Colfax farmer finds challenges, rewards in new field of work
When asked what teaching and farming have in common, Suess laughed and said, “Absolutely nothing.”
Yet Suess never really quit teaching. Instead of standing in front of a classroom of teenagers, he has for two decades guided the Washington Association of Wheat Growers’ public information efforts and traveled to 20 countries promoting American agriculture.
Earlier this month, Suess stepped down as chairman of U.S. Wheat Associates, a national trade group. He spoke about farming’s challenges and rewards during a recent interview.
S-R: What’s your earliest recollection of farming?
Suess: Probably when I was about 8 years old, when my grandpa was running the farm and I’d ride in the grain truck with him.
S-R: When did you start driving farm equipment?
Suess: I started driving a crawler (track-type) tractor when I was about 12. That was before cabs, and at the end of the day when we’d take our goggles off, we’d have white circles around our eyes and the rest of us was filthy.
S-R: What formal education did you get?
Suess: I have a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s in administration. I worked in education for nine years, and came back to the family farm 27 years ago. My grandpa started the farm almost 100 years ago, and my wife and I live in his old house.
S-R: Did you always assume you’d return to farming?
Suess: No. When I was young we had a lot of livestock, and I’m allergic to grass and alfalfa. I had to wear a respirator to put the crops up. We had to either get into livestock big time or get out, and we got out.
S-R: How many acres do you plant?
Suess: Thirteen hundred and fifty, most of it leased. The average farm in Washington is 3,000 acres. This farm used to support three families – my grandpa, my dad and my uncle. Now I’m pretty much a one-man operation. I have a part-time tractor driver, and hire two truck drivers to help with harvest.
S-R: What’s your most expensive equipment?
Suess: My combine. I bought it used two years ago. A new one costs $600,000, but unless you have a really big farm, you don’t buy stuff new.
S-R: Farming is described as one of the most dangerous occupations in America. Have you had any close calls?
Suess: No, I haven’t. People used to get into trouble with the old combines – the ones I grew up with. They’d push in the clutch and then the brakes wouldn’t hold. Once hydrostatic drive came out in the ’70s, you rarely heard of a combine tipping over.
S-R: What did your father teach you?
Suess: My dad – Henry, went by Hank – passed away five years ago, but he taught me some great lessons. Probably more than anything, to pay attention to details. We’d walk crops every morning and notice things, like aphids moving in. And he taught me to pay attention to equipment, so when harvest comes around it’s ready to roll.
S-R: What do teaching and farming have in common?
Suess: Absolutely nothing. Teaching is a regular job with regular hours and regular pay. With farming, you don’t get paid until you have a crop to harvest, so you have to be very good at budgeting money. The other big difference is medical insurance. That’s why my wife works for an agrochemical company. If it wasn’t for that, we’d pay through the nose for medical benefits.
S-R: Have land prices risen much?
Suess: They’ve gone up a bit because we’ve had some good crops the last couple of years. But we just had some farmers touring from the Midwest, and they were amazed how low our prices are. That’s because we can’t grow corn and soybeans here, so land values – $1,500 to $2,000 an acre – reflect the price of wheat.
S-R: Has farming gotten easier or harder?
Suess: Both. The easier part is all the comforts we have – tractors with air conditioning and radios, and being able to get cellphone coverage out in the field. It used to be if you had a flat tire, you had to get off the tractor, go to town and get somebody to come back out. Now I just sit there and call somebody. What’s gotten harder is the paperwork – a lot more record-keeping and regulations.
S-R: Are these golden years for wheat growers?
Suess: I don’t think so. My dad always said he made more money when wheat was around $3 a bushel because our expenses weren’t so high. Last year we had a great crop and great prices – I’m not complaining. But we also have all-time-record expenses now. Fuel, fertilizer and seed all have gone up.
S-R: What’s your busiest time of year?
Suess: Spring, because two-thirds of my ranch goes into spring crops. After harvest is over in the fall, I have lots of time to put winter wheat in the ground. I like to have things wrapped up by the end of September.
S-R: What is your schedule this time of year?
Suess: I get up around 5:30 and walk all my land with a backpack, spraying thistles. That gives me a chance to get a good look at the crop and take care of the few weeds out there. Then I work on the combine or go down the checklist I keep of things that routinely need doing. I probably work 12 hours a day, and 14 hours when harvest comes around.
S-R: Do your son or daughter work on the farm?
Suess: Nope. Both have great jobs in Spokane and have no desire to come back.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Suess: Being independent – making my own calls. When things go right I can pat myself on the back, and when they go wrong I’ve got no one to blame but myself.
S-R: What do you like least?
Suess: Federal and state regulations. We’ve got water issues, fuel containment issues – a lot of unfunded mandates.
S-R: The rest of the country is suffering from record droughts. How’s the Palouse doing?
Suess: La Niña treated us very well. Our moisture is way above normal.
S-R: What’s normal?
Suess: I’m in an 18-inch rainfall area, but every mile makes a big difference. Whitman County ranges from 9 inches on one side to 30 on the other.
S-R: What about farming would surprise city folks?
Suess: Most don’t realize the United States grows six classes of wheat. Our No. 1 crop here is soft white wheat, and 90 percent of it is exported. Most people couldn’t tell you what soft white wheat is used for.
Suess: Nope. Cookies, crackers, pastries and flat bread. Pasta comes from durum grown in North Dakota, Montana and Arizona.
S-R: Do you know where your soft white ends up?
Suess: The majority goes to Japan, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Yemen.
S-R: What sort of personality is best suited to farming?
Suess: Someone who can roll with the punches. Every year we have different issues. This year, aphids moved in early. We’ve had to spray twice for rust (a fungus) because of all this rain. You have to invest money in a crop to get money out of it.
S-R: How much would it cost to become a Palouse wheat farmer today?
Suess: Realistically, probably $1 million to buy some very used equipment and get some leases.
S-R: What advice would you offer someone who aspires to work in this industry?
Suess: If they weren’t born into a family farm or have access to a big pile of money, I wouldn’t advise them to get into farming. It’s a sad thing to say, but it’s true.
S-R: Are you optimistic about the future of family farms?
Suess: I think family farms are going to be around for a long time. What we’re hoping for in the new farm bill is a safety net – some sort of assurance that if wheat drops back to $4 or $5 a bushel (from current levels around $8.50), we can keep farming. That’s really important to us, and I think it should be important to every person in this country, unless they want us to import all our food from places that don’t have the regulations we do.
S-R: Do you miss teaching?
Suess: I keep my foot in the door. Each winter I go up to Lewis and Clark High School for a couple of days and teach seniors the economics of farming. That’s fun.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org