Teacher shares secrets of farming

By Amy Rolph Herald Writer

BOTHELL — Dave Muehleisen talks about pest management like Sun Tzu wrote about war.

Laying plans, attack by stratagem, recognizing your enemy’s strong and weak points — the calculations roll off his tongue like calligraphy from a brush.

“Watch your fields, watch for pests, but don’t panic,” he says.

His students take notes. They write about modifying environments, possibly with row covers. They write that flowering plants can act as pest deterrents, and that California is an island for insects because of desert boundaries.

Muehleisen has been teaching for a while. In the 1970s, he worked with farmers in Alabama at a time when the concept “less is more” wasn’t so commonplace.

“Farmer culture was: You went down to the local coffee shop and you told them how many bales you just harvested,” Muehleisen says. “It was the hardest thing in the world to convince them you wanted profits.”

Sustainable Small Acreage Farming and Ranching is the name of the class. It’s sponsored by Cultivating Success, an agricultural-education organization that grew from the Washington State University Extension office and the University of Idaho.

The roughly 15 students who meet in the evening at Cascadia Community College in Bothell range from their 20s to 60s. They come from King and Snohomish counties, the target demographic defined by Cultivating Success leaders.

Every Tuesday, they meet in classroom with harsh, white light and science posters on the walls.

Some of the students own small farms and ranches in areas that were once agricultural hubs. Now, suburban sprawl has meant their kind of small businesses are more rare — and trickier to make a go of.

The hardest thing about running a small-scale farm in a region that’s turning more urban all the time?

“Neighbors,” said Jerry Foster, who owns a small cattle ranch in Snohomish. “We’re getting crowded out.”

He and his wife take Muehleisen’s class together for the $250-per-farm rate. They’re thinking they might branch off into “green” farming and utilize an extra acre of land next to their house to grow vegetables.

Their farm is the sort that WSU programs target — the kind that can adapt to new markets to meet changes in consumer demand. They’re the ones who show up at farmers markets and supply Northwest restaurants with weekly deliveries.

The small-scale farming class runs through November. An agricultural entrepreneurship is offered at Green River Community College in Kent.

To find out about future Cultivating Success classes, go to www.cultivatingsuccess.org or www.snohomish.wsu.edu.

Read Amy Rolph’s small-business blog at www.heraldnet.com/TheStorefront. Contact her at 425-339-3029 or arolph@heraldnet.com.