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With optimism amid obstacles, first-generation farmer makes a go at the land

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What boy isn’t drawn to big toys? And on a farm, there’s no shortage of toys for a youngster to grow into.

First-generation farmer Josh Steward grew up in Odessa, a tiny dot in the state of Washington that has fewer than 1,000 residents. Most of the folks there are farmers — good people who are vested in this century-old community. It’s the kind of place where passion and respect for the land run deep, and there’s a special kind of pride in being involved in agriculture.

Josh’s father didn’t own a farm but did work for a farmer. Josh himself began pulling weeds at a young age and learned to drive a tractor and combine in his early teens. Even as people jokingly told him that it would be easier to become a doctor than a farmer, his interest in farming grew.

“I got to be around the equipment, and just like a little boy playing with big toys, I loved tractors,” Josh says.

After graduating from Washington State University, where both he and his wife, Katie, went, Josh spent several years working for a Case IH dealership. He got married and the first baby came along. Still, he felt the tug of becoming a farmer.

“I’ve always looked up to the farmers in the community,” he says. “It’s always been a goal to be able to do that for myself.”

But, like for anyone wanting to be a first-generation farmer, there are barriers. The Odessa region, along with the neighboring counties, have many rooted families, so if you don’t have family ground to take over, it becomes difficult to acquire land. Farmers don’t necessarily want to hand over their life’s business to a 20-something first-timer, so the Stewards had to hope that someone would be willing to take that chance.

Luckily, someone did. A man who Josh had reached out to a few years prior decided to retire and offered to lease his land to the Stewards. And after purchasing the necessary machinery and buying out the fertilizer and fuel costs that the landowner had already invested into the season’s operation, Josh and his family officially became farmers in nearby Harrington in 2011. Ahead of them was more than 2,000 acres of dryland wheat on which they had staked their livelihood.

“If you take care of the ground, the ground will take care of you,” Josh says. “As a farmer, we hope to pass the farm onto our kids, so taking care of the ground is a priority.”

Harrington gets about 12 inches of rainfall each year, perfect for dryland farming. The first year for Steward Farms was a difficult one — Josh Steward had decided to stay on at the Case IH dealership to bring in extra income. For someone who loves to be in control and to have things mapped out, he found himself being pulling in many different directions. It wasn’t chaos, but it was cluttered. He was flush with numbers and spreadsheets for the farm — his college ag econ classes finally paying off.

Josh never lost his footing, though, and Steward Farms grew to just under 4,000 acres on what was largely Conservation Reserve Program land. Josh has taken initiatives toward being a good land steward.

The farm adheres to the strict Conservation Stewardship Program guidelines promoted by the USDA, and Josh has been able to minimize rain and wind erosion. Minimal tillage is done, and soil sampling is commonplace. He is high-tech savvy, with GPS in his machines and using of satellite imagery to help create ideal fertilizer prescriptions — more fertilizer is put in spots where he has good soil and less is used on places such as hillsides, where there’s less potential for grain production.

His goal is to not just maintain the land but to improve it, so that there is something left for his kin when their turn comes.

And by raising his kids on a farm, “They get to see hard work pay off,” Josh says. His kids, Jack and Sadie, are often eager to get their hands dirty and will spend hours in a tractor or combine with their dad.

“We get to work together as a family. I even hired my dad on out here a couple of years ago,” Josh says. “During the winter, when we’re in the shop working, both my kids will come down and spent time with us, and when there’s a job that’s age appropriate for them, we’ll put them to work.”

The farm has a bright future, and the Stewards can feel confident that they’re doing things right. Last year, Josh was selected as one of Farm Credit’s 100 Fresh Perspectives, a nationwide program that honored innovators across the agricultural industry.

He admits, though, that the whims of Mother Nature continue to bother his stubborn desire for control on his farm. He also knows that growing into the role of a farmer means that he’s had to become more adaptable to situations.

“I probably don’t have as much control over things as I’d like,” he says, “but I’m starting to let go of that.”

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