The Palouse grasslands have long been known to be of ecological significance and import.
Stretching across state lines in Washington, Idaho and Oregon, the landscape of rolling hills, fertile prairies and the deep canyons of the Snake River has been home to hundreds of bird and mammal species. The perennial grasses and shrubs, fresh creeks and forested lands, and rich soils of thousands of years of sediment were unscathed for millennia.
Then, in the mid-1800s, hopeful homesteaders began arriving.
Frances Jones is sitting in a cushioned chair at the head of her dining table carefully set with utensils, napkins, placemats and a plate of freshly baked rye bread from her kitchen. She takes quiet mouthfuls of lentil soup at pauses in her story. At 96, the only thing giving away her age is her mother-of-pearl glasses and an endearing pair of purple slippers.
When Jones talks about ancestors, it is as if she’d seen them only last week. There are physical descriptions, slight or tall, big enough to lie their way into service in the Civil War, ailments they suffered from, qualities had or struggles endured.
“Patrick’s parents died of sea fever on the boat over from Ireland,” she said. “Escaping the potato famine, you know. He was an orphan when he landed in New York.”
Patrick was just a boy then, adopted by a family moving west. A generation later, his own son, Ed, continued the westward migration, becoming a sawyer near Umpqua, Oregon, and then traveled farther north as the Homestead Act promised land and wealth for new Americans.
“Someone, maybe a doctor, told Ed he needed a drier climate,” Jones said. “He rode a horse the last 82 miles from Walla Walla.”
Ed chose his homestead acres in the Palouse by the lack of trees. Coyotes hide in the trees and pose a risk to sheep. Early settlers did not consider the land viable for crops. Most families, like Ed, were raising sheep and cattle. Ed acquired 160 acres, then a wife, and then more land. Children were born, several died from homestead hazards (horse kicking, drowning, fever), some survived and produced their own families.
Frances met Leonard Jones, Ed’s grandson, in the early 1950s when a dry autumn brought him and a friend to the city for entertainment. A year later, they were married. By then, farmers in the Palouse had already been talking about the change in ecology and soil erosion for 20 years.
With an English degree from Stanford and a progressive bent, Leonard Jones was an improbable farmer. He worked the land with the ancient, cumbersome machines of his father, harvesting wheat crops and grazing sheep and cattle.
He began questioning the conventional methods of farming and the impact to water and soil quality.
Over time, he worked to restore waterways and plant grass strips to catch sediment and reduce erosion.
In 1958, he was awarded the State of Washington Special Service Award for Soil and Water Conservation for his commitments and achievements related to the health of the lands through sustainable farming practices.
Dryland wheat farming had begun in the southern regions as early as the 1860s, and by the 1890s, most of the grazing lands throughout the Palouse had been converted to crops. Tilling practices, machination and the addition of fertilizer after World War II contributed to rapid and drastic decline in the health of everything but crop yields.
The fourth generation on the farm began in 1955 with the birth of Bryan Jones, followed by three more siblings. Farming was not the most lucrative career, and Frances supplemented their income with nursing while Leonard taught at local schools.
A decade earlier, children finished high school and stayed on the farms to work. The customs and culture were changing, and children were leaving to pursue a different life, while small farm after small farm was bought up and assimilated into enormous operations. The Jones children went away to university and dissipated into lives of their own. College, families, careers, and the ever-driving push into the future left the farm abandoned to an aging Frances and Leonard.
Now, few small farms remain and nearly 99% of the grasslands are gone. The soil has been tilled and fertilized. Rivers and creeks have been straightened, wetlands dried out. The hills are a picturesque patchwork of wheat crops and fields left fallow.
Bryan Jones is at ease barefoot in the kitchen of the Palouse farmhouse. His thin glasses shield soft blue eyes. His hair grows wild and thick in every direction but down. As he speaks, he tugs his pants up between articulate sentences, not distracted by the slippage. The house was built in 1910, but judging by the pea green of the living room carpets and the wood paneling, was remodeled in the 1970s.
After his father suffered a heart attack in 1995, Bryan Jones left his career in education and returned to the farm to live and work full time. Since then, he has been driving conservation efforts throughout the region, committed to what has become an almost monastic and impoverished vocation in his determination to save the farm from large wheat operations and the land from decimation. Between birthing calves and sheep, saving cherries from birds and peaches from late frost, and slowing down for lunch with his mother, Frances, there’s not a lot of time.
