by Joel Huesby of Touchet, Washington
On a late summer day in ’94, I had an epiphany, a life-changing realization, and I haven’t been the same person since. I was out burning a field of wheat stubble, ridding myself of what I thought at the time was bothersome organic matter, so I could plant alfalfa that fall.
Only two weeks earlier, a local cannery had harvested my crop of snap beans grown under contract. The return was slightly more than $500 per acre. With per acre costs of $100 for seed, $60 for fertilizer, $120 for water, $35 for weed control, $80 for equipment, plus the operating loan payment, insurance, interest, and taxes, there wasn’t much left for my own living expenses. I was barely scratching a living from the land. The crops required so many expensive inputs and yet provided so little return for my effort and risk. It seemed that everyone else was making a living from my land but me!
I asked myself, “How long can we keep doing this?” and “Should we get out?”
We watched as other long-standing farm families were forced to sell everything and move to town. Were we next?
My choices were limited if I remained in the current paradigm. Either I had to get a job to support the farm and my family, or borrow more money and increase the size of our business in the hope of spreading fixed costs over more acres and yet fall further into debt.
I was forced to face the harsh truth — my farm was a failure financially, ecologically, socially and personally.
Something obviously had to change.
Up with the smoke in the stubble fire went my ideas about making a living from commodity agriculture. So it was, that I resolved to do nothing the same again.
As the months went by, I came to realize the circular-living pattern in which I had been ensnared. I always need bigger equipment to farm more acres faster, and more fertilizers and pesticides to get bigger yields that made greater supplies that lowered prices that meant I needed bigger equipment and on and on…
I had compacted the soil, fed it artificial — even poisonous food, removed far more organic matter than I had put back, laid the ground bare, and disrupted the soil community with excessive tillage.
The very practices, which brought greater yields and lower returns, also inhibited the soil from feeding and cleaning itself, prompting me to apply ever-greater amounts of acidifying fertilizer salts and toxic pesticides.
As a price taker, I had dumped my commodities on the market and wondered why I got dump prices. But those days had come to an end for me.
During this period of withdrawal and rehabilitation, weeds grew. The soil lashed out. It got ugly. I reasoned “Why grow something and make nothing when I can grow nothing and make nothing.” Later, someone asked, “What are you growing?” I said, “Dirt,” which, as it turned out came to be true. The question for me became, “How can I make these natural and historically abundant plant nutrients available to the chemically dependent soil once again?” I had to rethink my farming practices.
In a similar fashion my own dependence on distant and disconnected markets also prevented me from truly selling what I grew. The marketing institutions on which I had also become reliant prevented me from asking two important questions: “Who are my customers?” and “What are their needs?” I had to rethink my marketing practices.
The road to recovery has not been easy.
I continued to look for ways to rebuild the ability of the soil to feed itself. This led me to be awarded a contract with a local paper recycling plant where I applied a two-inch mulch of waste paper fibers over the course of a year. The mill went bankrupt as we were almost complete with our farm. Over 34,000 tons of what was previously a waste product became part of the health of our soil. It also saved 1,400 semi-truck loads of precious landfill space for real garbage.
Over the years, I came to see myself in a new light, in fact as a sunlight harvester. My farm has evolved literally from the ground up. But it has not been a solo trip. Were it not for the support and encouragement from my extended family, I would not be here today.
We attend many farmers markets in the Walla Walla and Seattle areas. Today we sell what we grow. We’ve handed out thousands of brochures. Chefs from local restaurants cook and demonstrate for us at the markets. My wife, Cynthia, prepares a gourmet hamburger featuring all local buns and produce, and of course, our ground beef patties. We offer taste tests and comparisons. We created an informative display as we educate the public about their food purchasing choices. The coming year will bring more growth as we continue to add value and new products for our family of customers.
Now, we are like conductors of a great orchestra, directing each part of a harmonious symphony of life. The overture begins with a natural healthy perspective. The rich soil opens the first movement. Healthy plants gain strength in the second. The animals make their contributions in the third. And the fourth is played out and sung by a community of healthy people in a joyful chorus.
I am only beginning to hear and understand the universal language of the soil, and to listen to what the soil is telling me. It is hard to listen to the soil from the cab of a tractor! I must get on my knees.
Look, Smell, Feel, and Observe…
So, nine years later, Thundering Hooves, the name of our family farm business, is indeed making tracks. There are cattle, sheep, goats, chickens, and turkeys roaming our pasture. We haven’t used chemical fertilizers or pesticides on our pastures since 1995. The living soil has returned. And we now enjoy many great relationships with our direct-market friends and customers.
The fire that burned the wheat stubble nine years ago has sparked a whole new way of thinking and living for us, and things will never be the same.
My name is Joel Huesby and I am a recovering farmer.