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Luke English (30 months) helping his dad, Drew English, in last year's wheat harvest in Rosalia. Luke will be a sixth-generation farmer.
Photo by Ashley English

Wilbur-Ellis

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Advising farmers, ranchers in the Inland Northwest

Steve Van Vleet, Whitman County WSU Extension agent

December 2020
By Kevin Gaffney


It’s only fitting that Steve Van Vleet works directly with farmers, ranchers and fruit tree growers all over Eastern Washington. Van Vleet grew up on the western slope region of Colorado on a fruit farm. Along with apples, pears, peaches and apricots, they also had a few cattle to work with.

His hometown of Paonia is located in a region known mostly for tree fruit production and coal mining. Rumor has it the town was named after the peony flower, but was misspelled. After finishing high school in 1985, Van Vleet earned his bachelor’s in biology from Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., in 1990. The next career step was working for the National Park Service for two years. Van Vleet then moved on to the University of Wyoming to complete his master’s degree in entomology. He was working full time under a weed science professor when he completed that degree in 1995. Deciding he wasn’t quite done with his schooling, he was encouraged by his mentor and professor, Steve Miller, to earn his Ph.D. in agronomy.

During this time, Van Vleet completed some remarkable work, helping to develop AIM herbicide for FMC Corporation, a company that helped fund his research.

“At that point, I was hired by American Cyanimid and developed the Clearfield wheat production system. Before that project was completed, the company was sold to BASF for $3.8 billion,” recalled Van Vleet. “I actually had to re-interview to retain my position.”

After about two years serving as head of BASF’s Pacific Northwest (PNW) region from Potlach, Idaho, Van Vleet felt that his career just wasn’t headed in the right direction.

“I moved back to Wyoming and worked for the noxious weed control board. Then a position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture came up in Dubois, Idaho, working with sheep grazing, weed control and other projects,” Van Vleet said. “I was working as an agronomist there from 2003 until April Fools Day 2005. On that day, I started my current position with Washington State University (WSU) Extension, based here in Colfax.”

That move was ideal, as Van Vleet already was familiar with many of the professors at WSU, and he loved the fact that research was a big part of his duties. His position encompasses working with a wide range of agricultural crops and natural resources.

“Having been based in nearby Potlach, I knew many of the area growers. My knowledge base includes cereal grains, legumes, livestock and weed science, so I can efficiently serve virtually all facets of ag in this region,” he said. Van Vleet has marshalled funding from BASF and Bayer to launch several research projects, including several focusing on weed control.

“I believe the essence of my job is to bring information to the growers,” emphasized Van Vleet. “Our region has perhaps become a little bit complacent over the years, taking the rich, productive soils of the Palouse region for granted. I would like to see farmers take more interest in the health of their soil. Without the soil, we have nothing. We need to start paying more attention to micronutrients and especially to the pH of our Pacific Northwest (PNW) soils.”

Van Vleet has a wealth of experience in the PNW states and internationally to make comparisons. He has worked with growers in Ireland, Afghanistan, Iraq, Moldova and the Ukraine.

“I was struck by the importance that western Europeans place on agriculture. Those nations know what it is like to go hungry, and they value agriculture in a way that our society does not. I found that farmers in the Middle East region are very hungry to learn and to try different methods of farming,” he noted. “The soil in the Ukraine is very comparable to that of our Palouse region. Of course, their entire nation is similar to the size of Texas. They do not have the infrastructure that we enjoy here in the USA, and government corruption is also a massive problem in their society.”

Van Vleet’s projects have been quite diverse in the PNW, including hazelnuts, berries, cereal grains, legumes, fruit trees, corn, potatoes, canola and livestock production.

“I love working for Extension because I’m sharing research and information that directly helps the growers. Working in the industry provided a bigger paycheck, but my work now is more satisfying. I present information and my opinions, and it is up to the individual farmers to use it as they see fit in their farming operations.”

Van Vleet will make recommendations as to fertility, seed and tillage decisions, but he tends to be open-minded and willing to look at new or better ways to do things. He expressed some impatience with growers who only want to do things the same way generation after generation, never wanting to change anything.

“I ask them, you are happy with 120 bushels per acre, but will your grandchildren still be able to get those same yields if you don’t treat your soils properly? I try to get them to think of their farms as an ecosystem,” explained Van Vleet. “For some, direct seeding is the best system. For others, a tillage system is better. I would like to see the growers do more extensive soil testing in their fields. Using one or two tests for an entire field simply doesn’t provide enough information. More testing throughout the fields will enable more efficient variable rate fertilizing.

“The days of just putting on nitrogen, sulfur and phosphate should be gone. The soil needs more micronutrients, and proper soil testing can make that happen. Crop rotations are also critically important. Including legumes, barley, canola and even triticale will help control weeds, improve yields and increase soil health.”

Van Vleet believes, with all the competition of the private and land-grant university breeding programs, there can be a tendency to release too many new cereal varieties.

“If a new variety has the same end-use quality as a prior one and only gets 3 percent better yields, why not wait another year or two and release when you actually have a substantially better wheat variety?” he asked.

In Van Vleet’s opinion, GMO wheat probably is not necessary. He believes with continually improved wheat varieties and better soil management, dryland yields of 200 bushels an acre are not out of reach. For those ready to dismiss that as an unrealistic goal, a Pomeroy dryland wheat grower working with Van Vleet had a field that yielded 189 bushels per acre in 2020. He has been entered in the national dryland wheat yield contest, and Van Vleet expects him to win.

Van Vleet’s work has not gone unrecognized. He has served as the national chair of the Sustainable Ag Committee and currently serves as the national chair of the Agronomy Committee for the National Association of County Agriculture Agents. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Award for the group in 2017.

Van Vleet is a family man. His wife, Sherri, works for the U.S. Postal Service. His daughter, Kaitlyn, recently graduated with a degree in criminal justice and criminology and is seeking employment. In his free time, Van Vleet spends time with his family and walks their dogs. He and Sherri also refinish antique furniture as a hobby.

“I’m very proud to have the opportunity to work with the growers here in the PNW region. We have a really good working relationship. They know that I am on their side and will go to battle for them when necessary.”

Van Vleet can be contacted at the WSU Extension office in Colfax at 310 North Main Street or by email at svanvleet@wsu.edu.