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Oxen, mules help Palouse farmer adopt organic methods

By Carol Price Spurling

A rusty windmill stands proudly at the Zakarison family farm on Highway 27 between Pullman and Palouse.  The local landmark identifies where three generations of Zakarisons have lived on the Palouse since 1935. Some aspects of Eric Zakarison’s approach to farming today are like earlier Palouse farming as he increases the acreage devoted to organic farming out of his desire to care for the environment. 

With 10 acres of grain now organic, he seeks to transition about 25 to 150 acres to organic.  He has planted them in alfalfa and grass to nourish the soil and keep weeds down before beginning a three- to five-year rotation of organic winter grain, organic spring grain or Austrian winter peas, and alfalfa.

zakariason mules
Eric Zakariason with his oxen

Driving by the farm, one might not spot the difference between transitional organic acres and conventionally grown acres, until the livestock catch the eye.  Two large Belgian draft mules, a team of young oxen and a llama guarding Dorper ewes are part of the visible difference.
Eric is training the mules and oxen to do some of the heavy work, like pulling hay wagons, so he doesn’t have to fire up the tractor and use fossil fuel so often.

“Ultimately I’d like to use them for tillage.  For now, I use oxen to move poultry houses and surrounding fenced areas,” he said, describing them as “solar-powered tractors.”  When he used an ATV, the poultry became so flustered with the noise they fluttered about, and he ran over some.

Moving poultry houses, he said, is the most efficient, healthy way to raise free-range poultry.  Each day he moves chickens to a fresh patch of ground, where they eat bugs and whatever is growing, fertilizing as they go. Shifting the shelter and fence keeps the birds in and the coyotes out.

This year, the Zakarisons raised 450 chickens and 50 turkeys for sale to local customers.  He plans to double that amount next year.

zakariason turkeys
Zakariason sells local turkeys

“It feels good to sell my chickens and turkeys directly to people who will take them home and consume them. I love that they are eaten locally,” Eric said.

The demand for his poultry is high. At a small-farm poultry-processing workshop held at his farm recently—sponsored by Rural Roots at—he encouraged participants to raise chickens.

Eric also raises locker lambs for local customers. They’re born from Dorper ewes, a cross breed suited to the Palouse because they can eat wheat stubble and don’t need to be sheared. The meat is mild tasting, because the sheep’s lighter coat results in less lanolin flavor, he said.
Like the poultry, he regularly moves the sheep and an electric fence to fresh ground. A llama named Scooter guards them and rounds them up at night into the place in the pasture or field Scooter feels is safest.

Eric told of his family settling at the farm:  “My aunt ran away from home in Montana and married a wealthy man from around here. She and her husband told her family: ‘Come on over. It’s great.’  Because the Zakarisons were nearly starving in Montana at the time, the whole family moved,” explained Eric. Starvation has not been a problem since then. 

Eric lives with his wife, Sheryl, down the road from the home farm, and they have raised three children: Shannon, Ariel and Aaron. He and his father, Russell, farm 600 acres of their own, growing winter and spring wheat, and spring barley. With land that belongs to Eric’s uncle’s estate, they work 1,300 acres.

For a farmer wanting to care for the environment and move away from intense, unsustainable “industrial” farming practices, it is a daunting amount of land.

“My goal is to increase organic acres and shrink industrially farmed acres. Our total acreage is too big for organic, even 600 acres is too big,” Eric said. “Organic farming, which uses less fossil fuel, is more labor intensive.”

Determined to take the long view, he knows petroleum is not going to be any cheaper.
“It will be prohibitively expensive someday to use fossil fuel.  We need to start to change at least 10 years before we need to switch,” Eric said.

Agriculture before World War II was organic. What we now consider “conventional” farming is barely 50 years old. The growth of industrial agriculture with huge tractors, huge fields and tons of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides has been so pervasive that Eric said he and farmers like him are seen as mavericks. Still, he is determined to live and work according to his principles, with his spiritual beliefs and family sustaining him.  He said it takes faith to be a small, independent family farmer.

“Farming the way I do leaves us vulnerable to the forces of weather and the complexities of commodity markets,” Eric said. “An optimistic outlook and the ability to not let the everyday failures take us down are important. I think with age I am improving in this regard, because I can look beyond the daily lows or highs to stay steady.

“A faith in a supportive and loving God really helps,” he said, “faith in a God who is never judgmental or vindictive and who can encourage me through faith for what I am, who tempers my triumphs and consoles my failures.”

Eric is quick to credit his wife Sheryl’s off-the-farm work at Washington State University for giving them a dependable income and health insurance.  That allows him to “experiment.” “As we try to use alternative techniques, there is more labor involved. It wouldn’t work without my family,” he said.

Eric said his father has been supportive to a point, but recently, when the anhydrous ammonia fertilizer bill was three times what it was a few years ago, his father began to see more value in what Eric is trying to accomplish. Much of Eric’s inspiration for farming “experiments” comes from a 2006 book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. It traces foods in several types of meals to their sources. Eric said it was a life-changing book for readers who never understood connections between federal farm policy, commodity crops like soybeans and corn, cattle feedlots, factory-farmed chickens, diabetes and obesity, and the food supply.

An example Pollan gives of a sustainable, healthy farm is Polyface Farm, owned by Joel Salatin, who has also written several books, including Pastured Poultry Profits, one of Eric’s main reference manuals. Eric appreciates both Salatin, a fundamentalist Christian, and Pollan, who is non-religious, for their ability to study problems and come up with solutions that benefit humankind, society and the environment.

“We too often write off or tune out people from faiths that may conflict with or be different from our own,” Eric said. “I am like Pollan, because I am a progressive Christian, who at times draws faith from both wonders of the natural world and from Jesus. However, I love Salatin’s can-do approach to farming while staunchly defending the environment in which he farms. I would be comfortable chatting with Salatin despite our differing faith backgrounds.”

Eric grew up attending the Community Congregational United Church of Christ in Pullman. He drifted away in his teen years but returned when his children were young. His sister, Kristine, has been pastor at of that church since 1995.  Eric serves as a deacon.

“Our church family’s concerns for social justice, the environment, and sustainable food production and living, and my views are pretty much the same,” he said.  “It is wonderful when our spiritual needs and world views agree with our church.”

For information, call 332-7762.

Copyright © November 2008 - The Fig Tree