Seeds of Success: Lessees Key to Long-Term Sustainability of Farm Lands

Lessees promote sustainable farming techniques

Photo: DNR

The morning is warm and clear, but for the slight haze of dust from combines crawling their way across a sea of golden wheat. As I pull into the neatly kept homestead, I wonder what today’s visit will bring. I am new to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR), having accepted a position as Range and Lease Specialist out of the Ephrata field office. Here, fields of summer fallow and dryland wheat are met by lush orchards and vineyards, all interspersed with sagebrush steppe. The mixed grass prairie, corn, and soybeans of my native South Dakota are so different, and yet so much the same. 

I hop out of my pick-up and am instantly met with a wet, black nose, nearly reaching my chest. The large brown eyes of a German Shepard meet my gaze. I can tell by his stance he has already deemed me harmless. I offer a pat on his head, and he offers a tepid wag of his tail before trotting off. Next, I am greeted by the big smile, reaching hands, and teetering steps of a young girl. Her grandma is hot on her tracks though, taking her hand before she stumbles on the course gravel of the parking area. We engage in light small-talk, and then she points me towards the machine shed.

Inside, I meet with Mike and Tom Heer. They have three expiring dryland wheat and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) leases with DNR. Meticulously, we comb through maps as they point out each piece of ground enrolled in CRP. Next we are off for a tour. Tom and Mike tell me about the homestead their father once lived at on a DNR parcel. Tom tells me about the yearly soil testing that they conduct, and Mike tells me about the wheat varieties they planted this year.

I ask as many questions as I can think of. What is the difference between soft white wheat, and hard red wheat? What varieties do you grow? How do you prepare the seedbed? Both Mike and Tom happily oblige me. I know it is not enough, these few questions. The knowledge they have of this land is only come by through years of hard work. I am beginning to understand that dryland wheat production takes lots of skill, some risk, and maybe a pinch of luck. As we drive, the Heer brothers point out the patches of CRP. Each one is working just as it was meant to, one protecting a steep draw from erosion, another placed on a hilltop with shallow soils.

Photo: DNR

Photo: DNR

Our conversation turns to the pygmy rabbit colonies located not far from their property. Mike and Tom tell me about the Safe Harbor agreement they have with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. They tell me how they like keeping up with industry changes, and how they even enjoy reading The Dirt. Our conversation winds down. I need to get back to the office, and they need to get back to the field. We return to the farm yard where we exchange contact information and firm handshakes.

Back in my truck, I find a new sense of eagerness and purpose. I have so much to learn, but I am on my way to a career supporting and encouraging good trust land stewards like the Heer brothers. I cannot help but wonder about the future of these public lands. Who will be our next generation of land stewards? Who will greet me at the door in ten years? I can only hope that they have as much pride in and commitment to our public lands as the Heer brothers.

I think back to the small girl, her tiny hands reaching out to me in greeting. In no short time, she will be starting school in a building that her grandfather and great uncle helped build by harvesting wheat grown on state trust lands. Perhaps one day she will meet me at the gate, her own small children playing in the shade, and we will sit and talk once more about her DNR leases, the CRP contracts, wheat yields, and new varieties, as I once did with her grandfather.

The summer is drawing to a close here in eastern Washington. Fields that were once brown in fallow now brighten with the green of next year’s dryland wheat crop. I have spent the summer meeting with lessees who are very much like the Heer brothers. Each has a history of leasing DNR lands and each is devoted to the sustainable management of State trust land. Together, we are perpetuating Washington’s natural heritage while supporting public trusts. The relationships we grow in the field are harvested in the community of lessees dedicated to conservation, stewardship, and sustainability.

by Emma Barnett, DNR Southeast Region