Fountainhead Internship: Stewardship of Whitman Owned Lands
Whitman College is one of the largest landowners in the Walla Walla Valley, with 23, 827 acres to its name. I wanted to learn more about the college’s lands, so I did my internship with Fountainhead, a local non-profit organization that is dedicated to the sustainable management of the Walla Walla Valley and watershed. I was given relatively free reign in designing my internship, and with recommendations from John Warinner and Amy-Rice Jones at Fountainhead, I decided to look at the management of Whitman-owned farm lands, and attitudes of the tenant farmers towards environmental sustainability.
Goals and Objectives
My goals throughout the semester were constantly reshaping themselves as I learned more information as well as my own limitations. I initially intended to determine how Whitman manages their farmland, urge Whitman to pledge to use “world-class stewardship” and even look into whether or not a portion of the crops harvested from Whitman’s land could be distributed on the Whitman campus.
I found that these goals were based off assumptions that I had about Whitman owned farms that weren’t correct. Conservation practices and farming in general turned out to be far more complicated than I had imagined, and the tenants that farm Whitman’s land make most of the decisions as to the management of their individual farms.
After a period of frustration when the internship wasn’t going anywhere, I decided to restructure my goals somewhat. In the end, I narrowed down my objectives to just conducting interviews with tenants of the Whitman owned wheat farms and trying to gauge their concern over environmental issues like land stewardship.
I began my internship by speaking with Pete Reid, chairman of the Whitman farming committee. He gave me contact information for the tenants who farm the Whitman-owned lands as well as information about the Whitman farms specifically. Mr. Reid felt that Whitman lands were pretty well managed, but I decided to press this further and see which management practices farmers were actually using.
I then did some research on sustainable farming methods in general and farming in the Walla Walla Valley. I found some very helpful information at the WSU extension office on Poplar Street as well as at the National Resource Conservation Office. However, it was difficult finding a list of “best management practices” in wheat farming because there really is not single set of best practices. Conservation practices seem to be very site specific.
Armed with a basic understanding of farming practices, and a borrowed tape-recorder, I interviewed several farmers, some at their homes in Walla Walla, others on their farms around Dayton and Waitsburg. I asked what operations they were using in their farming, how they started farming and what they value about it, and how important sustainable land practices are to them.
Whitman leases its farms out to tenant farmers who determine how they will manage the land. The college gets a share of their profits, and contributes to the cost of fertilizer and pesticides. All of Whitman’s farms are dryland (non-irrigated), and most produce soft white wheat-good for pastries and noodles – of which a majority is shipped to Asia.
All of the farmers I talked to referred to the major advancements farming has made in the past fifty years. Most farmers I’ve talked to have switched from the conventional methods of tilling to no-till systems, which have practically eliminated soil erosion in the fields. However, without tilling, farmers have to apply more pesticides to keep disease and weed growth down. Most of my interviewees use Roundup, a chemical which, according to them, leaves little residue and is gentler on the environment than previous pesticides.
The farmers I spoke with were proud of the high quality of the valley’s farmland and were concerned with moisture loss and erosion, because their livelihoods depend on productive land. However, the main driving force behind land management practices is economic. With fuel prices increasing and Roundup prices going down, no-till has become beneficial because it requires fewer passes over the land with machinery. Many farmers are unwilling to leap into a new farming system too quickly because of the risks involved in straying from what they know.
While the farmers had diverse opinions, everyone loved to talk about their farms and share their stories. Their land and their lifestyle was an enormous sense of pride for all of the farmers I talked to.
Successes and Difficulties
The most successful and enjoyable part of my internship was definitely conducting
the interviews. All of them went very smoothly and I learned a lot about what
it’s like to be a farmer in the Palouse country. My interview with Bob
Danforth, a farming committee member, actually began on a fairly antagonistic
note, but went well in the end. When I told him about my environmental studies
major and what I was doing the interview for, Bob warned me that he didn’t
get along with environmentalists very well and his wife enthusiastically supported
his claim. Swallowing the nervous knot in my throat, I went on with the interview.
Following the advice of Amy and John, I listened carefully to what he was saying
and tried to keep my own opinions and biases out of the way, which made for
a very amiable interview. His wife even invited me to join them for lunch of
chicken salad and rhubarb pie.
I found it difficult to design the internship on my own. I came into the internship hardly knowing anything about the Whitman-owned farms or farming in general, and it took me a while to decide what I wanted to do. Since the results I wanted to achieve and my procedures were not very structured, they fluctuated throughout most of the internship.
I wasn’t able to schedule as many internships as I needed to get a good survey of the Whitman land tenants. But what I did get was in-depth stories and descriptions, which increased my understanding of the farmer’s viewpoints and their reasons for farming, which is just as important. If there is going to be a better dialogue between environmental groups and land owners, its important to have and understanding of where each side is coming from.
What I’ve Learned/Thoughts
I learned a lot from my internship about the complexities of farming. I also
learned how to schedule and conduct interviews and how to get the information
I need through conversations. This will be very helpful if I decide to enter
the non-profit world after college.
I’ve learned that terms such as “sustainable” and “conservation” have many different meanings to different people, and are not terms limited to the discussions of the environmental movement. My interviews were initially structured to ask pointed questions on how important environmental issues were to the land tenants. But as farmer David McKinley pointed to a neighboring farm, and eagerly explained to me the massive reduction of erosion that his neighbor’s switch to no-till had caused, my questions began to feel redundant.
The split between the environmental community and the farming community stood out throughout my interviews. Bob Danforth’s suspicion of my environmentalist motivations kind of caught me off guard. Yes, I do consider myself an environmentalist, and I care about preserving the natural environment. But on the simple mention of my environmental studies major, he seemed to immediately have me pegged as a tree-hugging activist who would ignore his economic needs in telling him how he should manage his land. This was his criticism of other environmentalists he had dealt with. There is a good deal of misunderstanding on both sides although farmers and environmentalists both have the same interests of preserving the land at heart.
Frankly, I’m not sure what concrete results came out of my internship. I certainly learned a lot, but I’m not quite sure what Fountainhead can gain from it. I hope that my exploration of farming on a more personal basis can help to foster a better mutual understanding among diverse sectors of the community, but whether that will happen remains to be seen.
Overall, while I spent quite a while wrestling with logistics and my goals, working on this project was a really good experience. I think Fountainhead is a great organization with an important mission, and I really enjoyed my meetings with Amy and John. The office was a very relaxed environment with some very articulate people who really care about the issue they’re dealing with.
I also enjoyed getting away from campus and dealing with the community. From the meetings with Fountainhead in downtown Walla Walla, to my adventures past Waitsburg following jotted down directions, I feel like I know much more about the Walla Walla Valley now. For me, my project has turned the sprawling anonymous wheatfields surrounding Walla Walla, into more personal, diversely managed lands which farmers take great pride in.
Since I didn’t conduct enough interviews to get a complete survey of land management practices on Whitman’s land, it would be helpful for another student to continue this internship. This would offer a more complete picture of how Whitman’s lands are managed.
I would recommend that anyone else doing this internship start contacting farmers early in the semester. Trying to schedule interview times later in the spring was difficult for me, because it’s a busy time of year for farmers and college students alike.
Amy Rice Jones- firstname.lastname@example.org
Pete Reid- Chair of Whitman Farming Committee
Office in Mem
Natural Resources Conservation Service
1501 Business One Circle
Walla Walla, WA 99362
Washington State University Extension Office
328 W. Poplar St.
Walla Walla, WA 99362