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Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century
ance is the best match,” he says. His long-term goal would be no-till organic, but “we’re not close to it at all.”
The Zenners took out production loans regularly in the past, but have not done so for the past four years. Russ notes that the farm incurred considerable debt to get where they are today, but that over the years, he was still able to “push the envelope and have consistent profitability.” His adoption of no-till farming had to meet the test of being “sustainable financially,” which led to a measured and cautious approach and “doing a lot of homework.” In 2008, the Zenners made a significant pay-down of long-term farm debt, so that farm debt is now approaching zero
SOCIAL AND COMMUNITY CONSIDERATIONS
Despite the considerable number of acres farmed, Zenner Farm has only one full-time, one part-time, and two seasonal workers. Good mechanical skills and an ability to recognize and respond to timing issues in getting critical jobs done have been especially important attributes of the full-time worker. Russ sees a strong technical skill set and reliability as essential for worker productivity. Although communication and social skills are desirable, they might not be as critical as technical skills and reliability. In general, fewer individuals with the needed technical and mechanical skills and interest are available in the surrounding community to hire, in part because fewer farm children grow up in the area. A pending dearth of local labor to work on the farm could become a problem in the future.
For the full-time worker, the farm provides health insurance, a retirement plan, a house to live in, and a crop bonus share. The part-time and seasonal workers play important roles during the busy season, but overall their hours are limited. Part-time and seasonal workers tend to be older, retired people, often with rural and farming roots, who have had nonfarming occupations (in some cases, professional occupations) for much of their adult lives. Some of them, Russ notes, “maybe would have preferred to farm.”
Russ’s approach to farming is premised on active learning and experimentation: “I’m constantly trying to glean information from someone else’s experience. I’ve attended no-till conferences nationally and internationally.” He has connected with and visited direct-seeding farmers in Australia, and he believes he learned a lot from them. Russ says Australian farmers generally have much tougher weed control issues than farmers in Idaho. He also believes they are much farther along with the “biological farming approach” than most American farmers.
Russ’s personal interest in continual learning has spilled over into auxiliary enterprises with others. For example, he is involved with ViCo (stands for “visions cooperatively”), a small LLC he founded in 1998 with three fellow growers in the region to provide innovative farm management services.41 A relatively new company partner is a former extension agent
Three of the four ViCo grower partners are Columbia Plateau Producer members, and hence also members of Shepherd’s Grain.