jacklin Seed Co. was sold to J.R. Simplot last fall, Don and Duane Jacklin left the company to run the family real estate development and hospitality businesses. They own Riverbend Commerce Park in Post Falls, for example, and land along Highway 41 between Post Falls and Rathdrum, which they would like to see zoned for commercial rather than agricultural use.
Ben Jacklin and his three sons - Owen, Lyle and Arden - began growing grass on Rathdrum Prairie in the 1940s. Jacklin Seed Co. became the main grass seed processor in the area.
The Schneidmiller family began growing grass on the prairie in 1949 at the suggestion of the Jacklins.
“Here it was really a brand-new crop,” Kevin Schneidmiller said.
His uncles, Elmer and Manuel Schneidmiller, were among the first local farming families to hop aboard the grass-growing bandwagon.
Manuel Schneidmiller died Nov. 13 at 82.
The family’s operation grew from a few acres of bluegrass to about 2,000 acres at peak production. Today, 750 acres are in production.
“Historically, it (grass growing) was an important industry to the area and that’s changing,” Kevin Schneidmiller said.
To remain competitive, the area needs a more diversified economy, he said.
“That’s part of change and progress, and I embrace that.”
Farmers in the region will miss the way of life should grass growing end.
McLean will miss the feeling of accomplishment he gets from a successful harvest - something he hopes his children will get to experience.
“My wife’s the fourth generation in farming and I’ve got the fifth generation in college, so I’d like to keep doing this.”
Some farmers say the next few years will determine whether growers can continue grass growing and making a living from it.
If a variety of grass is found that allows a healthy yield - and a healthy profit margin - without burning, then grass growing may survive, they say.
If not, large-scale grass growing on the prairie will probably die out.
“That’s exactly right,” said Linda Clovis, executive secretary for the Intermountain Grass Growers.
“Growers everywhere are facing tough times,” she said. “They know that 10 years down the road they will have to find an alternative to burning or else they’ll be out of business.”
Armstrong is glum about the prairie’s grass-growing future.
“I think farming’s headed right down the drain,” he said. “I think our days are pretty well numbered.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo