by PAUL K. HAEDER & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & merican farmers face an uncertain future. Every week 330 farmers leave their land, says Farm Aid. There are nearly five million fewer farms than there were in the 1930s. And of the two million remaining farms, only a quarter of them are family operations. Every hour, Washington loses more than 10 acres of farmland to development.
And yet, amid this bleak picture, there's hope or at least the start of it in the form of farmers and ranchers committed to sustainable practices that use less fuel and fewer chemicals. Here are three of them: Joel Huesby of Thundering Hooves, an organic grass-fed beef producer near Walla Walla; Greg Beckley, owner of 6,000-acre G & amp; L Farms south of Ritzville; and Don Nelson, WSU's extension beef specialist.
The trio just landed $81,000 from the governor to launch a two-year project that's been dubbed Beefing Up the Palouse. They'll be converting some of Huesby's land into a grass-fed beef operation, and they'll study every aspect of the pastureland's sustainability, from soil microbe health and the diversity of native grasses to the impact on erosion of controlled cattle grazing.
Innovators like Huesby and Nelson have big goals: healthier food grown, produced, packaged and consumed within our region -- a strategy they believe will lower the amount of fossil fuel consumed while keeping these farmers in business and the communities supporting them vibrant.
Huesby's a fourth-generation farmer who, like many around the country, saw the family farm start as a sustainable operation, then expand through "four decades of a chemical nightmare and depleted soils," only to turn to a new state of sustainable farming.
"Everyone was making a living from my land but me," Huesby says. "And I saw problems on my farm that weren't being addressed. The dirt was blowing away. The soil wasn't holding moisture. I was forced to face the harsh truth -- my farm was a failure."
The Beefing Up project, if successful, could be a model for other farms and ranches across the state. The timing couldn't be much better. A sizeable chunk of land out of Washington state's million acres in the Conservation Reserve Program -- which paid farmers to take acres out of production for 10 to 15 years -- could be pulled from CRP status and put back to work.
Third-generation Cheney rancher Maurice Robinette of Lazy R is an expert on CRP land and the new holistic cattle-grazing methodology. As a staff member with the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network, he will help oversee the project.
Here's the holistic ranching approach the Beefing Up project will follow: Cattle are forced to graze hard in designated areas for a few weeks or a month and then they're moved. Once an area has been grazed, the holistic rancher will keep it free of cattle for more than a year. The method has been shown to encourage grass re-growth.
Planned grazing "will enhance all of the eco-system processes," Robinette says.
Many environmentalists, of course, see value in keeping CRP lands out of production, but others believe the land, if managed properly, can be even healthier. Michael Pollan, a food and agriculture critic and author of Botany of Desire, is one of them.
"There is more top soil, more grass, more fertility than there would be if nothing were being done here," Pollan says of Polyface Farm in Virginia, where Joel Salatin and his son Daniel raise six different animals on 100 acres of open land and 400 acres of forest.
"That is a very significant achievement, because it belies this basic American idea that our relationship with nature is a zero sum game -- by which we all assume that for us to get what we want from nature, nature is diminished," says Pollan. "This farm is saying, 'No, that is not necessarily true. There is a way to get your food from the earth in such a way that it leaves the earth improved.'"
Nelson, the beef specialist, agrees, and he's advocating for holistic cattle grazing to enhance the nutrient cycle and growth potential of much of Washington's dry-land ecosystem.
Advocates also believe holistic rangeland management can help the environment by encouraging the growth of perennial grass and legume pastures, which help recharge the groundwater and aquifer and cut down on water and wind erosion.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t's still tough making the transition to the holistic, sustainable organic way, as Joel Huesby and his wife, Cynthia, found on their 225-acre spread.
"During the initial period of withdrawal and rehabilitation, weeds grew," says Joel Huesby. "The soil lashed out. It got ugly. When someone asked me what I was growing, I said, 'Dirt,' which, as it turned out, came to be true. The question now was, 'How can I make the natural and historically abundant plant nutrients available to the chemically dependent soil once again?' I had to rethink my farming practices."
At the high end, a project like Beefing Up the Palouse may not only help individual farmers like Huesby, but entire farming communities. Nelson points out that when hundreds of thousands of acres in Washington were enrolled in CRP, the impact on the rural communities was immediately felt. Grocery and hardware stores, doctors and schools, closed down and moved.
This movement could reverse that, bringing new life to those small, struggling communities while drawing a new breed of farmer, ones hooked on the newest technological tools to practice the old ways of farming.