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One family’s farm

Sun., Aug. 19, 2007, midnight

The men rise with the sun. For breakfast, a piece of homemade boysenberry pie, quickly consumed. Then a drive down a dirt farm road toward the day’s patch of crop, a dust plume billowing behind the truck.

Ripe wheat and barley wave in the parching August wind, ready to be harvested. Each hour of daylight is precious.

On a family farm 10 miles west of Colfax, owners Eric and Shannon Appel, both 40, have been waiting for this crop for months.

“You can smell harvest coming,” Shannon Appel said. “You can hear it when the wind blows. … It sounds like in the olden days – a woman’s bustle. You hear a dry, crisp rustle.”

The year’s high wheat prices promise a better return than the Appels have seen in 20 years of farming. Despite that, the season has already brought plenty of heartburn to the family of seven.

The low prices of the recent past forced the family to take on additional land to make ends meet. The extra 500 acres – on top of the 1,500 the Appels have leased since 1987 – have introduced new challenges: buying a second used combine, overhauling it and getting another driver for it. Then there are increasing costs for fertilizer and fuel.

The past winter’s inadequate protective snow cover and early June’s heat spell damaged the crop, meaning each acre will yield less wheat.

And, even if everything had gone well all season, the Appels know that hope can be wiped out in a matter of hours. In 2004, a quick-moving field fire destroyed 600 acres of crop, coming up to the edge of the farmhouse lawn. After a hurried CB radio warning from Eric, Shannon gathered the children and drove blind through 20 feet of smoke and flame to escape.

“Farming up until this year was starting to get real tough,” Shannon said.

The Appels’ position is shared by many family farmers in the region: They take an operating loan each fall against the coming crop, using the money to finance the year’s farming and household expenses. They do all they can to keep costs down – using old, refurbished equipment, limiting family trips and expenses. After harvest, the loan gets paid off, the landlord gets her share and the rest is the family’s. The leftovers, much of which must go to the next season’s start-up costs, have been meager until commodity prices began to rise this year.

With Northwest wheat now hovering about $6.50 per bushel, almost double 2005 prices, the Appels expect to reap the rewards of their hard work. They intend to put some money into their retirement fund for the first time in years. After several lean holidays, their five children might get a more generous Christmas.

“This year is a breath of fresh air. A lot of families will be making up lost ground this year,” said Michael Largent, a neighbor to the Appels and a commissioner in Whitman County, the most productive wheat-growing county in the nation.

“For a lot of farm families in this area, their financial success is determined by circumstances outside of their control. Farm families assume a lot of risk.”

It’s a way of life that Eric Appel has known since growing up the sixth of 10 siblings on a wheat farm nearby. Like his father, Dick, the oldest of nine also raised close to Colfax, Eric is a familiar face in the farming community – active in St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, 4-H and the county fair.

Eric’s younger brother Neil farms their father’s land. A few miles away, Dick’s younger brother Steve, the president of the Washington Farm Bureau and vice president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, works Eric’s grandparents’ land. The Appel name is well-known and respected in the region.

“They’re a real piece of Americana,” Largent said. “They’ve been around a long time. They’re honest, hardworking people.”

Eric took over the lease on his original 1,500 acres when he was 20, the year after his oldest brother died unexpectedly of a brain aneurysm, leaving the land with no one to work it. He and Shannon finished their degrees at Washington State University, where they met, and set to work on the farm.

“This is normal for me. This is all I know,” Eric said, easing his lumbering combine to a halt to change a belt that had popped on a 45-degree hill.

During the three to four weeks of harvest, Eric and three family members work in the fields from about 6:30 a.m. until sunset, six days a week. The two combines are tuned up every day, and run for more than 12 hours.

Eric’s battered, bulbous fingertips show his years of hard labor. He laughs frequently and with an easiness that hides his compulsive work ethic. Having constructed several of the farm’s vehicles from parts, Eric often imagines what he can build next.

