Documentary will tell the stories of female farmers

Filmmakers from Washington state want to tell the stories of America’s women farmers.

They are working on a new documentary film called “Women’s Work: The Untold Story of America’s Female Farmer.”

“We’ve been putting women back into the narrative of the modern-day story,” said co-executive producer Audra Mulkern, founder of the Female Farmer Project.

Traveling across the U.S., Mulkern wanted to learn more about the “sisters of our past,” trying to find women who stepped up during wars and times of crisis to work the land.

“Where were those women in the history books?” she said. “They just didn’t exist, and I really had to dig deep to find any images at all. That’s what really inspired this, to shine a light on those generations of farm women who are missing from history.”

The documentary will explore past and contemporary women from various regions, said David Tanner, co-executive producer.

Tanner and Mulkern met during a Focus on Farming conference in Snohomish County, Wash., and launched the partnership to make the documentary.

“Women are farming, they’ve always been farming,” Mulkern said. “What’s missing is their place in history. As we look at agricultural history, we have been conditioned to look at farming as sort of men’s work. We’d really love to reinsert women back into that narrative, to really celebrate those women who have done it all along and are still doing it, and inherited those wonderful legacies.”

The team launched a fundraising campaign March 8, which was International Women’s Day, with a goal of $50,000.

It’s important that the project has grassroots support, Mulkern said.

The filmmakers hope to broadcast the film nationwide next March for National Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day.

They are still looking for stories, said Kara Rowe, co-executive producer.

“It seems like every little community has some grandmother’s journal or a little book their aunt put together that talks about what their great-grandmother did, some of those little stories that are out there but they’re more family heritages than publicly known,” she said. “We are still looking for some of those stories about our matriarchs that have always been there, it’s just that their stories aren’t as well-known as some of the male-dominated stories that are out there.”

Tanner and Rowe also directed the documentary, “The Gamble: The Washington Potato Story,” and produce the television show, “Washington Grown.”


Computer programmer creates future of small farming

ATHOL, Idaho — Luke Black has big plans for his small farm.

He and his wife, Emily, even use the process of “mining” cryptocurrency — digital currencies such as Bitcoin — to heat their chicken coop. They have installed the computer “miner” on the wall and use fans to blow the heat into the coop to keep their chickens warm.

Market garden beds on their 10-acre farm will soon have sensors that send data about the crops to a server in his house. A full-time computer programmer, Black wrote the server software and designed and built their irrigation controller.

He also wants to develop artificial intelligence that would take information about the soil, crops, marketplace and weather and automatically make decisions about the farm, alerting employees about work that needs to be done.

“Sorry, farm managers of the world, but if I can replace that job with a computer, then I don’t have to pay that and that’s more money for the workers and for us,” he said.

Luke, 36, spent most of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm outside Rathdrum in northern Idaho. Emily, 32, comes from a cattle ranch in Montana.

Luke raises hops and heritage grains. Emily likes the market garden and raising chickens for eggs.

“Anything to make our lives easier with technology, I’m completely on board with that,” Emily said, calling herself the “supporter” in Luke’s plans for the farm. “I help with anything, but that’s not my passion. Mine’s digging in the dirt and being on the ground with (the chickens).”

Luke eventually hopes to reach tech-level salaries while farming. He says many other computer programmers are also interested in farming.

“All of us younger, millennial tech guys are realizing we can’t be in the tech world much longer,” he said. “It’s hard on your body, sitting all day, working those hours and stress. The problem is you can’t make a living farming.”

Large agriculture uses some IoT — the initials for the Internet of Things — connecting physical devices to the internet, but it’s difficult to get cost-effective information about crops in small-scale farming, he said.

“Small farms are not extremely profitable, but what Luke is developing can be affordable for the small farm,” said Colette DePhelps, a University of Idaho Extension area educator for community food systems in Moscow.

“Luke is a farmer doing the development side of it, so he gets agriculture,” she said. “That’s going to create a responsiveness in the system that might not happen if it came from the technological sector (and) folks who did not have experience in agriculture.”

Luke sees a “revolution in the making.” The farmers of the future will be programmers, he said.

“I don’t think you’re going to be able to be a successful farmer without knowing how to code,” he said. “Whether people like it or not, what’s going to end up happening is people like me are going to get robots on the fields that can run 24 hours a day, that don’t take a break, and can produce things far cheaper than most people will be able to do.”

