'Foodsystems' program bring college students to fields

A tractor with a bankout wagon in tow heads back out to pick up another load of wheat from a combine harvesting fields northwest of Waitsburg.

A tractor with a bankout wagon in tow heads back out to pick up another load of wheat from a combine harvesting fields northwest of Waitsburg. Photo by Andy Porter.

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WAITSBURG — Students embarking on a pilot project to study Pacific Northwest agriculture got a ground-level view of large-scale farming last week.

The visit to wheat fields being harvested northwest of Waitsburg was part of the start of “Foodsystems Northwest: Circuits of Soil, Labor and Money.” The pilot project by the Northwest Five Consortium is a two-year collaboration between Whitman College, Lewis & Clark College, the University of Puget Sound, Reed College and Willamette University.

As combines and tractors worked the rolling hills behind them, the group had a wide-ranging conversation with David McKinley and his wife, Dianne, about the economics, dynamics and daily demands of being a farmer in the 21st century.

“We’ll harvest 8,500 acres this year, Right now we have 11 men, including myself, working,” McKinley said. The rest of the year, the number of full-time employees working the farm drops to him and three others, he said.

During their morning-long visit with the group, the McKinleys discussed and took questions on topics ranging from the basics of dryland farming to genetically modified organisms to “how much concentration and focus does it take to drive a combine?”

According to Dianne, that task isn’t something that’s handed to a new hand. “You have to pay attention, you have to stay on top of it,” she said. “It takes a lot of experience.”

David McKinley recounted how he got started in the business in 1990 when his father, who was then farming about 3,000 acres, retired, and McKinley bought his fleet of equipment. He and Dianne grew their farming operations, but it involved constant work and constantly dealing with debt.

“It took us about 10 years to get to where we weren’t borrowing to pay off the original equipment,” David told the group.

Technology has changed farming practices dramatically, the McKinleys said. This includes things such as global positioning systems that eliminate overlap while spraying fertilizer, saving hundreds dollars, to chemicals such as Roundup, which McKinley said was one of the “biggest breakthroughs” that has helped control weeds without tillage that caused topsoil erosion.

In response to a question about GMOs, McKinley said he and other farmers don’t want to grow GMO crops “if our customers don’t want it.” However the research into genetically modified organisms needs to continue.

“We need it on the shelf just so we know it’s available if we need a drought-resistant wheat if the climate changes,” he said.

Lead instructor Emelie Peine, University of Puget Sound assistant professor of international political economy, said the three-week course is intended to give students a broad look at the food system in the Pacific Northwest.

Along with wheat farming and its associated transport and storage systems, the students also visited Hudson Bay Farm, Broetje Orchards and the Railex facility. They then will travel to Tacoma, where the focus will shift to urban agriculture.

The final part of the course will be at Willamette University, where the group will live and work at the student-operated Zena Forest & Farm to explore opportunities and obstacles associated with smaller-scale, organic farming.

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