By Jeff Wilson
Hal Johnson looks like a farmer: He wears Carhartt overalls, a battered baseball cap and worn work gloves. He is the last in a line of three generations of farmers.
"I would not be able to do what I have done without those who came before me," Johnson said.
Though he may not think of himself as a pioneer, Johnson is one of few who are pioneering a new method of planting seed in a joint effort with Davenport's Wilke Research and Extension Farm.
Johnson traveled to South Dakota in 1997 with six other Lincoln County wheat farmers to learn from a university research team how to plant with direct seeding, a process that reduces soil erosion, improves air, soil and water qualities, adds crop diversity and can result in greater profit. Using this method, farmers do not have to till their land; they just plant and fertilize the seed. They can save on fuel and equipment, because they need to make only one pass through the fields.
"Because of dry weather conditions, low spring wheat yields and time management, the growers wanted to incorporate more diversity into their system," said Aaron Esser, Wilke Farm Management Committee Chair. Direct seeding was one technique Wilke undertook to study for the farmer.
Johnson's farm is located outside of Davenport, close to Wilke Research and Extension Farm. Lincoln County., Wash., is the second-largest wheat producing county in the state. Wilke was founded by Washington State University in the 1980s, when a 320-acre parcel was donated by Beulah Wilson Wilke to be used as an agricultural- research facility. Led by the Ag Horizons team of the WSU Cooperative Extension, Wilke is a public and private cooperative effort. It is able to function as a single entity apart from the farmers, but it also explores new farming methods for the farmers.
The facility's goal is to develop cropping systems that are economically and environmentally sustainable by the average farmer based in the intermediate-rainfall area of Eastern Washington. This includes increasing the net return of crops, enhancing soil quality, reducing erosion and reducing agrochemical and fossil-fuel use.
But former Davenport farmer Brett Guhlke chose not to implement the Wilke methods during his 35 years in the fields.
"A few guys can make it work," Guhlke said, "but most yields are pretty close to normal."
Guhlke was not attracted to the upfront expense: The direct-seed method involves new equipment, which can cost up to $70,000 for a single machine.
Johnson admits that there are drawbacks to the direct-seeding process.
"In the last five to seven years, I have completely retooled," Johnson said. He sold his old equipment and bought the necessary new machinery with several other farmers in his area. Johnson adapted to the changes, and he believes he is saving over the long haul. The old system of winter wheat and summer fallow has been in place for more than 100 years.
"Some of us have moved forward on our own," Johnson said. "We have finally gone on to something different."
With the new advances, though, come new problems. Weeds and insects not often seen before now appear in greater frequency on direct-seeding farms. Wild oats, for instance, tend to increase in the spring cropping of direct-seed farms. Weed control is the third-ranking problem for farmers, Esser said, after figuring out what to plant and when to plant it. Crop rotations, moving annually from wheat to barley to mustard, for example, are intended to control the weed and insect populations, but at this point not all solutions are known. Johnson believes Wilke may be able to deal with some of those problems in the future.
Johnson believes in progress and staying competitive in the world market. To him, Wilke represents the battle to keep American farmers ahead of everyone else.
"Wilke is there to lead the way so that we don't have to bet the farm," Johnson said.