Russ and Kathy encouraged their three children to obtain college educations. Given that their children, now adults, are established in professional careers and living in Boise or Seattle, and, as Russ puts it, “none had the passion (for farming) I did,” the Zenners are beginning to think about other options for continuing the farm operation, including hired management. A year before the interview, when Russ had back problems, he felt ready to make the transition. Resolution of that issue made the transition question less urgent, although it has not gone away. Russ notes, “I feel I have some obligation to what my father and grandfather did.” Their hope is to set the farm up with top-level management that can mentor any eventual family members in the succeeding generation. At the same time, they concede that it is difficult to find people who can fulfill all their expectations as well as those of their children. Russ and Kathy have been to a Farm Credit’s succession program on family business transition. They have held several all-family meetings about the future of the farm. Their children say they are not interested in selling the farm and express some desire to keep the farm so that their own children (Russ and Kathy’s grandchildren) could come back to it and know that work ethic. Reconciling the various internal family interests with maintaining profitable farm operations remains a challenge.
Russ observes, “I’ve been a significant recipient of farm program benefits over the years, but I think the system is very flawed in terms of ensuring rural communities and sustainable resource management.” In general, he believes that regions reliant on program crops experience a stifling of innovation and diversity. Those regions are likely to find their economic opportunities restricted to those associated with niche or specialty crops. Russ is interested in seeing policies that are more sustainable and that encourage resource conservation and more value-added options at the local level.
Russ has been involved with the Dry Pea and Lentil Council, serving as chairman of its research committee in the 1990s, at which time he pushed for sustainable cropping systems research and links to the work of STEEP. The Dry Pea and Lentil Council later sought to address federal policies, but Russ was not involved in that effort.43 He underscored that the system as currently structured does not adequately support sustainable resource management or rural economic health and does not support crop diversity. For example, if a grower has a diverse rotation (grows a crop one out of every three years), it is extremely difficult to develop the yield history required to participate in crop insurance—even though such a rotation would involve less risk from yield loss.
Russ has been involved in the Conservation Security Program (CSP) in the Clearwater watershed (2007, his first year, and 2008). He likes that type of incentive program, which he sees as promoting sustainable resource management. He says the CSP application was geared to no-till, so it was fairly easy for him to apply. Zenner Farm is getting full CSP funding as the Zenners are addressing many of the issues that CSP is concerned with, notably water quality. Russ articulates some concern that, at present, CSP does not reward the new biological farming approaches that he believes hold promise for the future. Zenner Farm has also participated in EQIP to develop buffers around streams.