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Wittman Farms doesn't need a pulpit to extol the virtues of environmental stewardship. It just uses the backyard. The fourth-generation family operation located near Lewiston, Idaho, made stewardship the cornerstone of its business and uses it as an on-site backdrop for hands-on natural resources education programs.

"We have a serious problem in this society with the 'disconnect' between what natural resources we have and how they should be used," says Dick Wittman. "More farmers need to provide a solid education about what is going on and get out of the reactive mode."

Founded in the 1920s, Wittman Farms is run by Dick, Todd, Mark and Bob Wittman and their spouses. The farm has cattle, managed forests and produces wheat, barley, canola, garbanzo beans, lentils, peas and grass seed.

"Our farm has always emphasized sustainability," says Wittman. "We inherited a set of values that stress everything must be done for the long term. With a farmer, a mechanic, a cowboy, a specialty crops expert and a finance and marketing expert in the family, we all bring something different to the table and we are all committed to environmental stewardship."

That commitment includes sharing their sustainable values with others. In 1988, the family joined forces with the Valley Boys and Girls Clubs to build Camp Wittman, a one-of-a-kind camp on the farm where at-risk children, area youth and teachers enjoy a natural setting to learn about renewable natural resources. Today, Camp Wittman includes a natural resource education center, a rope course, dorms, solar power and more. Members of the community help by donating materials and also use the facility for a variety of educational and youth development activities. Wittman family members help develop and deliver curriculum for the camp and other teaching programs.

"We need to invest in education to reshape the thought process," says Wittman. "Telling 25 students about natural resources is great, but reaching 25 educators will spread the word even faster. Investment in these programs can pay off over and over again.

"We don't want to teach students what to think," he continues. "We want to teach them how to think and show them in a real world setting the interrelationships that exist between forestry, agriculture, wildlife, power generation, water use and other environmental factors."

But keeping the operation in a sustainable mode is not an easy feat. Wittman says topography alone is a challenge, given the steep slopes in the region. The Wittmans' crop acreage ranges from 1,700 feet above sea level to 3,400 feet. Grazing areas range from 1,200 feet to 4,300 feet.

"We go from really good, productive soils to really bad soils," explains Wittman. "We implemented no-till about 15 years ago, and have pursued it aggressively the last two years because we cannot continue to lose dirt."

In addition to direct seeding, the Wittmans' conservation practices include sediment ponds and terraces that have cut soil erosion and associated sediment entering the Lapwai Creek watershed in half, explains Lynn Rasmussen, from the Wittmans' local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service office. The Wittmans are also installing an animal waste system and riparian improvement project, which will improve the habitat for steelhead salmon, an endangered species in the area.

Timber management includes selective logging and reforestation of more than 6,000 seedlings per year. The Wittmans also conduct conservation research at the farm.

Wittman Farms was honored by the Ag-Earth Partnership this spring as the first place recipient of the Millennium Farm/Ranch Award because of their stewardship practices and educational efforts. AM


Barb Baylor Anderson is a freelance writer from Edwardsville, Ill., who covers a wide variety of ag issues.

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