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Farmer seeks to attract more young people into farming
by developing a sustainable model of agriculture

Seeking to draw more people into farming, Seth Williams’ sustainable agriculture project is converting 1,100 acres of his family’s W-7—for Williams Seven—farmland near Edwall into a permaculture farm that complements natural ecology.

Believing a sustainable food system is key to a sustainable society, he said food affects health, which affects social and economic wellbeing.

Seth Williams
Seth Williams is the only one of 18 grandchildren farming.

Seth, 40, said sustainable agriculture integrates natural biological cycles, protects soil fertility and animal health, optimizes use of renewable resources, provides dependable farm income, enhances family farming and farm communities, and reduces the adverse impact of conventional farming on health, safety, wildlife, water quality and the environment.

Seth, a second-generation organic farmer and grandson of conventional wheat farmers, is transforming a dryland grain farm and pine-sage forest, leaving half in natural forest and using the other half for organic wheat, cattle and produce.  He is also using green building and energy techniques to rebuild the homestead, and will create more green homesteads and an intentional community.

Although he is the third generation of his family on the land, he lived in Spokane with his mother until he was 15, spending summers, vacations and holidays at the farm.  In his sophomore year at Lewis and Clark High School, he saw his future in farming and living in an intentional community, so he moved to Edwall and finished high school at Cheney High School. 

In 1992 after farming a few years, he went to the Evergreen State College in Olympia three years, focusing on Native American studies and sustainable agriculture.  Not seeing a major emerge, he returned to the farm.

His father, Huw Williams, one of the founders of Tolstoy farm on family land near Reardan, returned from that project to his family farm to start another intentional, alternative farm, called Earth Cyclers.  It includes cattle in community-based organic and experimental agriculture.

Seth said his grandmother’s large, organic vegetable garden inspired “his passion for good food and self-reliance.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, his father began to reduce his use of fossil fuel, pesticides and fertilizers, and started an intentional community to bring more people onto the land. 

Four years ago, Seth was part of Earth Cyclers, but with a change in ownership, some land came back from a lease at the Appel farm, part of W-7 Farms five miles down the road.  There he started developing his own model, working 575 acres and managing 520 acres nearby in pine forest.

Permaculture, he explained further, is permanent agriculture that uses perennial crops that do not require tilling or disturbing the soil. His commitment to sustainable agriculture includes improving wildlife habitat. 

“It’s a holistic approach to self-sustaining agriculture with permanent plants and systems.  I believe use of toxic sprays goes against principles of working with nature,” he said contrasting his approach to farmers who seek to kill every weed.

In the last 10 years, Seth said federal and state governments began supporting more incentives for organic and sustainable farms, encouraging wildlife habitat and practices that cut chemical use.

He has planted 200 acres in native grass and alfalfa in a 10-year contract with the Conservation Reserve Program.

“I can’t take a crop from it or disturb it,” he said.  “I leave it wild, but I can graze or hay it once in the 10 years.  I put up perch poles for hawks and owls that keep rodents down and put in wildlife watering devices to catch and hold water for critters.”

“I rotate grain into 20 to 40 acres to sell,” he said.  “Much of the W-7 Farms was already organic, because we were managing it for hay and pasture.”

Last year was the first year the whole farm was certified by Washington State as organic.  It takes three years to transition land from non-organic to organic. 

As an organic farmer, he is responsible not to let weeds spread—go to seed—to his neighbors’ land, just as his neighbors have to take care that their spray does not drift.  In the 1990s, there was drift on an organic alfalfa field and it had to be decertified for three years, he said.

Seth also raises grass-fed beef he sells directly to people in quarters or halves.  He grows a small amount of wheat straw, plus oats, barley and rye, and hay for cows.

He sells most of his produce, grains and beef through direct contacts with long-term customers and to consumers through Main Market and listings in organic directories and Craig’s list.

He lives simply, growing and preserving much of his food, including fruits, vegetables, goat milk and yogurt.

Having learned mechanical and building skills growing up, he does repairs on equipment and is restoring the farmhouse and farm buildings. 

There are few organic farmers on the land around Edwall, which has a chemical company, a church and now a Christian school, using the former public school building when the Edwall school merged with Reardan in the 1980s.

“Church gave me a good foundation for being part of a rural community with many people living outside town on their farms, spread out with their work all week and seeing each other once a week at church,” said Seth, who attends Edwall United Methodist Church, where his grandparents were active.

“They set an example by practicing their faith every day, helping others to make the world a better place,” he said.

“Most people are independent, but farm the way they have for years, following chemical company formulas and government guidelines for treating the soil,” he said, noting that some conventional farmers, like his grandparents, now have organic vegetable gardens.

“My goal is to heal the planet with better farming practices that reduce greenhouse gasses and increase native biodiversity for future generations,” he said.

To connect people with their sources, Seth will host tours and bring children on his farm when the buildings are done.

For information, call 236-2402 or email earthcyc@mindspring.com.