by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & n the first evening of August in the highlands to the east of the Okanogan Valley, the sun was aiming toward the western horizon but didn't appear to be in any hurry to leave, turning the sky a dog's-eye yellow as it illuminated all the hanging smoke from nearby forest fires.

The slant of its light was still firing up the tops of ripe wheat plants like so many candles even as the stalks and ground below were blanching with the first gray of dusk. It was a gray that matched the narrow gravel road running alongside the field, a thin stitch of a road where some stirred-up quiet and dust once more settled when two trucks came to a stop.

Peter Goldmark emerged from one of the rigs and tromped over to the field, looking around at the sere, wrinkled landscape of wheat, tall grasses and basalt domes -- some bigger than houses -- out among the crops.

"This is tough country. You got to be tough to make it."

He was talking specifically about the wheat -- a variety he created to handle harsh winters in the remote plateaus that form the western edge of the Colville Indian Reservation and where he farms and ranches on 7,000 acres. But he could just as well have been speaking about his decision to run for Congress as a Democrat -- a decision he made after months pondering the tough times facing farmers throughout Washington's 5th Congressional District, which basically runs from Walla Walla to Ione and from Spokane to Omak.

The district is largely farm country, and farm country is largely Republican, but there's nothing quixotic about Goldmark's quest. Party lines may not matter so much, he suspects, when everybody's going down together under skyrocketing costs and prices that haven't budged, not only in years but in generations.

An hour or so earlier, sitting at his kitchen table and pulling on a tumbler of water, Goldmark says: "Welcome to the Depression in rural America. You can find it in Okanogan, Mansfield, Wilbur, Davenport, Harrington, Sprague, Ritzville ... but if you really want to see it, go to Lind."

Goldmark was in Lind recently for a speaking engagement. What he saw was troubling. Troubling for the pain in farm country and troubling also because nobody outside of farm country even seems to know it's there -- especially, Goldmark contends, first-term Republican incumbent Cathy McMorris, who he is challenging for Congress.

"I arrived early, as is my wont, at 7:45, and I drove around Lind until I found the diner open. It was the only place open," he says. "The caf & eacute; looked like it hadn't been remodeled since the '50s. People came in and started pouring themselves a cup of coffee ... and it could have been 1958. Outside the diner there's nothing left in Lind. That's the extreme, but it's real."

Scarily real, agrees Read Smith, a Whitman County wheat farmer near St. John.

"We're in a desperate cost/price squeeze right now. The fertilizers we use are petroleum-based, and the fuel we need to run everything is up and we're being squeezed bad. The price we get for almost everything we produce is flat and has been for 30 years," Smith says.

"So we're living off equity, and Main Street is suffering. In Endicott there's no caf & eacute;, no tavern, no drug store. There's a food center and a bank and a post office and that's it," Smith says. "Go to many small communities in the 5th District and Main Street is empty. People are gone, the shops are closed, the schools are shrinking and the churches are suffering -- and there doesn't seem to be a real grasp that this is happening."

Decline on the Rise & r & Decline in farm towns has long been considered a function of fewer farmers running bigger farms. But now, Goldmark says, "Even the bigger farmers are leaving, even the larger farms are struggling."

Corde Siegel, who farms near the Whitman County outpost of Pine City, says, "My accountant says there is not a single grain grower who is making money."

The math is as simple as it is harsh. Six years ago, Siegel says, his cost per acre for fuel was $5; today it's $20. Fertilizer penciled out to $20 an acre in 2000 and is $45 today. Chemicals have gone from $12 to $35 an acre in the last six years; labor from $8 to $18 an acre; machinery from $10 to $33; crop insurance from $4 to $12.50.

Meanwhile, "I have farmers harvesting wheat for the same prices their fathers and grandfathers did," says Gretchen Borck, director of issues for the Washington Association of Wheat Growers based in Ritzville.

It's a bad equation, Goldmark says. "Here are the people [who] we say are privileged to grow food for the entire world, and now you've got to pay to do it.

"Ag families are going to dry up and go away and nobody cares. I care," he says. "This is the big issue about why I got into the race -- nobody's doing anything about it. Nobody is even speaking up about it."

Goldmark, who is a scientist in addition to being a second-generation rancher and farmer in the Okanogan, often brings the rigors of science to considering various questions. He can appear downright Vulcan at times.

But when it comes to the crashing economies of farms and farm towns, his voice rises with passion and even trembles.

"The number of bankruptcies are up in farm country, alcoholism is up in farm country, domestic violence is up in farm country, the number of suicides are up because of the amount of stress in agriculture. People are going out of business, families are being hurt, people are making awful choices. They need hope, they need support and they deserve better than what they're getting," he says.

Nancy Belsby, who farms south of Cheney, says quite a few farmers who expand their operations by leasing land from others are going to pull back when leases are up this year. The leases, others say, are often important income for elderly farmers stretching meager retirements.

