“We are mining ancient sunlight,” said farmer Eric Zakarison as he led a group of about 35 visitors on a tour of his farm. The food we currently produce, he said, is harvested “at a terrible deficit” due to dependence on fossil fuels.
The visitors, including a large contingent of WSU graduate students from a variety of disciplines, were participating in the latest in a series of WSU Extension and Tilth Producers of Washington-sponsored Farm Walks. Zakarison Partnership is a diversified crop and livestock farm situated on 600 acres just north of Pullman. Wheat, barley, oats, hay, locker lambs and pastured poultry are produced on the family-run farm.
To reduce petroleum inputs Eric Zakarison uses draft mules and oxen for light tillage, planting operations, haying, hay feeding during winter months, and log skidding. These “solar tractors” are maintained with fuel produced on the farm, including grass, grass hay, grain straw and oats. To complete the farm power/nutrient cycle, all animal manure is spread back on the farm to enhance soil fertility.
“Driving one of these guys,” Zakarison said as he hitched up his 10-year old mule, Jay, “is nothing like driving a tractor. It’s a whole new knowledge base.”
Ten acres of the 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 chicken, lamb, and pork are marketed locally after being processed on-farm. Sheep, hogs and pastured poultry are used to harvest forage during the cover-crop phase and to control weeds during fallow periods. 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.
Eric Zakarison is a 1981 graduate of WSU’s agronomy program; his son Aaron is currently an undergraduate at WSU. The Zakarison Partnership is composed of Eric’s parents, Russell and Elaine, and Eric’s wife, Sheryl Hagen-Zakarison.
Story by Betsy Fradd and Brian Clark; photos by Brian Clark, CAHNRS and WSU Extension Marketing, News, and Educational Communications