Tracy and April (Downing) Eriksen
Kye and Christy (O’Keefe) Eriksen
Saint John, Washington
The Eriksen family operation consists of about 3,000 acres situated on the western edge of the Palouse Region in eastern Washington. The farm covers two annual rainfall zones of 15” inches and 19” inches, with both zones receiving the most moisture between October and April. Between May and September, it tends to be dry – with humidity in the 10 to 50 percent range – and temperatures ranging from warm to hot. “The years when we get substantial June rains (1-1.5” inches) normally provide us with exceptional yields in both fall and spring seeded crops,” said Tracy Eriksen, a long-time supervisor for the Palouse Rock Lake Conservation District and former commissioner on the Washington State Conservation Commission.
Tracy’s son Kye is the fourth generation of Eriksens to farm in Washington state. His Danish immigrant forefather, Nels Eriksen, first leased the land in 1907 and later purchased it in 1910. The farm – incorporated as Lehnskov Inc. – is owned by Tracy, April, and Kye Eriksen, but also employees part-time staff and other family members. The current operation spans two conservation districts: Pine Creek and Palouse Rock Lake Conservation Districts located in Whitman County.
“Since the mid 1970s, our operation has improved slowly as technology, our knowledge, and financial resources have allowed,” Tracy told NACD. “Since 2011, we moved to an ultra-low disturbance farming system by having a custom operator use the CrossSlot drill technology do our seeding. In 2012, we bought a Shelbourne stripper header so we could leave tall stubble on the ground to reduce air velocity over the soil surface, in turn helping to retain soil moisture. In 2013, we pieced together a 2006 GVM suspension boom, self propelled sprayer. Fully equipped, this technology reduced our chemical overrun, left fewer tracks in the field, and where we do a lot of roading to reach various fields, our timing is better.”
More recently in 2014, the Eriksens built their own drill using CrossSlot technology. “This meant we didn’t have to work around the custom operator’s calendar,” Tracy explained. “In our environment, timing is a major component in growing a high-quality and high-yielding crop. This technology has giving us the ability to make modifications for seeding cover crops and inter-seeding in the timeframe that works for us.”
The CrossSlot technology has also eliminated the family’s issues with residue and stirred soil.
“Crop residue has been a challenge throughout our transition of farming practices,” Tracy said. “We recognize the importance of surface cover and minimal surface disturbance. Both of these factors influence greatly moisture loss, water erosion, wind erosion, and weed population. As our residue levels build, cropping in general – and spring cropping in particular – became more difficult. In the past, fracturing the soil surface with hoe and double disc type openers (high disturbance direct seeding) has left the seedbed vulnerable to moisture loss through evaporation and water erosion, as well as inadvertently planting unwanted seed that had been laying on the ground.”
Now, a very narrow slot (about 1” inch) in the soil is disturbed, but is immediately resealed by the “V” configured double packer wheels. Closing the slot without pressing directly over the slot leaves a low compaction area where the seedling can emerge, while minimizing moisture loss, Tracy said. In turn, the family is able to seed all the cultivars deeper than recommended and reduce weed pressure by minimizing soil disturbance.
Having tried all the strategies available for retaining moisture through managing equipment use, the Eriksens have now started to focus on experimenting with inter-seeding multi-species cover crops and enhancing their crop diversity. “We introduced a variety of crop cultivars beyond the traditional wheat and barley,” Tracy said. “We are learning to grow them and where to fit them in the rotation.” Right now, the family includes the following cultivars in their crop rotation: spring/winter canola, mustard, spring/winter peas, garbanzo beans, alfalfa.
Tracy said it’s been a struggle fitting cover crops into their rotation. “What cultivars, how many in a mix, when to plant, and how to plant are all challenges for us. The last couple of years, we have grown winter wheat on multi-species cover crops that were allowed to mature. So far, there has been a slight yield loss on the cover crop acres, but no crashes. That’s encouraging. The lack of summer and early fall rains in our region present challenges to successfully seeded fall covers.”
Another challenge for the Eriksens is information-based. “We have no notable pioneers from our climate and environment with a background in raising covers. Information from east of the Rocky Mountains is useful, but it does not translate directly to our environment. It will take time for us to develop the expertise needed to successfully raise covers and acquire the results we are looking for.”
Tracy maintains a blog, called “Farming the Palouse,” where he writes about successful and unsuccessful practices that he has used, and on agricultural subjects he finds interesting or helpful, or that will help others avoid pitfalls in their journey to reducing erosion and improve soil health.