Ag Media Summit: 2 farmers find ways to thrive in tough terrain

The old adage “when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade” couldn’t have rang more true when two farmers shared their experiences of staying profitable, sustainable, and resilient in climates not so friendly during the Newsmakers Panel: Adapting to Change in Agriculture Monday at Ag Media Summit in Snowbird, Utah.

When Russ Zenner went back in 1970 to his family farm in southeast corner of the “Palouse Region” — about 100 miles south of Spokane, Washington near the Washington/Idaho border — his involvement in the National Conservation District soon opened his eyes to the soil conditions in the area.

“I soon realized the predominant farming practices in this region just weren’t going to be sustainable over the years,” Zenner said.

A very rough terrain, the Palouse dryland crop production area has had significant challenges in keeping top soil in place with traditional production. According to Zenner, in the 1990s the NRCS estimated 40 percent of top soil had been lost from the region with the management practices that had prevailed over the years.

Zenner knew he needed to make some changes on his 2,800-acre farm. His interest in reducing tillage on the farm started in the late 1970s and progressed to a 100 percent direct seed cropping system in 2000.

Through direct seeding Zenner said the farm was able to improve soil organic matter and nearly eliminate erosion. It’s one of the reasons he joined the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association, a non-profit formed in 2000 to provide information exchange, advocacy on conversation policy issues, research coordination, access to value-added benefits that supports the adoption of environmentally sustainable and economically viable direct seed cropping systems.

Several of his neighbors in the region have joined Zenner in adapting some of these practices. A few years back, Zenner and three other farmers developed Vico, LLC (aka ‘Drillbillies” as his daughter tagged the operation) to buy no till equipment that would work specifically for the Northwest region landscape and help deal with very high residue issues. After years of success sharing the John Deere air cart drill, the Vico LLC now employs a hired man to help.

That passion for managing farms in a more sustainable manner has now trickled down to the next generation. Vivo LLC now has has five more young farmers on board looking at perennial crops to cut down on tillage and chemicals as well as cover crop grazing’s impact on soil health and soil structure.

Zenner has also found success in value-added opportunities in the food business based on the environmental benefit of the production system. In July of 2003, Zenner Family Farm became the first farm in Idaho to become Food Alliance certified.

Zenner is also part of 45 growers from southern Alberta and the Pacific Northwest who raise wheat for Shepherd’s Grain. All of the growers must be certified by Food Alliance for sustainability, comply with exacting standards for land improvement, and only grow the grains that meet the exacting standards of Shepherd’s customers. When consumers buy a bag of Shepherd’s Grain flour, they are able to scan a code and find out all about the farm that grew the wheat.

“The most satisfying outcome for me as a Shepherd’s Grain grower has been the opportunity to share the passion for sustainable food production with all the players in our food chain. This starts with the opportunity to communicate directly with the educated consumer that is driving the entire process and then working back toward the farm through the many food service providers, bakers, retail grocery decision makers, food distribution and wheat milling personnel, and many others that recognize the importance of the success of this endeavor,” Zenner tells customers on the Shepherd’s Grain site. “As we all learn the implications of informed food buying decisions and share our knowledge and passion to fulfill that demand we can continually improve the ability to provide food in a sustainable manner by sharing knowledge through these relationships.”

And knowledge truly is power.

When Chuck Backus, a former Ph.D. nuclear engineer who worked with Westinghouse on NASA’s manned mission to Mars, started cattle ranching in the challenging, desolate southern foothills of Arizona’s Superstition Mountains in 1977, he knew he needed to get it down to a science to be successful.

A professor and administrator at Arizona State University, Backus purchased the Quarter Circle U Ranch (Arizona’s oldest continuously-operating ranch) in 1978. The center of the Lost Dutchman Gold Mine’s legend, the ranch is very rugged and very remote.

Located 60 miles from Phoenix, the ranch is only accessible by horseback, other than the main road in. Since the ranch was seven miles from nearest electric line, Backus put his brain to brawn – converting the ranch to solar electric 38 years ago and being the first farm to do so.

When Backus retired from teaching about 13 years ago, his studies didn’t slow down – he dove head first into figuring out how to get the most quality from his 400-head operation. He decided to use AI to breed genetics in that would grow accustomed to the climate. Backus said while it was the best and quickest way to bred in high quality, it was a very slow process.

As packing plants started paying more for higher grade and value-added products, Backus stepped up his game once again. Despite the ranch’s limited grazing, Backus was able to take his beef quality up three to five times the national average for Prime and three to four times the national average for Certified Angus Beef acceptance rates.

“They were surprised that I could raise quality calves from a pile of rocks,” Backus said. “But you can do that, if you plan for it and grow your own genetics to do that.”

His next goal is to improve feed conversion efficiency on the ranch. After some recent research in Canada on individual animal feed efficiency data, Backus doesn’t see any reason the cow can’t get down to the chicken in conversion points.

“The ability of the cattle market to cut in half the food resource to make the same product – -it’s a huge impact,” Backus said.

We can’t wait to see Backus succeed.