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Robert Plucker, 93, out checking on his 2020 wheat harvest operation in Touchet.
Photo by Nick Plucker

WestBred

PROFILES

Jumping in is nothing new to this farmer and his family

Phil Isaak, WAWG past president 1993/94

Aug/Sept 2020
By Kevin Gaffney


Most Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) presidents spend several years working through the ranks of their county organizations. Many serve as committee chairs or county reps on the WAWG state board before going through the state officer positions. Phil Isaak jumped directly into the WAWG secretary-treasurer position at the request of then-outgoing President Chris Laney.

It wasn’t like Isaak was an unknown quantity, however.

Isaak had experience on various boards and commissions before WAWG and many more in the years following his service in the leadership positions. And nearly as important, Isaak had already spent an entire year traveling around the state with his daughter, Brenda, as she served as WAWG Wheat Queen.

“During that year, Brenda was honored at a session of the Washington State Legislature; she met with the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in Spokane; and was a public representative for Washington wheat at fairs, parades and other events all over the state of Washington,” Isaak said. “This gave me the opportunity to meet with wheat industry leaders from all over our state. It helped me to develop a better understanding of the unique challenges growers faced in different counties and growing regions of our state.”

By the time Isaak accepted the WAWG officer position, he had already developed relationships with many of the state committee chairs and officers.

“It truly was an honor for me to serve as a WAWG officer. It helped me grow as a person and see things from a bigger perspective. We have so much diversity in wheat farming from regions like Douglas County to the Horse Heaven Hills to the Palouse country.

“I believe the true strength of WAWG is the grassroots nature of the organization. It allows all members to offer views and opinions to formulate positions on important issues. This enables growers and WAWG leaders to all speak with a unified voice, effectively articulating well-developed statements on the positions of the organization.”

Two major critical issues were paramount during his presidency. Along with the federal farm bill formulation, an election year issue became a controversy regarding divided loyalties among membership who favored either long-time U.S. House of Representatives incumbent Tom Foley or the challenger, George Nethercutt. WAWG’s long-standing policy of nonpartisanship was tested when the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) expressed support for Tom Foley.

“They put pressure on our state organizations,” said Isaak. “A lot of growers were understandably very upset about this endorsement by NAWG.”

Growing up in Hartline, Wash., Isaak had an early inclination that he was meant to be a farmer. He graduated from Hartline High School in 1962, shortly before the consolidations of small schools had begun. Continuing his education at Washington State University (WSU), he earned a B.S. in agriculture in less than four years. Offered an assistant research position working toward a master’s in ag economics, he continued his schooling at WSU. By this time, he had met and married Ruth, the love of his life, and they decided to move to Coulee City to join his family on the farm in 1967.

The Isaak farm had been founded by Isaak’s grandfather in 1929. There had been some very tough times during the depression years. Isaak’s father decided he wanted to continue farming despite the difficulties facing dryland farmers. A somewhat risky expansion strategy was taken with the purchase of several hundred acres of marginal cropland. After some irrigation wells were drilled, that decision began to look better. Rather than spending large sums of capital on expensive irrigation systems, the Isaaks decided to build their own.

“We patched together pieces from surplus sales. It really didn’t look good, but it got us started, and we learned a lot about irrigation system design and maintenance from those first lines we built. Then we acquired several used circle systems from some failing farms near the river, allowing us to put together quite a few circles at a reasonable cost.

“When I first came back to the farm, my older brother, Larry, and I didn’t have a lot of fancy, new equipment,” Isaak said. “In fact, most of it was pretty old. But as time went on, we upgraded, buying mostly used equipment to save money.”

Sadly, Larry Isaak developed serious heart disease and passed away at age 42 in 1985. Phil is not involved in the day-to-day operation of the farm now, leaving that in the capable hands of his sons, Brian and Brad.

Over the years, the Isaaks have continued to upgrade and now have a nice fleet of mostly John Deere tractors and combines. They run a very diverse operation that includes dryland farm acreage in a winter crop-summer fallow rotation in a region that gets approximately 10 inches of moisture annually. They have experimented with direct seeding, but have not adopted it. Isaak believes that the low rainfall makes it problematic in their area.

They have significant acreage in the Conservation Reserve Program and a very sizable amount of irrigated acreage with dozens of irrigation circles. That earlier gamble paid off big. The Isaak operation also includes cattle. They run 250 mother cows, the feed provided by their own alfalfa and hay crops.

Isaak has served on numerous boards and commissions that include the Washington Grain Commission; the Wheat Marketing Center; Black Sands Irrigation Group; the Washington Wheat Foundation; Grant County PUD; Coulee-Hartline School Board; the Grant County Economic Development Council; U.S. Wheat Associates; the Governor’s Committee on Ag and the Environment; Key Bank; and the Coulee City Council.

“I have always had the philosophy that you serve on a board to give back to the community, but you must know when it is time to move on and let others serve. I don’t believe in serving as a lifetime board member,” Isaak said. “My favorite thing about farming is being able to see Mother Nature provide the fruits of your labors year after year. I don’t mean only the crops. I also include the generations of the family that have worked the land, always striving to leave things better than when you started.”