Doug Jacobson

Doug Jacobson is a Palouse farmer; he farms 600 acres in Washington and 400 acres in Idaho.

jDoug Jacobson

How long have you farmed in the Palouse?
I was born here in 1956, 50 years ago. Other than being away a few times for college and a couple of other jobs, I've been here most of the time.

My grandfather was the one who started it originally here. He came over from Germany. He farmed different parts of the state, but he was here I think starting about 1948.

How have things changed?
Most of the farms have gotten really big, and the amount of acres I farm right now is about a thousand acres, which fifty years ago would have been a pretty big farm. But now most of the farms are a lot larger than that and involve a lot more people. With a thousand acres a lot of the labor I do myself. My dad helps out a little bit and some of the other family members, but I don't have any full time hired help.

Machinery is bigger and better, and there's not nearly as much physical labor involved as there was even 40 or 50 years ago. The comfort level on the tractors and combines is such that now you can have older farmers out there doing quite a bit. If it was like it was 50 years ago, somebody who is 70 or 80 probably isn't going to be out there putting in the long days that a lot of them do now.

Why have farms gotten bigger and why are there fewer of them?
There are some advantages to being bigger. You can get cheaper inputs by buying in bulk, and the machinery now is so much geared to bigger farms.

Farmers are getting to be pretty old. At 50 I'm probably considered a young farmer.

It's getting impractical to buy a great big combine for a thousand acres when a combine will cut a thousand acres pretty fast and then it just sits in the shed all the time. To keep big tractors and big combines going there are advantages to being big that way.

What are you growing this year?
I have winter wheat and some spring barley and garbanzos. Quite a few different things. Last year I had some mustard. I've had different kinds of spring wheat.

But essentially the Palouse is still a wheat producing region?
That's what we grow the best. I'm sure the first farmers here came in and saw the grass growing, and wheat is a grass, so they found that it did really well. The grass was doing on these hill sides. And if you grow wheat year after year, that tends to deplete the soil and cause diseases, so a lot of the crops we grow are kind of a break in the rotation. Something like peas now. The price is terrible, but probably the reason people grow them at all is to have something to plant wheat on. I've tried garbanzos, which you can also put wheat on. They're a little better value crop, and in that case they are high input, but the seed is expensive and they are more of a risk.

How would you frame the farmer's dilemma, considering that many folks don't know where their food comes from?
It's hard, because a lot of people are so far removed. It used to be everybody had a relative who was a farmer or knew a farmer; and now I don't know that we're even 2% of the population of the country, maybe not even that. So people just think it comes from the grocery store, and they can always get it there, so that is a problem. It creates a dilemma for kids coming along, too.

aerial view of the palouse

Farmers are getting to be pretty old. At 50 I'm probably considered a young farmer. We've got a big crop of 20 to 30 year old kids coming along who want to do it. The return isn't there. Still, it's hard to stress that it's an essential industry unless we want to try import all our food, which you are taking your risks there.

The United States has never really suffered very many food shortages since the Depression; so a lot of people lose any sense of urgency that agriculture is that important, even though I think it is.

American farmers have been very efficient up to now, and that provides a cheap food source. I guess you get into the question of farm subsidies, too. That's a controversial subject, but part of that is helping to keep the food cost down, so people have cheap food at the grocery store and available food in the grocery store. To totally pull away all the farm subsidies right now would cause a real crash in agriculture.

When you were growing up, was it assumed that you would be a farmer?
No, not really. Almost the opposite. When you grow up here and go all the way through school and everything, you want to see a few different places. I went to school in California, lived in San Diego and Oregon for a while. It's more a case of after being away for a while, I saw the lifestyle and the advantages that I liked here, so I came back.

What are the advantages to this lifestyle?
I enjoy doing something that I think makes a positive difference, but you also get to set your own schedule and make your own decisions. And it's a good challenge, what to plant and try to make things work out. So I like the challenge part on that. And being able to set my hours and work outdoors.

That's something I enjoy. The return on it is not as good as probably what I could be making some place else, so there have got to be outside influences that are keeping me going.

I would say anybody who is in farming now has got to have some kind of smarts to figure out some angle to be doing it. They're either really smart or really dumb, I guess.

When farmers get together, what do they talk about?
It's probably the same as it always was a hundred years ago. How crummy the prices are and how rotten it is; but we still seem to keep showing up and taking another whack at it. But there's a lot of complaining that prices are too low and the inputs are high.

What changes have you seen on the Palouse?
Less families out farming. Now you've got people pushing 20,000 acres on one operation. So there's more land concentrated in the hands of a few people. The country used to be really centered in agriculture, but now we're getting other things involved in the towns, and that creates more pressure for somebody like me next to Pullman or one of the cities. Land prices are more valued at a real estate level than what you can make on a return for farming. For a farmer, prices should be less than $1,000 an acre on land, and it's worth more than that for somebody to put a house on it.

How does a farmer fight the temptation to just sell out?
I don't know. I don't begrudge people who do, because there's that much money there. I don't know how you really combat that.

What are the one or two things that folks don't understand about farming on the Palouse?
They probably don't know how much money you have tied up into a crop every year. You take all that money every year and throw it in to try to raise another crop, so there's that challenge. I'm not sure they know there's stuff going on all season long. Maybe they think we just plant it and sit around, and nine months later come out and harvest it, but it doesn't work that way. There's always weeds to spray and equipment to maintain and a crane to move. In winter there are less hours maybe being put in, but you're working on stuff in the shop; and when there are hours to be done for planting or harvesting in the spring, they can be pretty long.

Do you have a favorite season as a farmer?
Probably harvest, to see what you┬╣ve done for the year. Then you cut it off, and then you are ready for another one.

What do you see in your crystal ball for farming on the Palouse?
I would say anybody who is in farming now has got to have some kind of smarts to figure out some angle to be doing it. They're either really smart or really dumb, I guess.

I think there is going to continue to be mostly big farms; but I think there is always going to be a spot for some smaller farmers, ones like me.

I guess I'm hopeful. Like I say, there's not a lot of young people in agriculture right now. I am hoping they see there are some benefits in the lifestyle and something that can be rewarding for them, rather than an inside job or office job. I think, with the land we've got here, somebody will be farming it, one way or another, because we've got some of the best land in the country for dry land farming, and that's hard to compete against, no matter what.

Are farmers winning the war on erosion?
I think we've made a lot of progress, especially in the past 20 or 30 years, with minimum tillage and no tillage.

I used to see people work it into powder and seed wheat in the fall; and you'd have giant ditches; and you'd have to go out in a truck and harvest with a shovel to fill in the ditches. But now, we've made a lot of progress.

I would hate to get to the point where you get the attitude of some people where they figure there's nothing really good going on out here so the only thing good is put another housing development or something on it. They are looking at the money in the short term, which could be considerable, but at some point you are losing a resource of some of the best soil you've got in the country.

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