Siegel, the Pine City farmer, says the humiliation of having an operation sold by sheriff's auction is up in Whitman County from one or two per year to three or four already last spring and more on the horizon after harvest.

It's an atmosphere rippling with uncertainty, tension and a demand for change.

"The farmers need an advocate," Goldmark says. "The incumbent is not even a member of the Ag Committee and is bereft of ag support. All industries in this nation depend on government support. Farmers need energy credits, tax packages, energy policies."

McMorris, despite her conservative Republican chops and small-town, farm-raised childhood, may be more vulnerable than people think. She did bring Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to Cheney last November for a listening session that attracted a capacity crowd of 600 to Eastern Washington University's Showalter Hall in Cheney.

But McMorris may well have been reacting to something that occurred a month earlier when Democratic Sen. Patty Murray swung by the Harvester Restaurant in Spangle and found a standing-room-only crowd packing the place to discuss troubles in farm country. A couple of weeks later, Murray flew a half dozen ag leaders to her office for a face-to-face sit-down meeting with a couple of senior officials from the Department of Agriculture.

This may indicate votes may flow more toward the candidate doing the most to address the crisis and less to traditional party lines.

Tough Climb Ahead & r & Eric Earle, a federal employee, conservative blogger and field director for former GOP Sen. Slade Gorton's 2000 campaign, says the numbers still look bad for the challenger.

Goldmark has no statewide electoral experience, while McMorris spent 10 years in the Legislature, rising to leadership positions at a young age. Then "she was in a competitive primary and killed her opponent and then beat a well-financed and legitimate opponent in the general," Earle says.

Goldmark doesn't have the name recognition Don Barbieri had in 2004; and even though his first quarter of fund raising was energetic, Goldmark is well behind McMorris, who has nearly $1 million already.

"He's an interesting candidate, if you put aside party preferences," Earle says of Goldmark. "It is an intensely difficult climb he faces."

And you wouldn't blame Goldmark if he stayed out of politics completely, especially in an era of hyper-patriotism and Halliburton no-bid contracts. Goldmark's father, John, was a popular farmer and state senator in the 1950s who championed public power only to be viciously slandered as a Communist tool by a former Spokesman-Review political editor and a former legislator who had both sided with private power companies. In this fearful time of the Red Scare, John Goldmark was turned out of office and saw his life ruined.

He sued for libel in 1963 and won a huge victory against his accusers. But the stigma and whispers of "communist" played out tragically in 1985 when, on Christmas Eve, a drifter who hung around right-wing fringe groups, murdered Charles Goldmark, his wife and two children -- thinking he was John Goldmark.

The savage attacks on his parents (Peter Goldmark was 17 at the time of the libel trial) and the later murder of his brother's family may have shaped Peter Goldmark and his views of public service and politics.

But you won't get specifics from him.

In fact, he seethes in silence for long seconds when the topic is broached. "The past is there, but I am not my father and I am not my mother. The reason it doesn't go away is because people keep bringing it up," Goldmark says. Later, after the issue is batted around a bit, he says, "I don't want to be difficult about the past. The past is relevant in context, but it's still the past. What I want to do now is look to the future."

And the future means name recognition and raising at least $1 million. Indeed, it's a tough enough challenge to be a Democrat in the Republican stronghold of the 5th District. Goldmark also faces a challenge (i.e., Who the hell is this guy in the cowboy hat?) when it comes to Spokane -- the district's one urban center and reliable reservoir of Democratic votes.

"We knew we would have to move the campaign to Spokane," Goldmark says. That meant finding someone to run the farm, explaining the herky-jerky start to his campaign after first announcing last fall then sitting tight through the winter until a friend agreed to take over the ag operations.

Goldmark has been energetic in Spokane, inviting leading lights from the community to gather for round-table talks on renewable energy, ethics in government and health care.

Still, when he donned his trademark cowboy hat and rode on horseback up Market Street in the recent Hillyard Hijinks parade, few people seemed to know who he was.

"It's nice to finally see some horses in this parade," exclaims Bill Hotchkiss, a Hillyard native who now lives in Colfax with his wife, Denise.

The Hotchkisses, who say they tend to vote Republican, said, "This is the first I've ever heard of him," when Goldmark rode by.

A couple blocks away Patrick Nowacki, wearing a Pink Floyd shirt that screamed "younger demographic," says "I haven't heard anything about him," after the Goldmark retinue clip-clopped past.

Nowacki, who works at Gonzaga University and plays in the band Hung Phat, admits to voting for McMorris in 2004 even though he says he mostly goes Democrat. "She's middle of the road, she's status quo. She's just starting out, and I think that's great," Nowacki says.

