Do You Know Your Wheat Farmer?

Do you know your wheat farmer? Or any wheat farmer, for that matter?

I do! Last weekend I met Dwelley, a life-long Palouse farmer who harvests about 1500 acres of wheat per year (and, incidentally, who majored in philosophy at Whitman College.)

Dwelley gives us a history of the farm using two huge framed photos from the farm's past.

Although the field trip was billed as "Ride a Combine!" we actually learned about much more than equipment.

Though the combine WAS pretty cool!

For example, I knew the Palouse was full of "winter wheat" but I never knew what that meant.

It means the wheat crop is planted in September or October and sprouts in the fall. The delicate green shoots have to hang out under the freezing snow all winter! The wheat develops a sturdy root system until it can finally photosynthesize and grow above-ground all spring and summer. It's harvested in July and August and BAM -- planting season again.

Sophie examines the inside of the combine, which sorts the wheat from the chaff. Literally.

Wheat is not the only crop planted on Dwelley's farm: he rotates his fields with peas, garbanzo beans and alfalfa to replenish nitrogen in the soil and break up disease cycles.

Seed peas from a past harvest.

We spent a lot of time talking about disease challenges facing wheat farmers. Pathogens come in many forms (and colors), from the Midwestern mosaic virus which turns whole patches of wheat yellow to stripe rust, a fungus that coats the wheat in vivid orange.

Water and weeds are also difficult issues to reckon with. Dwelley discussed the trade-off between center-pivot irrigation and dry-land farming. And while no-till farming does decrease erosion and (eventually) increase organic matter in the soil, it sometimes results in the need for more herbicides like Round-Up to control weeds.

Dwelley demonstrates the blower which spreads the straw back onto the field to dry.

We love tractors!

Examining a combine from the top down.

Dwelley talked about the type of wheat he wants to provide and the soft, flavorful, high-quality bread he hopes it will become. 

It was wonderful to hear Dwelley's down-to-earth views on topics that effect his crops, land and livelihood. As consumers, we often hold lofty ideals about sustainable farming and how food ought to be, but it's important to realize that farmers are as concerned about the long-term sustainability of their farms as we are (and probably more so).

The decisions Dwelley and other farmers make are incredibly complex. Every new variety of wheat Dwelley tries is a risk; each day he withholds expensive fungicide during an outbreak of stripe rust is a gamble. Even as we admired Dwelley's lush green alfalfa field, Dwelley expressed his doubts. "This field is highly acidic," he told us. "If I'd realized how unsuited alfalfa is for acidic soil, I probably wouldn't have planted it!"

The essential farm "junk yard" with Dwelley's acidic alfalfa field in the background.

Every decision Dwelley makes is based on economics, risk management, experience, and intuition about what's best for the land, the crop, the product and the consumer. In a perfect world, Dwelley would love to grow wheat without Round-Up, fungicides, insecticides, irrigation, tilling or any other risky technology, but that's not realistic.

As consumers, let's expand our discussion to include the reality of agriculture: that every calorie is eeked from the ground with a precise combination of technologies and a whole lot of elbow grease. Let's talk about agriculture not as a binary between industrial monoculture and sustainable organic production, but as the fluid art and science it truly is. Let's ask: what is the ideal balance between Round-Up and tillage? What breeding techniques can we use to improve dry-land varieties, thereby reducing the need for irrigation? How can we use genetically modified organisms to improve the safety and sustainability of agriculture?

These questions are actively being asked by farmers and scientists right now, not only by organic producers and food activists, but within the context of mainstream agriculture as well.

So what can you do? Go out and meet a wheat farmer!

And don't forget to climb a tractor... The view's great from up here.