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Rancher implements sustainable practices on land

By Mary Stamp

The 1,000-acre Lazy-R Ranch of third-generation cattle rancher Maurice Robinette, who ranched conventionally for 15 years, qualifies as sustainable and nearly qualifies for organic certification. 

robinette
Maurice Robinette

He puts into practice with his herd of 100 cattle what he promotes in his other job, as part-time Eastern Washington organizer for the Washington Sustainable Food and Farming Network (WSFFN), a 250-member nonprofit advocacy agency for sustainable agriculture and family farms.

In that role, he uses his understanding of rural sociology and the environment to help shape and advocate for legislative policies and funding to support sustainable and organic farming.

 The network’s members include farmers, environmental organizations, farmers’ markets, faith-based groups, the natural foods industry, community organizations, anti-hunger and nutrition advocates, educators and individuals.

Sustainable farming is economically viable, environmentally healthy and socially equitable.

“Sustain” means to nourish, says the wsffn.org website:  “A sustainable food system nourishes community, environmental and social wellbeing.  Sustainability fosters ecological farming and land use that protects biodiversity, builds healthy soils and conserves natural resources.”

Organic farming uses no chemical fertilizers or pesticides, growth regulators, feed additives, hormones, antibiotics or genetically modified organisms.  It uses crop rotation, green manure, compost, biological pest control and mechanical cultivation.

 “Organic agriculture is not necessarily sustainable, and sustainable agriculture is not necessarily organic,” Maurice clarified.

Maurice explained that an organic farmer may spend more on energy using mechanical tillage and burning diesel, both of which are bad for the environment.  Tilling creates runoff and erosion.  Diesel pollutes the air.

 “Whitman County spends about $1 million a year to clear ditches of topsoil runoff,” Maurice said.  “That’s not a sustainable practice. 

“Some agriculture is both organic and sustainable,” he said.  “That’s possible with holistic management that incorporates decisions on profitability, environmental monitoring and social compatibility with neighbors, with organic criteria.”

So running his ranch is more complicated than managing a herd.

Maurice has been working for three years for his organic certification, farming four years without use of petro-chemical herbicides or pesticides, and limiting use of drugs with the cattle.

Becoming organic certified requires paperwork and use of organically certified hay and feed.  There’s a 10 to 25 percent premium for organic.

 “To become certified, I have to keep good records of animals, and give them organically certified feed.  If I treat a sick animal with antibiotics, I take that animal out of the organic herd and wholesale it to someone not concerned about eating organic,” he said.

Maurice is doing more direct marketing as a sustainable practice.  He has regular customers who buy half a beef a year. 

“It works well socially over the long term for a consumer to know the producer and the producer to know the consumer,” he said.

He sometimes talks with customers in supermarkets to build relationships and learn what they want.  Seeing 99-cent hamburger recently, he said it’s likely from Brazil, not local.

“Selling locally gives the farmer a better price and assures the customer that the product is fresher,” he pointed out. 

He said that for every $1 people spend on local products about $3 to $4 more will be spent locally, strengthening the local economy.

Growing up on the ranch between Medical Lake and Cheney, Maurice had no intention to farm it.  He completed a degree in sociology at Eastern Washington University in 1974 and graduate work in rural sociology at the University of Idaho in 1976.

After several years of working for an energy development company in Montana, he returned to the ranch when he was 30.

While ranching conventionally, he was not satisfied with the environmental impact.

In 1995 and 1996, he studied holistic management at Washington State University (WSU).

“I looked for different ways to make decisions to address the impact of agriculture on the environment,” he said.  “Holistic management is about making decisions based on values and on ecosystem practices.  Now when I make a decision, I consider how it fits my goal for quality of life and how it affects the ecosystem.

“Quality of life is about having my family happy and healthy.  That includes financial security, education, employment and good food,” he said.  “Quality of life also includes making sure the world can provide future resources.  I want the world to be an optimally effective ecosystem of people and communities.”

That’s where his interest in rural sociology comes in.

Maurice sees two trends in rural society:  an increase of population in areas of urban-rural interface and a decrease in population in the purely rural areas.

“I live in the interface.  Until 1968, there was one house between my ranch and Cheney and one house between my ranch and Medical Lake, where I attended high school.  Now there are 100 homes in both directions, a phenomenal change in land use and community over 40 years.”

Sprague, Lamont, Benge, Winona, Lacrosse, Tekoa, Oakesdale and many other small towns have become smaller.

“There’s migration away from small towns,” he said.

In the 1950s, he remembers people coming to Cheney on Saturdays.  The streets were full of people shopping at about 25 downtown stores.  Now there’s a strip mall and downtown Cheney has little life, he said.

As his interest in sustainable agriculture grew over the years, he began to testify at public hearings, go to state meetings and promote agricultural policies.  Now WSFFN pays him to do that.

Maurice said 60 years of agricultural policies have affected farmers’ decisions and practices, and have helped cause the decline in family farms and the increase in soil erosion, water pollution and harmful chemicals.

The Conservation Reserve Program has the Department of Agriculture pay farmers to take land out of production, so they buy less equipment or diesel.  Gradually, that money disappears from the community.  Previously, there were more equipment dealers in the region.

“With each dealer go five or six employees, reducing farmers’ choices for purchase and repair of equipment.” 

Maurice believes communities and economies can be rekindled.

For a year, he has been involved in the Agricultural Pilot Project, which funds experimental agriculture as an alternative to letting land lie fallow.  One alternative is to use land to graze livestock.

“If it’s successful, there are possibilities to regenerate small-town economies.  It would increase need for labor—skilled herdsmen—and would use controlled grazing as a tool to enhance ecosystem sustainability.

“Much of Eastern Washington 200 years ago was grassland for large animals.  Many old-timers in the Palouse talk of grass being up to their horses’ bellies.  We can duplicate that sustainable system,” Maurice said.

“The key to sustainable grazing is for large, closely-packed herds to move quickly from one area to another, allowing long periods of rest for the plants to recuperate.  That would keep the topsoil in place,” he said.

He also promotes diversity, such as Oakesdale’s previous plum industry.

Maurice said organic and sustainable agriculture still amounts to less than one percent of farm products, but it has not kept up with demand, so it has much growth potential.

While fewer children of farmers are going into agriculture, he said that other young people are entering organic farming.

Another effort he promotes is BIOAg, Biologically Intensive and Organic Agriculture at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at WSU.  It now has a $600,000 line item in its budget.

BIOAg focuses on six research priorities: livestock, nutrient management, alternative crops/bioenergy and bioproducts, food quality, economics and demonstration farms.

WSU, he said, has the first major in organic agriculture, started in 2006.  In 2008, they started an organic certificate.  Historically, WSU focused on a chemical-based, single-crop approach, so this shift means that WSU is the WSFFN’s primary outlet for research and education.

The network and WSU co-sponsor organic seminars and workshops, and promote the BIOAg Program.

Maurice works with two other WSFFN staff, whose office is in Mt. Vernon.

For information, call 299-6690 or email robinette@wsffn.org.