SARE Fellows Visited Three Washington State Farms
Keeping Soil and Water Where They Belong
Traveling through the hilly Palouse region of eastern Washington can be a dismaying experience after a spring rain storm, watching mud run down the roadways from nearby tilled fields. That is, until you get to John Aeschliman‘s farm.
With no bare ground in sight, what you see, smell and feel in the Aeschliman Farm fields harkens back to a time before his Swiss grandfather first used a moldboard plow on this land in 1880. The soil has a duff layer beneath the vegetation; and for 6 or more feet below, countless earthworms do their work. The soil is soft and smells of rich humus. However, vegetation isn‘t native prairie grass, it‘s winter wheat.
Aeschliman started no-tilling in the mid-1970s. Over time, his soils‘ quality, water-holding capacity, microbial activity and small grain yields have increased while his fertilizer and herbicide use has declined. He plants and harvests dryland corn—virtually unheard of in the Palouse. He credits the soil‘s capacity to hold moisture for his increased wheat and barley yields, and that he can grow dryland corn successfully.
Part of Aeschliman‘s dark northern spring wheat crop becomes Shepherd‘s Grain flour. Shepherd‘s Grain is a farmer-owned business that provides high quality flour to millers and bakers in the Pacific Northwest and California. This Food Alliance-certified company supports eastern Washington farmers using no-till practices, as Aeschliman‘s does.
Raising Cattle While Improving Water Quality
When you listen to Tom Kammerzill, you can‘t help but hear the pride of another good land steward. Tom and his wife Cheryl raise Highland cattle outside Colfax. Part of the herd is raised on an old bottomland farm that can only be described as "rode hard and put to stable wet" in years prior to their buying the land.
By using electric Porta Fence to restrict creek access and create "grazing lanes," Kammerzill has improved the grass base and the landscape. He has been able to demonstrate that water quality below this property is actually better than it is above. Kamerzill says that he determined this by using the research and monitoring protocol of the Washington Department of Environmental Quality.
A ranch kid from way back, Kammerzill chose Highland cattle for perhaps different reasons from what he had learned in the past. He said Highland cattle are fairly easy to manage, the cows are good mothers and the meat quality is high. They tend to be browsers, rather than grazers, so they even will eat the noxious weed yellow star thistle. This browsing helps in vegetation management.
The Kamerzills sell high quality breeding stock as well as wholes, halves or quarters of grass-fed Highland beef to a loyal, local customer base. Learn more about their operation at Maple K Farms, www.maplekhighlands.com.
Tonnemaker Hill “Island”
For almost 50 years, three generations of the Tonnemaker family have raised high quality apples, pears and peaches near Royal City. But the winds of change are blowing both in and around Tonnemaker Hill Farm.
The Tonnemakers added alfalfa and 20 acres of vegetables to the farm, and are now raising over 140 varieties of peppers. Kole Tonnemaker said his brother Kurt—who handles the western Washington marketing—persuaded him to go organic as a simple way to explain to consumers how the fruit and vegetables were raised. Kole said going organic wasn‘t a big stretch as they had applied Integrated Pest Management (IPM) for years.
Produce from Tonnemakers‘ farm goes east to the Pullman-Moscow area and west to Seattle and the I-5 corridor. They also sell fruit and produce at a farm stand that draws customers from many miles away.
While many changes have come to the farm‘s 630 acres, what‘s happening around the farm represents some unsettling trends in the tree fruit industry. Kole said all the surrounding orchards are owned by absentee investors. He said the neighboring land is run by a good manager. But key management decisions are made hundreds or thousands of miles away to “protect the investment.” What was left unsaid was “when investor decisions overrule local farming knowledge, how long will that farming knowledge have value and last?”