Kevin Melville of Enterprise, Ore., is one of those lucky people who get to spend their days at work doing what they truly love.
Melville is a farmer. His limited liability company, K&K Farms, formed with his wife, Kerrie, rents, leases and custom farms more than 1,800 acres in Wallowa County. Together they, in cooperation with his brother and father, are working to preserve and carry the farming industry into the future.
Melville says he learned most of what he knows from working on the family farm, but a degree from the University of Idaho in agriculture systems management has helped him move forward and stay abreast of farming innovation and technology.
As early as 1980, the Melvilles — Kevin’s dad Tim, and he and his brother — were exploring a sustainable farming practice called direct-seeding, which is a method of planting and fertilizing done with no prior tilling to prepare the soil. Seeds are planted and fertilized directly into undisturbed soil. Kevin says there is nothing he loves more than plowing a field, but with no-till farming, he hasn’t plowed a field for years.
The advantages to no-till farming are many. The direct-seeding system uses less labor and fuel because fewer passes are made over the ground. The increased “duff” on the fields helps keep moisture in the ground and prevents erosion during irrigation.
Melville says the organic matter in the soil has increased and wildlife habitat is enhanced. Pheasants and quail thrive on the natural residue left on the fields that are plowed under and destroyed with traditional farming practices. Other species of birds, rodents and deer have also increased on lands farmed in this way.
Although direct-seeding sounds like a simpler method of putting seeds into the ground, many factors must be addressed to produce optimum harvests on a consistent basis, Melville says. Crop rotation is one. Growing a combination of crops in a seasonal sequence can prevent disease, weed and insect problems and replace certain nutrients in the soil.
To decide which crop to grow on a particular field, the market, weed and disease, the type of soil, and moisture needs and availability are all taken into consideration. Altitude and weather patterns can cause killing frosts in late spring or early fall, so location of fields is also a factor.
Melville plans to direct-seed barley in August to get a crop in the ground before freezing temperatures begin.
“We’ll seed right behind the combine to keep something growing year-round to build up the soil and provide feed for the cattle,” he says. “We don’t make very much money off canola, it’s just for rotation. Peas are economically effective, and we follow that with alfalfa, which is a little harder to market.”
Marketing the crops that are produced involves another set of complications for the modern farmer.
“We survive by growing seed crops,’’ he says. “When I was a kid, we hardly ever shipped out of the county. Now we’ve developed export markets and ventured into raising seed crops and receive an extra premium over market prices.”
Melville’s peas are sold to Seneca, which is the Jolly Green Giant brand, and also to markets in Mexico and Europe. Melville says he is growing seed for four kinds of mustard: condiment, brown, Indian and spring yellow. This has been contracted to a company in Nyssa and the brown type will be sent to France.
He is a producer for Shepherd’s Grain, a Pacific Northwest-based organization that transports, processes and markets produce. He has joined more than 30 growers who market their no-till crops in the Pacific Northwest through Shepherd’s Grain.
All of the growers for Shepherd’s Grain use sustainable agriculture practices and are certified by the Food Alliance Association, which includes specific standards for farm and ranch participants.
Food Alliance-certified businesses are audited by an independent inspector to determine if they meet program standards, such as providing safe and fair working conditions, do not use genetically modified crops, reduce pesticide use, protect soil and water quality and wildlife habitat. The alliance monitors verification of marketing claims for social and environmental responsibility, adds value to products and enhances and protects brands.
“I have contacts with seed companies and we negotiate with them to find what is in demand, what customers want. I work together with my dad and brother so we know what fields and how much acreage we have available for certain crops,” Melville says.
The Melvilles do practice sustainable agriculture methods, but their crops are not designated as organic. Kevin said the organic seed market is not as strong as it could be due to changes in regulations.
“You can buy and use inorganic seed in an organic operation if organic seed is not available for a particular crop. So that pretty much destroyed the organic seed market,’’ Melville says. “We eventually might get to organic products with no-till farming, but we need a nonselective organic herbicide like Roundup. If we had that, I would consider raising organic crops.”
Gone are the days when farming was considered an occupation for individuals who could do manual labor but didn’t have a high level of expertise or training. Tractors with auto-steering and computer programming are not new in the agriculture industry. Center-pivot irrigation wheel lines can notify a cell phone or computer if its programmed instructions are interrupted.
“These tools allow one person to farm more acres. I hate my cell phone. My work is interrupted all the time. But I carry it and it has its advantages,” Melville says.
One of the reasons he chose to irrigate with the center-pivot wheel lines is that it was so difficult to get dependable people to change irrigation pipe.
“We don’t hire seasonal workers at all now. We pay a little more for people who know more,” he says.
One of the most useful pieces of high-tech machinery is a tagger system on the hay baler. Melville says a radio frequency tag is attached to each bale as it falls to the ground. The tag names the location of the bale, time it was harvested, moisture content and weight.
A scanner is used to read the tags to evaluate the production of a particular field. It is possible to scan a whole load of bales and provide a print-out of the evaluation to the buyer. Besides being a great way to find wet bales that have a potential to produce excess heat and ignite, it's a useful marketing tool.
“This scanner provides quality control and preserves the identity of the producer. It can help to create a niche market to serve people who want to track the production of the food they buy,” he says.