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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Taking care of the dirt: Canola on rise as rotational crop

A flock of red-winged blackbirds  flies through a bright yellow field of canola late in the day on  June 19, 2019, near Deer Park. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Chris Eckhart was raised on the principle that “when you take care of the dirt, the dirt takes care of you,” and the bright yellow, flowering canola blanketing his land has become a key component of his effort to follow that maxim.

“We don’t use insecticides on ours,” Eckhart said of Eckhart Farms, where wheat is the main crop and he is the third generation to work the land. “It’s been a really hardy crop for not getting too subjected to pests. … The apiculturists like that a lot.”

Eckhart Farms farms 1,500 acres in Deer Park. The farm planted canola as a rotation crop in the late 1990s and early 2000s but moved away when market prices for the crop went down.

“Price started coming around, and they had worked on the varieties for our climates here,” Eckhard said. “We tried again three years ago, and we’ve been integrating it more ever since.”

According to Shane Johnson, Washington Oil Seed Commission administrator, there has been a spike in canola production over the past five years. In 2014, 430,000 pounds of seed were produced in the state. In 2018, that figure rose to a whopping 1,136,000 pounds.

“We’re seeing a huge increase in the Washington Oil Seed Commission’s budget from assessment dollars collected on canola throughout here in Washington state over the last five years,” Johnson said.

Canola was developed in the 1970s in Canada and the name was coined as a portmanteau for Canada oil. Canola crop rotation has shown benefits in ridding the soil of diseases and weeds, since canola comes from a different family than wheat.

“Some of the problems with raising wheat after wheat is you get some diseases and then you also get weeds that adapt to that system,” said Aaron Esser, Washington State University extension dry land wheat specialist. “Incorporating canola into our rotation helps break up some of those disease cycles.”

Eckhart’s current crop is coming in nicely and will be ready for harvest in mid-August. He sells his crop to Viterra in Warden, which processes the plant to produce canola oil, canola meal (used as feed for livestock) and jet fuel sold to Canada.

Having a local processor for canola has been a big boost for the industry, Esser said.

“Most of the canola around here will go right to Viterra,” he said.

Eckhart also said the local crushing facility helped, but obstacles still exist with weather’s growing unpredictability. He planted 400 acres of winter canola in the fall, and it was all destroyed by February frost. Losses like this are difficult.

He has four daughters ranging in age from 2 months to 9 years and hopes to hand down the farm, as it was handed to him. He can’t imagine a different childhood for them and said they occasionally have to make adjustments when they visit friends in the city.

“They throw a Frisbee and they don’t know what it’s like to have to knock on a neighbor’s door,” Eckhart said.

But Eckhart can’t help but look around with a certain sadness and concern for the future. In view of his property, he pointed out six plots that used to be dairy farms.

“There are a few people running cows here and there, but it’s turned into this is what we get paid to produce now,” Eckhard said. “I think that the animals definitely have their place on the land. We need to get back to that somehow.”

Eckhart said the loss is bad for the community and bad for the soil. He would like to see more markets for smaller-scale farms that reward and recognize efforts that promote sustainability and regenerative agriculture.

“I work a lot with the Spokane Conservation District, and we’re constantly looking at ways to try to improve water quality,” Eckhart said. “Unfortunately, in the big scheme of agriculture right now, producers aren’t paid for conservation.”

On Eckhart’s farm, the bottom line is not only making money but also thinking about what he is leaving for his daughters.

“They want to financially survive, but are we leaving things in a way that is productive for our future generations?” Eckhart said. “We need to start thinking about that more as we go forward.”