His next step is to put devices in the field to send data back to his servers using a wireless Wi-Fi signal.

“There’s a big hole in the market for small-scale guys, there’s no real good sensor packages that we could use to do this,” he said. “I’m not an electrical engineer by any means, it’s just a hobby. But I’m doing it all myself because there’s nothing out there right now.”

Black is not interested in designing such technology himself.

“I don’t want it to be me, I want to be a farmer,” he said.


West will be warm, dry this spring, weather expert predicts

SPOKANE — The Pacific Northwest will remain wet through March and then turn dry in April, a weather expert predicted Tuesday.

“Whatever moisture comes, it better come pretty quick,” said Art Douglas, professor emeritus of atmospheric science at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb.

Douglas delivered his annual forecast Feb. 6 at the Spokane Ag Expo and Pacific Northwest Farm Forum. He has been speaking at the event since the winter of 1977-1978, he said.

Douglas said the Pacific Northwest is “OK” — not particularly wet, which would be expected in a La Niña.

But going forward, he’s concerned about “superwarming” in the spring, which could cause an early snowmelt, and the trend toward a warmer, drier summer and an El Niño possibly developing.

But, he said, the Pacific Northwest is probably one of the better parts of the world for wheat this year, compared to the wheat-producing regions of Argentina, India and Australia, where drier conditions have developed.

Winter wheat conditions are near-normal in Eastern Washington.

Douglas also said he’s heard winter wheat conditions in the Southern Plains are the worst they’ve been in 10 years.

Model forecasts vary, indicating La Niña could last through October, continuing drought conditions in the southwestern U.S. and Southern Plains, or possibly end earlier.

In the spring, a high pressure ridge will keep the West warm and dry. Northwest flow into the plains will push moisture to the east, keeping winter wheat conditions there poor, Douglas said.

In the summer, warm and dry conditions will continue to impact the West, Douglas said.

Expanding drought is evident in California and the Southwest, Douglas said, adding that spring high-pressure ridges persisting off the West Coast will be “disastrous” for California.

“They had some good moisture there in November,” he said. “It started turning dry in December, they had a very dry January. …It looks like they’re going to have virtually no precipitation in February, and now you look at this forecast, complete blocking of all storms getting into California.”

Douglas said 2018 is most likely to resemble 2001, 1956, 1951, 1994 and 2014.

Oregon will be a little drier than Washington, Douglas said.

“The last good wet month is really March, and from then on out you’re flirting with dryness,” Douglas told growers.


Mentors sought for beginning farmers in Spokane area

Farmers in Spokane and Lincoln counties are invited to mentor aspiring farmers as part of a unique effort in Eastern Washington.

The mentors will help new farmers learn the ropes of a successful operation. The effort is sponsored by Washington State University’s Spokane County Extension and the Spokane Conservation District.

“They can sit in class, push papers and do internet research, but when it comes down to the nuts and bolts of really running a farm, nothing beats getting out there with a good experienced farmer and learning hands-on,” said Pat Munts, Spokane County Extension small farms and urban agriculture coordinator. “It puts everything they may have done book learning on to the test and they really can find out, ‘Hey, do I really want to do this?’”

Spokane and Lincoln counties are included in the state Department of Labor and Industries’ farm and internship program, Munts said. Farmers must qualify for the program, but are covered for L&I issues, she said.

The program is open to anyone seriously considering small-scale agriculture.

Munts said the schedule will be flexible. Farmers will set up a curriculum, and Munts will monitor teams in the field.

Farmers and mentors must go through interviews.

“We’re looking for people who have a lot of drive to do this,” Munts said of intern candidates.

Munts hopes to have the program started by end of March, and it will run through the end of September. She’d like to have 15 interns and 10 to 15 farmers participating.

The program is a test run for possible expansion of the Cultivating Success mentor-intern program. It fell to the wayside during the recession, but Munts hopes to revive it and take it statewide.

The program uses funding from a $37,000 grant from WSU’s Western Extension Risk Management Education Center program.

Farmers receive a stipend for mentoring, Munts said.

Contact Munts at 509-477-2173 or pmunts@spokanecounty.org


Former park ranger, groundskeeper becomes full-time farmer

A course for beginning farmers helped Greg Hodapp get his start.

