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The Problem with Wetter Springs

Alumnus Russell Zenner Partners with U of I to Study Climate Variability

Cooler, wetter springs complicate the lives of farmers who must plant the rolling hills of the Palouse.

The wetter springs complicate the traditional rotation of crops that includes winter wheat, pulses, oilseeds and spring-planted grains. In recent years, farmers have scrambled to get seeds in the ground in time to ensure the crops will mature before the growing season ends.

University of Idaho alumnus Russell Zenner, who graduated in 1968 with a degree in agricultural economics, spent nearly his whole working career farming on the breaks of the Clearwater River near Genesee — where the prairie meets the canyon. His experience matches climate change models. Idaho’s temperature will become wetter and warmer, with shifts in seasonal and precipitation patterns.

His farming practices drew on decades of U of I research projects, beginning with the 30-year STEEP or Solutions to Environmental and Economic Problems through REACCH (Regional Approaches to Climate Change in Pacific Northwest Agriculture), which was completed in 2017.

STEEP research on the highly erodible soils of the fertile Palouse hills encouraged farmers to find new ways to produce crops. They did. Multiple changes in how they planted crops, including the use of direct seeding, reduced erosion dramatically.

REACCH focused on wheat production across the Palouse, the nation’s premier producer of soft white wheat that is valued for noodles and pastries worldwide. The $20 million research grant helped farmers tap into the best science globally assembled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to anticipate future challenges and find ways to adapt.

A green wheat field sits in front of rolling hills
Alumnus Russell Zenner’s wheat fields are near Genesee.

His successor in running the farm, cousin Clint Zenner, now participates in the Landscapes in Transition project. The Zenner farm is the location of a state-of-the-art greenhouse gas monitoring station, one of a handful across the region.

Russell Zenner, 72, spent four decades working on the land that Clint Zenner, 38, now farms. It includes roughly 3,500 acres of cropland and another 2,500 of rangeland. It produces spring- and fall-seeded wheat, malt and feed barley, garbanzo beans, peas, lentils, alfalfa and multi-species forage crops for livestock grazing.

Together we are studying how crop diversification influences properties important to long-term productivity, including soil health indicators and nitrogen and water use efficiency.-Jodi Johnson-Maynard, U of I Department of Soil and Water Systems

“The Landscapes in Transition project has benefited greatly from working with proactive Palouse farmers who are concerned over climate variability,” said Jodi Johnson-Maynard, who heads both the project and the U of I Department of Soil and Water Systems. “They are actively seeking ways to build adaptive capacity and more resilient farming systems.”

An early adopter of new ideas, Russell Zenner became a leader in no-till farming and one of the founders of the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association. Direct seeding encourages farmers to avoid plowing their land to build soil health and reduce erosion.

In many areas, he said the change showed dramatic results after a few years of transition from conventional farming to the new practice.

"As we transitioned to direct seed and a crop rotation that included more spring-seeded crops, we also were experiencing a series of exceptionally wet weather patterns in the normal springtime planting window,” he said. “This has led to a greater risk of root-zone compaction on our soils. As we gained more experience with direct seed and weather pattern changes it appeared to me that we needed to make more changes to our cropping system to achieve the resiliency we needed and also strive for a cropping system that actually regenerates the soil.”

Ultimately, field research showed the wet springs — coupled with a trend of drier than historically normal July through October months — was limiting farmers’ ability to fully achieve the potential benefits of direct seeding. Compacted or denser soil made it more difficult for the plants to absorb water and nutrients.

Clint Zenner, now in his third full season as the farm’s operator, is adjusting by using more fall-seeded crops.

The generational transition from Russell to Clint Zenner reflects a sweeping demographic shift in modern agriculture. Farm proprietors are reaching retirement age. Many face the question of who will take over farm operations. Russell and Kathy Zenner, the farm’s sole proprietors for two decades, saw their children pursue careers outside of the family business and achieve success and happiness in their pursuits.

Clint grew up in Nezperce, the son of Russell’s first cousin. Clint’s passion for making a career in farming drew the families together in a formal partnership seven years ago that evolved into Clint becoming the farm’s operator three years ago.

Now, Clint makes the day-to-day decisions, manages the employees and pays the bills. He reaps the benefits of good stewardship and suffers the sting of unpredictable setbacks that are inevitable in agriculture. Russell and Kathy still take an active interest and remain involved as advisors.

Like Russell, Clint’s goal remains the same — farming the ground in a way that is sustainable and capable of adapting to a changing climate.

Clint is focused on using cover crops to improve soil health and fertility. He seeks perennial crops that can stay in place for multiple years. He is intent on incorporating cattle back into the business of grain farming. The animals would graze the cover crops and their presence alone would bring new balance to the land.

In that same vein, he wants to find ways to improve wildlife management to shift the focus on deer, elk and gamebirds from what some consider crop-damaging pests to assets.

Those shifts, Clint said, can broaden the farm’s economic diversity and add to its capacity to weather changes in climate, markets or any of the other multitude of complications that make farming a risky venture.

Clint’s involvement in the newest U of I-led climate change project will help him, as it helps others, anticipate challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for sustaining the family farm as landscapes continue to transition.

The current Landscapes in Transition project is funded under National Institute of Food and Agriculture award 2017-68002-26819. The total Landscapes in Transition project funding is $3,414,911 of which 100 percent is the federal share. The Regional Approaches to Climate Change in Pacific Northwest Agriculture project was funded under National Institute of Food and Agriculture award 2011-68002-30191. The total project funding for was $20 million of which 100 percent is the federal share.

Article by Bill Loftus, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

Published in January 2019.

Alumnus Russell Zenner looks over a green wheat field
Alumnus Russell Zenner looks over a wheat field.

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