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Sarah McClure: Improving Soil in the Face of Changing Precipitation

As part of AFT’s efforts to expand our Women for the Land Programming in the Pacific Northwest, our team started by listening to women in agriculture in the region to better understand what challenges they are facing, what worries them and excites them about the future, and what they want more people to understand about agriculture today. Between February and April of 2021, we spoke with women who represent a variety of life experiences, agricultural scales, and production systems during livestream interviews with our Women for the Land and Pacific Northwest teams. From these conversations emerged profiles of some of these inspiring women’s stories. We spoke with Sarah McClure on April 29, 2021.

Sarah McClure, the co-owner of Walla Walla Organics, a Certified Organic farm in southwestern Washington, in front of a field of Genuine Organic Walla Walla Sweet Onions.

Sarah McClure never thought she missed the sound of impact sprinklers waking her up in the morning until she finally moved back to farm life in her middle age. Having grown up on a farm in Montana and later running a John Deere dealership with her husband, it was a natural extension of her connection to the agriculture to finally pursue farming fulltime just over ten years ago. She is now the co-owner of Walla Walla Organics, a Certified Organic farm in southwestern Washington that produces the only Certified Organic Genuine Walla Walla Sweet Onions, as well as organic vegetables and dry legumes for both local markets and throughout the country.

Climate Stressors on the Farm
Multiple forms of irrigation help Sarah’s farm stay resilient in the face of changing precipitation.

Now, the sound of those sprinklers helps her feel secure in more ways than one. In their region, many farmers practice dry farming, a method that relies on precipitation to deliver the water needed for crops, rather than irrigation. With climate change bringing higher temperatures and greater pressure around water scarcity in the Pacific Northwest, Sarah knows that all the farms in their area are working to use every drop as efficiently as possible, and her farm is no exception.

They utilize three methods of irrigation, including center pivot, drip and subsurface drip, to feed their diverse operation, while enabling them to effectively deliver soil-building nutrients and microbes into the system to support long-term soil health. These systems provide some additional water security compared to others in their region, without which their farm’s success so far may have been even more precarious than it has been.

Learning Curve

Despite their background in agriculture, it took Sarah and her husband years to establish the foundation their business needed to be profitable. After trying out a variety of crops, markets, and strategies for diversifying, they eventually landed on a combination of conventional and Certified Organic products that would provide them a higher value specialty product, as well as some staple items to fill out their business model. They farm 600 acres, which is small scale for their area, so the right mixture of products was key.

“When we were at the John Deere dealership and sitting across the desk from farmers and trying to sell them equipment, from that perspective it always looked easy. We thought, oh I want to do that, it just looks really like a fun thing to do, and then when you get on the other side of that desk, you realize there are challenges you hadn’t really thought of.”

Leafy greens are among a diverse mixture of crops that Sarah’s farm now produces.
Advancement of Conservation Practices

Though price margins and profit were initially the reason for Sarah and her husband to pursue Organic Certification, their philosophy towards the farm has changed as a result of their education and implementation of the practices.

Walla Walla Sweet Onion plants flowering

“When you go to organic farm meetings there’s kind of two groups of people: there are the people that grow organic and got into organic because it’s an extreme passion of theirs, and then there are the people that got into organic from a business perspective. That’s why we got into organic — we were trying to find a business model that worked with the acreage and the constraints that we had and actually make money. Organic was where we saw the growth potential. But over the years, it actually has changed the way we approach and live our lives — not drastically but in the little things we’re willing to try and [the ways we] look at our farming philosophy differently.”

Farming conferences have been key to Sarah and her husband’s education and have gradually changed their buy-in around the holistic practices and philosophy that Organic farming systems require. For them, it’s been a gradual process that has influenced their shift toward regenerative practices, influenced by conversations with fellow farmers, agricultural educators, and the networks they are a part of.

Walla Walla Sweet Onions

“We went to an ACRES conference in Louisville a couple years ago and listened to a speaker there that really got us into regenerative farming. What he said really resonated. He said if you have healthy soil, you have a healthy plant, if you have a healthy plant, you have healthy food, if you have healthy food, you have healthy people, and it all works together with nature. But it starts with healthy soil. That’s not something that happens immediately, but that’s where we’re heading now.”

Now, they integrate cover crops, infuse microbes into their soil, incorporate livestock and more in a long-term effort to improve their soil and ensure its water efficiency.

Evolution of Gender Roles on the Farm

The collaborative structure that Sarah and her husband have built could in some ways be considered traditional, with her emphasis on supporting the accounting and marketing, and his on the day-to-day land and crop management decisions. But she is quick to point out that their partnership reflects an evolution of gender roles on the farm, compared to women a generation before her.

Sarah McClure has sensed generational shifts in the agriculture sector, with more women taking on a greater role in decision-making on farms.

“I was raised on a farm in northwest Montana, and my mother did the same thing — paid all the bills and she was the one that fussed when she thought my dad was spending too much money, while my dad made all the decisions. Theirs was much more of a traditional farming model where my mother was very much secondary and my dad didn’t really listen to her. I feel like Dan’s and my partnership is much more of a real partnership and I do consider myself a farmer.”

“Decades ago, my aunt and uncle ranched in eastern Montana and my aunt decided that on their tax return she was going to list her profession as a farmer because she was no longer a homemaker — she was a farmer and they were partners. That was a huge shift for them to, even on the tax return, change that role from the traditional wife/mother/homemaker to actually being a farming partner. It’s a change in my generation that’s even more noticeable in the generations that are following.”

With genuine 50-50 ownership over their farm, and Sarah playing several key roles, including driving the relationships with agricultural support staff and networks such as the Ag Forestry Program she’s a part of and joining AFT’s Women for the Land Learning Circles, Sarah clearly embodies her role as a farmer not just within her partnership, but also to her broader community. This enables her to serve as an example and even a mentor for other women thinking of entering the profession.

“We have quite a few young women in our local area that have come back to farm with their families. It’s not technically a mentoring situation but that’s kind of what it amounts to. I think it’s really important for people in agriculture to support each other, especially for women in both the younger and older generations.”

Hopes for the Industry

Sarah’s desires for the future of the industry in her area focus on partnership and dialogue, emphasizing the need to work together to educate consumers, invite new farmers into the profession, and improve agriculture’s role in regenerating the land.

Sunset at Walla Walla Organics

“There’s more that unites us than divides us when it when it comes to producing healthy food and trying to feed the world. Whether you’re a one-acre farm, 600 acres like us, or whether you’re 10,000 acres, we all have the same goals. The land is where we make our living, the land is what provides for us and for those we’re trying to feed, so we want to care for that land and we want to care for what’s around it. We’re all stewards of the land and I think every farmer takes that seriously.”

About the Author
Caitlin Joseph

Women for the Land Program and Policy Manager

cjoseph@farmland.org

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