He spent six weeks overhauling the two combines before harvest and disdains the high-tech gadgetry of expensive new combines with Global Positioning Systems and yield estimators.

“He likes to do things himself,” Shannon said.

The steep hills of the Palouse, their thick layers of topsoil rich with nutrients, have for more than a century posed difficulties for the area’s farmers. Eric has enjoyed the task of farming in hilly terrain.

“I couldn’t do the flatland deal, no way,” he said of Midwestern wheat farms. “I need a challenge, thank you very much.”

On a harvest day in early August, the labor was constant. Eric’s brother Phil Appel, an engineering professor at Gonzaga University, drove the delivery truck to the farm’s wheat elevator on the Snake River, making six or seven trips a day.

Eric had recruited a rotating cast of family members to drive the other combine. That week it was Eric’s brother-in-law Bruce Wollstein, a program manager for Intel Corp. in Dupont, Wash. The next week it would be a cousin, a trauma surgeon from Spokane.

Using inexperienced combine drivers has given Eric an occasional headache. About 10 a.m., Bruce accidentally rammed the combine’s header into a tractor, bending a piece of metal that required replacement.

“No running into things, bud,” Eric reprimanded over the radio.

“Yes, sir,” Bruce responded. “That’s what he gets for hiring cheap labor,” he later added.

This is the first year that 14-year-old Connor has been in the field for most of the day. The Appels’ oldest son has been driving the bank-out wagon into which harvested wheat gets dumped, using both slim arms to pull the tractor’s stubborn gearshift. He’s the last to be awakened in the morning and the first to shower and go to sleep at night.

“It’s kind of cool, driving this thing,” Connor said, jolting up and down as the tractor moved over uneven land. “The bad thing about this is it has no shocks.”

Only a few of Connor’s friends at Jennings Elementary School in Colfax – where he’ll be in eighth grade this fall – work on farms. He wouldn’t mind being a farmer but said he’s more interested in astronomy.

Like his father, Connor listens to audiobooks for much of the day. Eric said he goes through 30 books per harvest on his iPod, a present from Shannon.

“Sitting on a tractor or a combine can be really mind-numbing,” Eric said, looking down at the wheat being gathered into the combine rumbling below him. “It’s not hard work; it’s just long, tedious work.”

At home, Shannon and Christopher, 12, usually spend much of the day cooking. In the morning, Shannon packed the children into the truck and delivered lunch to the men. Each cooler was filled with a sandwich, fruit, cheese and crackers, cake, cookies and more – enough food to last until dinner at 9:30 p.m.

Handing over the goods, she approached Eric and picked a wheat kernel off his chest.

“You’re already wearing grain,” she said.

Back at the house, the men’s voices squawked over the radio in the laundry room. Shannon tended to the large garden and fruit and nut trees behind the 1887 white farmhouse, while Christopher baked banana bread.

The younger children, ages 9, 7 and 3, had their own chores, including 4-H sheep that need walking.

“Every single farm family out here is working just as hard as we are,” Shannon said.

A graduate of Spokane Valley High School, Shannon had to learn many of the basics of farm life – canning, sewing, baking. She calls it a “metamorphosis.”

“All of this stuff was intimidating to a city girl,” Shannon said, gesturing to cellar shelves filled with canned tomatoes, green beans, fruits and jams that she put up last year.

Shannon would rather raise the children on the farm than work a 9-to-5 job, she said, but she has missed urban flexibility – like being able to go down the street for a meal.

She does the farm’s accounting and markets its wheat, a role not common among farm wives, many of whom have jobs in town. She wants to have enough money saved for the couple to buy a home when Eric retires – because they’ll have to give up the farmhouse that’s leased along with their land. Lucrative harvests like this one help them get a little closer to that goal.

Whether one of the children will take on the land – and even how many more years Eric will continue to work – are questions the Appels cannot answer.

“There are no crystal balls to see how farming will be 20 years from now,” Eric said from his perch on the combine, overlooking the hundreds more acres still to be harvested.


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