Several blocks later, Dan Ritchie, chaplain at Sacred Heart Medical Center, says, "Goldmark? I've never heard of him. He's a Democrat? I'll have to check him out."

Cathy Ritchie, rocking their grandson, Daniel, in a stroller, says farm concerns aren't high on her radar. "My main issue is the war, especially since both of his parents," she says, pointing at Daniel, "serve at Fairchild."

Energy Independence & r & Goldmark, in his kitchen earlier that week, says, "I think, increasingly, people are troubled by the war in Iraq, troubled by the unending destruction of men and women and resources to no apparent benefit."

Especially, he contends, when the war appears to be "... adventuring for oil ...

"I'm a strong advocate of getting energy flowing the right way," Goldmark says, "by having incentive for farmers to grow what I call National Security Crops ... Those can be biofuels, they can be ethanol. ... And it is national security: Imagine saving the millions of dollars we spend -- and the human life lost -- while we go adventuring for oil in the Middle East. Imagine the good to our communities to grow, process, refine and burn our own domestic fuel supply."

Quite a number of farmers see alternative fuels and renewable energy crops -- canola, switchgrass, mustard -- as a way out from the crushing paradox of soft white winter wheat, where costs have exploded, program supports have withered and prices are still your dad's prices.

The district's wheat farmers are stuck, says Read Smith of St. John. "Over time, we have allowed the whole infrastructure to be designed and built around a commodity market: We have large elevators, river ports, ship-loading facilities -- everything is geared towards what was successful in the '60s. Those are not successful today, but how do we change to a system that doesn't put wheat on barges to Portland or Kalama to go to a country that hates our guts and the price they pay is less than the cost of production ... How do you break out of that?"

To Goldmark, it's local products for local distribution and consumption. Oil crops are one thing -- especially when tied to local crushers and refiners and burned as fuel in local cars -- but other crops that connect farmers and city people are important, too.

He cites his own switch to grass-finished cattle sold to niche markets within the state. He finds consumers are happy to support a small operation instead of buying meat from an industrial supply chain that may spread around the world.

Smith agrees with this approach and is himself involved with Shepherd's Grain, a business model that sells locally grown wheat to local bakers for local bread.

"We need more of these things ... We're creating a new paradigm, [but] the whole marketing system is against you because when you try to break in you are displacing someone else and there's a little bit of pushback," Smith says.

This is where, Goldmark says, a legislator more familiar with the district's ag issues could help. He pledges to seek a spot on the Ag Committee if elected.

Given the relatively small circles of 5th District agriculture, Smith says he knows both Goldmark and McMorris personally (and also was a friend of former U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane). He likes both candidates, but notes this difference: "Cathy is a young, career politician. He is a farmer and a rancher and a scientist. She's not even in the ballpark with Peter when it comes to ag -- and that's nothing against her."

Goldmark, his resume suggests, cares about his land and his family. When Okanogan County was facing difficult land-use questions in the late 1970s, he ran for the plan commission. When his kids were in school, he ran for school board.

When he needed to put his advanced degrees in molecular biology to use -- while researching genetic weed-control -- he approached scientists at Washington State University and wound up on the Board of Regents and creating two new varieties of soft white winter wheat.

A Hardy Strain & r & Up in the highlands east of the Okanogan Valley, Goldmark crunches down a gravel road toward a field of ripened wheat. This is the main road in his neighborhood, miles of gravel bending up and over rises and around corners, the kind of road you can stand in all day and never worry about getting run over.

Sun sinking through a sky yellow with smoke from forest fires, Goldmark wades into the wheat like a swimmer sloshing waist-deep into a pool of amber.

His fingertips comb through the spray of bristly seed heads, and he plucks one -- intricate with its latticed husk and spiky guard hairs -- and rubs it briskly between farm-hardened hands, blowing at the chaff until only the dry, ripe kernels remain.

About a mile down the road is a yellow, metal-sided shop. It's the sort of building common to farms and, like many of its kind, was built by the farmer himself.

In the corner of Goldmark's shop, however, is a small molecular biology lab -- the place where he invented "George," the variety of soft white winter wheat that now surges about his waist and foams away to the smoky horizon.

"First there was one, then there were many. What an amazing process," he says, popping the kernels into his mouth. "I started out selecting one head. Now they are all over the state. It's quite a humbling thing."

Goldmark had several goals in mind when he set out to create "George," which is named after his late first wife, Georgia. The wheat should be high-yield, and it should have the stalk strength to hold up a loaded head. It should be winter hardy for those highland winters where there is no snow and temperatures dip to minus 20. It should be resistant to snow mold for those other highland winters where snow comes thick and -- in the case of last winter -- stays on the ground for 140 days.

Instead of looking through seed catalogues to find such a plant, Goldmark decided he'd make it himself.

It could be he's going to have to find an equally inventive formula to win the Congressional seat, but he seems to enjoy the challenge.

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