Battle of Bruneau

Solar energy turns Idaho desert green -- and productive.

Russell and Karli Schiermeier (Progressive Farmer image by Joel Reichenberger)

Russell Schiermeier's thin farming heritage did not groom him for his 3,400-acre "Battle of Bruneau," as he tells it. An engineer by training, Russell produces crops within the panting-dry desert flourishing all around his Bruneau, Idaho, operation. Amidst alkaline soils and hot, gusty winds, his spread blooms.

"It grows sagebrush if you don't farm it," he says. Not an exaggeration. The line between green alfalfa and blue-gray sagebrush desert is marked by the farthest reach of an end gun. Irrigation here is "24/7" for nine months, the water pulled from the Snake River four miles distant.

Only half of the 800 acres he bought in 2010 produced anything. His mortgage purchased an antiquated water system and a rotation frozen in time. But, Russell soon put a wrench to improvements. He converted hand lines to pivots, added miles of deep tiling and stood up moisture-monitoring systems. Russell began his farming venture with six pivots. Nine years later, he manages a radio-controlled irrigation system with 36 pivots and nine pump stations. It is a mechanical and financial challenge. "Irrigation is our biggest expense, often accounting for 30 to 50% of input costs," he says.

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SUNLIT SOLUTION

Russell zeroed in on those expenses with an audacious idea. He designed and built, with the aid of tax incentives and federal grants, eight 100-kilowatt solar sites. They offset 70% of his pressurization costs. Dual-axis panels track the sun, harvesting sunlight for 16 to 17 hours per day -- 40% more efficient than fixed solar panels. "They are kind of big and out there. But, it's made me focus on the efficiency of my irrigation system and our actual input costs," he says.

Russell's solar farm is the largest net metering project within Idaho Power's service region. "My goal was to add value to the farm with ground that was not adding to our bottom line," Russell says.

From the perch of a hilltop, the fruit of his labor is within view. "Over there is our corn. We're getting 260 to 280 bushels an acre. Out there is wheat. We have that pretty well figured out. It's winter wheat, and we're getting 150 to 160 bushels an acre." In a far field, two monster machines separate potatoes from soil. Alfalfa is prime for a third cutting. Russell's expectation is 10 tons per acre over five cuttings. Irrigated corn brings 75 cents over Chicago, by the way, the benefit of living in a corn-deficient state and nearby a large, hungry dairy.

Russell was raised in Fairfield, Idaho (population 386), by entrepreneurial parents who at one time or another worked as home remodelers, restaurant owners, ski lift owners and custom hay farmers. Russell earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Idaho and was employed by a firm in Boise. By then, his folks were farming. They persuaded their son to buy neighboring land.

Work ethic often filled in for experience. "My parents instilled in me a work ethic that is the heartbeat of our operation," he says. Most of the repairs, application and harvesting are done within the farm. "My experience in farming stemmed from working for farmers in our hometown running hay equipment in the summers to pay for college," he says. "But, farming provided opportunities we could not have realized elsewhere."

Russell and Karli put down stakes on a pretty hilltop within view of the Owyhee and Bennett mountains -- a pair of 400-foot-tall lake deposit dunes they have climbed. They are raising three strong girls: Kaye, 6, Sawyer, 4 and Elliot, 2. "My girls farm with me every day. They get to play in the dirt. They check the water, they combine with me," Russell says.

Schiermeier Farms LLC follows a 10-year rotation: four years corn, four years hay, potatoes and winter wheat. "Putting different plants out uses the soil differently, and the plants benefit one another. [Without a rotation] the weed pressure gets pretty high, and we have to get into chemicals I really don't care for. So, the rotation deals with the weeds and helps with soil."

SINGLE-PASS PLANTER

Russell has put his engineering talents to work beyond solar panels. He built a single-pass strip-till planter that vastly reduces his corn fieldwork. The unit creates the strip, applies a dual application of fertilizer and variable-rate-plants the crop. He can plant 1,000 acres in four days. Eight passes have been reduced to one. "It helps soil structure. Yields have gone up, and our costs have gone down," he says. Improved soil health has allowed Russell to nearly double yields while minimizing inputs. "Our rotation, with cover crops, complements the other," he adds. "The fields are never left bare."

Russell's journey has had bumps. But, he has cut labor, power and fertilizer costs. "Farming like grandpa is not the best way with our new technologies. We need to be imaginative. I think I'm showing that."

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