Of the 640 acres of farmland, now spread between eight siblings and cousins, 500 are leased to a large farming operation. Despite Bryan’s advocation for no-till methods, the leasing party obtained an exception allowing them to farm the lands with conventional tilling methods. As the lease nears its end, the family is left to decide what to do with the farm. For many of them, the farm represents a distant piece of financial security but not much more.
“What people have to understand,” said Pam Deutschman, Bryan’s partner, “is that this is not just about a single farm. Regenerative farming has the ability to heal the climate, replenish our water supplies and feed the world.”
Deutschman is an unlikely farmer and a less likely midwife of livestock, but she’s found herself catapulted into both. With a master’s degree in fine arts and a background in teaching and photography, she was unsuspecting of how the farm would impact her art and then her activism. With a slight build, she leans into the conversation, dark locks of hair framing her features. She listens intensely and restricts herself from interrupting by holding one hand over her pursed lips like a trap door. When she does speak, it is with unbridled passion and urgency.
“Time is running out,” she said.
What she is referring to is the diverse interests of the stakeholders of the farm and the complex challenges of conservation. Both require money – the family to be bought out, grant writers to be paid, even lawyers and Realtors will have costs. Farming is not known for being a cash-rich enterprise. Many of the family have moved on with their lives, and selling to large-scale farms seems the most economic solution.
More than being a farmer, it seems, Jones is a scientist and conservationist. His land has been the base for numerous research projects in collaboration with various universities. Washington State University spent several years testing grazing rotation and canola crops. San Diego State University and Wilfrid Laurier University of Ontario, Canada, are preparing a biodiversity research project that analyzes crops, pastures, riparian areas and the few wisps of native land left on the farm.
The Department of Ecology and Whitman Conservation District have collaborated on two phases of restoring the Alkali Flat Creek riparian, which flows through the farm and empties into the Snake River 20 miles downstream. The project is in its third phase with the National Resource Conservation Service. Already, wildlife is returning to the edges of the creek and its banks appear lush and healthy.
“I like the idea of science happening on my farm,” he said.
There is a childlike curiosity in him, and something inventive. His own relationship to the land has ancestral qualities and wisdom, while he simultaneously embraces technology and research that can support sustainable farming practices.
“A farm impacts a whole region,” said Deutschman, explaining why a lone farmer in a sea of wheat works with the Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition.
“Approximately 13% of the Northwest’s wheat is shipped in barges along the Snake River,” Jones said. “Farmers can come up with solutions, like rail, to reduce our impact to the salmon.”
One can hear the sense of obligation in his tone. Yet while he hears some sympathetic voices in the community, few if any farmers are speaking up for change. But Jones believes it can begin on his farm and the research outcomes will lend to improved solutions and practices for everyone.
This belief has led Jones and Deutschman to create 640 Acres as FRESH, which stands for Farmers Restoring Ecology and Soil Health, an organization dedicated to repurposing the land for preservation. Their goal is to raise the funds necessary to purchase the land outright from the family, create a conservation easement with educational and research opportunities, and eventually restore the vast majority to natural Palouse grasslands under the management of a land trust.
Deutschman has become a fierce advocate nearly overnight. On her coffee table is a thick three-ring binder with pages of notes, printed emails and organized dividers. The legal implications of such actions are complicated to even those familiar, and she finds herself wrapping her brain around the language of land use, grants and conservation definitions.
“The farm’s position makes it a perfect location for a wildlife and biological corridor,” said Deutschman, pointing in the direction of Steptoe Butte. It is situated between the butte, Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, Escure Ranch and the Snake River.
She spends her days reaching out to organizations that are key players in the future of the farm: the Palouse Conservation District, the Department of Ecology and donors to their fund. She makes phone calls to grant writers and sounds expert as she explains the challenges they face in creating solutions and coordinating with organizations.
It is an emotional journey. One day, they seem to qualify for a large grant. The next day, a change in policy redirects funding. She soothes her nerves with the balm of her art – hundreds of photographs of farm life and landscape and sunsets that view like visual poetry of the simultaneous carnage and breathtaking beauty of a Palouse farm.
If Jones and Deutschman cannot raise funds to conserve the farm by the time the lease expires in 2024, the family will likely divest from the legacy of four generations and the farm will be sold to a large-scale wheat operation.
Bryan Jones and Deutschman are sitting at the table with his mother. She’s served everyone custard, and the conversation has been replaced by the ting of spoons on glass. Frances Jones pauses to add to her story.
“There was an older woman down the road years ago,” she said, “and I will never forget what she told me once.” Her spoon hovers in the air.
“She said, ‘Never sell your farm.’ ”
Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at email@example.com