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Local Farmer Talks about Diversified Farming as Part of WSU’s Common Reading Program

Posted by struscott | September 15, 2009
Eric Zakarison and Jay the mule
Eric Zakarison and Jay the mule

Eric Zakarison, a local farmer and a 1981 graduate of Washington State University’s program in agronomy, spoke to a WSU Agricultural and Food Systems class about the importance of producers exploring alternatives to fossil fuel technology.

In conjunction with WSU’s Common Reading program, the AFS class holds weekly seminars with invited experts in agriculture and food production. Every year, WSU freshman all read the same book. This year, the common reading book is “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan.

“We are mining ancient sunlight,” said Zakarison. The food we currently produce, he said, is harvested “at a terrible deficit” due to dependence on fossil fuels.

Zakarison, of Zakarison Partnership, farms on 600 acres just north of Pullman. Wheat, barley, oats, hay, locker lambs and pastured poultry are produced on the family-run farm.

In an ongoing exploration of fossil-fuel alternatives, Zakarison uses “solar tractors,” otherwise known as mules, to pull some of his farm equipment on a small, diversified portion of his operation. He uses the animals for raking and hauling hay, light tillage, spreading manure and planting.

“Now is the time to experiment when we still have fuel and can get the tractor out if we need it,” said Zakarison.

“Driving one of these guys,” Zakarison said, describing his 10-year-old mule, Jay, “is nothing like driving a tractor. It’s a whole new knowledge base.”

Scooter the sheepherding llama
Scooter the sheepherding llama

Zakarison said draft animals are more difficult, dangerous and less efficient than fossil fuel-driven technology but as a grower he wanted use alternatives. He first became concerned about our petroleum-based economy when he began looking at statistics and reading books about it.

Zakarison said he is interested in systems being developed to produce food that not only work now but also long into the future. He said although now is the time to find alternatives, diesel is still cheap enough that alternatives are not a priority yet for everyone. He said since everything comes from oil it is very important that we try to conserve it.

Ten acres of Zakarison’s farm are currently transitioning to organic production. Alfalfa and grass cover crops are being used in rotation, along with Austrian Winter peas to increase the fertility of the soil. Plans include direct seeding organic small grains using minimal tillage, raising crops with minimal petroleum consumption, and marketing the crops locally, as well as a WSU on-farm research project.

The farm’s herd of sheep is shepherded by Scooter the llama. Scooter herds the sheep back to shelter “about half an hour before sunset,” Zakarison said.

“It is really inspiring that people are so willing to park and take public transportation,” Zakarison said. “Maybe we will have a little more time than we thought.”

by Whitney Parsons, Marketing and News intern

Washington State University’s Common Reading Program for the year has the entire campus and much of the state and nation talking about food and agriculture. What better way to highlight the cutting-edge science, research, teaching and outreach of Washington’s land-grant university and, at the same time, help to educate our students about what they eat and where it comes from?

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