Somewhere along the Norwegian-Swedish border in the 1920s, Eric Zakarison’s grandfather and his family decided it was time to leave.
“They literally put on their packs, with everything they owned on their backs, skied down to the fjord, got on a boat, and came to Minnesota,” says Zakarison. After farming there for three or four years, they picked up and moved again, to the Havre/Chinook Hi-Line area of Montana.
Tired of northern Montana, Eric’s aunt ran away. She married a wealthy railroad man and they bought land north of Pullman. She invited the rest of the family to come further west, which they did, settling on the land where Eric and Sheryl Zakarison now live.
“As they say, farming the Hi-Line, you have a three-year rotation,” says Eric. “You get a crop the first year, second year the grasshoppers get it, and the third year the hail takes it out.”
The Palouse has been much kinder to the Zakarison family since they settled here in 1935.
The Zakarisons currently farm 1,300 acres, which is a bit over the median size in Whitman County. Eric notes that their farm, just a few miles north of Pullman, originally was five smaller farms. Even so, much grander consolidation throughout the Palouse can be measured by the number of abandoned homesteads and homesteads separated from their land to become commuter retreats. Counter to a trend toward consolidation and steady growth, Eric’s father Russell ’54 and uncle Walt “decided to stay more moderate in size, for whatever reason.”
The Zakarisons have also bucked another trend, one of dedicating all the land to the standard wheat rotation to the exclusion of animals, a trend that USDA official, formerly a Washington State College scientist, William Jasper Spillman decried already in 1924. Spillman believed that the steeper land should be given over to grazing rather than erosive tillage. Few listened to him.
But some like-minded souls have heeded that observation. “We have always had livestock on our farm,” says Eric. And he and Sheryl keep adding more.
Currently, they raise about 800 broiler chickens a year along with 100 turkeys, all on pasture. They process the poultry under a permit from the Washington Department of Agriculture, and customers pick them up on site.
They also have a flock of White Dorper sheep, which have hair instead of wool, and from which they raise locker lamb. And there’s a small dairy goat herd.
“They’re the board of directors,” says Sheryl, laughing. “They oversee everything.”
The Zakarisons also raise hay for local sale and have a feed business, grinding peas and barley for small livestock growers around the area.
And lately they have been experimenting with camelina, a plant historically raised for animal feed and oil. They will start pressing a 15-acre crop this summer for cooking oil.
“The way we’re farming now is pretty labor intensive,” Eric says. “We’re always thinking of downsizing.”
Downsizing, that is, only in acreage, not in scope or ambition. They are considering renting out some of their conventional wheat land to focus more on their livestock and alternative crops and methods.
Forming Eric and Sheryl’s vision are belief in diversification and system resilience. “Sustainability” has become a cliché, easily bandied about but more difficult to define and implement. But it increasingly defines their goals.
Essential to such a concept, they believe, is a strong community, which in turn requires infrastructure. One of the casualties of an increasingly scaled-up and concentrated agriculture is the steady disappearance of certain services, such as locally ground feed.
Integral to the Zakarisons’ vision is reesta-blishing that infrastructure.
On the agronomic side, Eric urges a closer attention to the soil.
“On our conventional land, for our part, we don’t know the land,” he says. Tilling with mules is making him more aware of the condition of his soil. Yes, mules. Belgian mules.
“When I get behind Rhody and Katy…, pulling the harrow right behind them, hearing the chains jangling and smelling their sweat and sensing their lean into their collars, that’s when you really realize what you’re doing. You’re working the soil. There’s an awareness there that we’ve completely lost… Whether we can feed the world, I don’t know.”
What is missing yet in this system?
“The next generation,” says Eric laughing, yet echoing a concern that permeates all of agriculture.
Their son Aaron ’11 is currently in Afghanistan on a classified mission with the Stryker brigade out of Fort Lewis. Their daughters, Shannon and Ariel, live together in Brooklyn. Shannon is a drummer. Ariel is an artist pursuing her MFA at Hunter College.
Still, one never knows.
Sheryl came to the Palouse by a route even more circuitous than the Zakarisons. Born in Texas, her family moved to Tacoma. She began her life in agriculture in the 1970s on an Israeli kibbutz.
“I really liked what I was doing and wanted to continue doing it,” she says. So she came to Pullman to study agronomy.
Resilience is another attribute that occupies Eric and Sheryl’s conversation.
Resilience for Sheryl means training young people. Nate Bitz ’13 is the latest in a series of WSU interns working on the farm. A philosophy major whose father farmed dryland wheat near where Eric’s family originally farmed, he has focused on Eastern philosophy, from which he has drawn the notion of “right livelihood.” Which has brought him back to agriculture.
The Zakarisons have also opened some of their land to graduate students conducting research on quinoa and a long-term project on organic farming.
They see the Palouse, its agriculture and a reemerging small farm culture, and the university as part of a dynamic system into which they will continue to invest as long as they can.