Hodapp, 38, now farms full-time on 5 acres in Lewiston, Idaho, running a small goat dairy, market vegetables and an acre of strawberries. He made the switch Dec. 2.

He hopes to eventually purchase the 12 acres next door, “but we’ll see how that shakes out.”

He worked as a park ranger at Hells Gate State Park for 3 1/2 years and previously worked as a groundskeeper at the University of Idaho.

Hodapp said he grew up on acreage, keeping chickens and ducks and gardening, but he did not farm.

After college, he worked on fruit and berry and vegetable farms in Wisconsin, but had always wanted to do it on his own.

He is also a certified master gardener. Because he worked at the University of Idaho, he could take courses for free.

Participating in UI Extension’s Starting Your Sustainable Small Farm in Idaho course helped Hodapp figure out where to start.

“It takes an idea and a dream and provides you a framework to apply the most realistic prospects within the idea to real-world situations, everything from budgeting (and) planning to information and advice from area farmers on what works well for them,” he said.

The course helped him figure out that strawberries made sense and would provide him the best income. He planted them in the fall and expects to harvest next summer.

“It helps you recognize the resources you have on hand that are going to be most beneficial for you in the short and the long term,” he said.

Hodapp decided to refinance his mortgage and cashed out his retirement — “which is not something the class would have recommended,” he said with a laugh — to buy the farm.

His next steps are organizing advertising. The class has helped provide a framework to do so, he said. He’s putting together a website, blog, Facebook page and brochures.

He’d like to start raising blueberries and husk cherries. He also has 100 grape cuttings, and hopes to eventually offer pre-picked and pick-your-own seedless table grapes.

“It’s just me, and I can’t possibly harvest a half-acre of grapes on my own,” he said.

Hodapp recommends aspiring farmers first work on a farm to make sure it’s what they want to do, for at least a full turn of the season.

“Farming has become a popular thing to want to do or to be interested in, and it’s not all rainbows and sunshine and acres of beautiful things growing and a gentle breeze,” he said. “It can be tough, backbreaking and bloody. You need to understand both sides of that. It’s also awesome. It’s also really, really hard.”

Hodapp also cautions against listening to naysayers.

“There will be a lot of people who will tell you it can’t be done, but all you need to do is look around, and you will find so many success stories,” he said. “You just have to go into it with a good plan. That’s it.”


Jan. 6 is deadline for Idaho new farmer course

University of Idaho Extension will offer a workshop for beginning farmers starting Jan. 8.

The “Starting Your Sustainable Small Farm in Idaho” workshop begins with an introductory webinar at 6 p.m. Pacific time on Jan. 8.

The registration deadline is Jan. 6.

“We consider beginning farmers to be anyone with no experience with up to 10 years of experience,” said Iris Mayes, UI Extension Latah County small farms and horticulture educator in Moscow.

The workshop will help students develop whole-farm planning that fits their operation.

“We try to give them a broad overview so they can figure out what it is they want to do, and how they’re going to make a living at this,” Mayes said. “We want to empower people to be successful.”

Farmers’ plans can be adjusted as they learn more, she added.

“When you first start thinking, ‘I want to do this,’ you’re excited, you’re dreaming,” she said. “This gives people a really great foundation for doing that successfully, and having a good time doing it, too. People can work really hard on the farm, and we want (them) to enjoy that lifestyle, too.”

The workshop includes farmers as instructors, to provide real-world experience, Mayes said.

The workshop includes three all-day sessions from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Pacific time Jan. 13., Feb. 3 and March 3. A speaker will be broadcast to classrooms in Bonners Ferry, Caldwell, Cascade, Driggs, Moscow, Sandpoint, Kamiah and Weiser.

The series includes a wrap-up event and two farm tours, to be scheduled locally.

The workshop is part of Cultivating Success, an 18-year partnership between UI, Washington State University and regional nonprofit farming organization Rural Roots.

The workshop uses a three-year $506,000 grant from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture.

Mayes said 180 students registered throughout Idaho when the program began in 2016. In 2017, the partnership offered advanced courses for beginning farmers from the first year, including farm law and financial education. UI will offer the beginning course every other year, followed by the advanced courses, Mayes said.

Cost is $115 for one registrant, $35 for additional adults and $5 for additional youths.

“We’ve had whole families participate — adults with their adult children and teen children,” Mayes said. “It’s been neat to see how the families are doing this together.”