Finding one’s career path can be difficult and circuitous. It certainly was that way for Bill Schillinger. His journey included 10 years of working in agricultural development around the world in Asia and Africa before landing the position that would define his lifetime of work. After 29 years of conducting research, overseeing projects and writing grant proposals and scientific journal papers, Schillinger has eased out of the Washington State University (WSU) Lind Dryland Research Station, retiring in January.
There is a degree of irony in the fact that Schillinger grew up on an Odessa wheat farm only about 20 miles north of the Lind Station. While he is reticent about it, it could be argued that it was providence for hundreds of regional farmers that he decided not to stay in Odessa and take over the family farm. Decades of critical progress in developing effective methods to protect and conserve soil, the most precious farming resource, might otherwise never have been accomplished.
Like most Eastern Washington farm kids, Schillinger worked on the family farm from an early age. He was operating a Massey Harris model 27 combine and a Caterpillar crawler tractor by the age of 12.
“Running farm equipment at that young age made me feel really grown up,” recalled Schillinger. “Our farm of family-owned and leased land was medium-sized for that time in the 1960s. Of course, the size of farms and machinery back then seems amazingly small compared to today.”
After Schillinger graduated from Odessa High School in 1970, he studied biology and communications at college while working on the farm during the summers. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Eastern Washington State College in 1974. Rather than return to the farm after college, Schillinger decided to join the Peace Corps, serving in Nepal from 1975-1977.
“I was a little naïve, I suppose. I chose Nepal with visions of sipping tea and looking at the beauty of the Himalayan mountains in the distance,” explained Schillinger. “Reality hit when they placed me in the plains region in southeast Nepal, near India. It was incredibly hot and humid, and it was a long distance away from those beautiful mountains. I worked with 50 Nepalese farmers to produce certified wheat seed for the Nepal Ministry of Agriculture. During the monsoon season, we grew certified rice seed. I was responsible for supervising all aspects of seed production, collection, cleaning, bagging and storage.”
Farmers grew the seed on what were considered large plots of up to five acres. Schillinger would travel to each farm over two districts several times each growing season on his 90cc Honda Trail motorbike. The seed mostly went up into the hill country on the backs of porters for three to 10-day trips in 100-pound sacks. There were no roads in the hills, just foot trails.
“Ours was the only source of certified wheat and rice seed in the entire eastern region of Nepal,” noted Schillinger. “The government sold the seed to hill farmers at a subsidized low cost because the farmers were poor. The average farm size in the hills was one-third of an acre.”
After his service in Nepal, Schillinger was admitted into the University of California, Davis where he earned a master’s degree in agronomy. He met and married his wife, Valerie, while attending UC Davis.
Upon completion of his master’s degree, Schillinger accepted a career position as a foreign service agricultural officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development (part of the U.S. State Department). He served his posting in Cameroon in West Africa, where he managed two multimillion-dollar, U.S.-financed agricultural research projects. It was during this time that he ascertained that the scientists conducting the field research were receiving more satisfaction from their work than he was as their manager.
With his wife’s approval, Schillinger resigned from the Foreign Service to study agronomy and soils at Oregon State University, earning his doctorate in 1992. He was hired by WSU soon after.
Schillinger had barely arrived at WSU when Bob Papendick, a soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service who became his mentor, threw him into a new, grant-funded federal program called the Columbia Plateau PM10 Project.
“It was almost intimidating, being brand new on the job,” said Schillinger. “But we had this new, ongoing project that gave us $400,000 per year to combat wind erosion and blowing dust in the drylands. I was very excited to be part of it. Papendick’s research and grantsmanship achievements were legendary. In addition to securing long-term funding for the PM10 Project, he had also secured grant funding for the renowned Solutions to Environmental and Economic Problems (STEEP) program.”
Schillinger learned quickly how to successfully compete for grant funds available from federal and numerous other sources. He will be passing on several ongoing grant projects to the new professor-scientist at Lind. Most of them involve long-term cropping systems experiments at the Lind Station and in farmers’ fields.
“Dryland farmers have made good progress over the past several decades in reducing wind erosion in the drylands. I applaud their efforts, but there is always much more that can be done,” he said.
The Lind Station was established in 1915 at the request of wheat farmers in the region after consecutive years of severe drought in 1911 and 1912, explained Schillinger. This caused crop failures and severe wind erosion of soil. Many farmers were forced out of business and left the area.
“The situation was truly dire. Due to terrible crops and low residue, there were frequent, zero-visibility brownout dust storms. The remaining area dryland wheat farmers approached WSU (then Washington State College) and requested help,” he said.
Adams County provided 320 acres to locate the station on, and WSU agreed to provide at least one full-time professor/soil scientist, plus adequate technical support at the new research facility. The research is still carried out on that same 320-acre property, and the Lind Station serves as a hub for numerous field experiments conducted in farmers’ fields throughout the dryland region.
The station also owns another 1,000 acres that borders the original acreage. (Then-Representative) Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville sponsored a bill that transferred ownership of the acreage from the Washington Department of Natural Resources to the WSU Lind Dryland Research Station.
“We define low rainfall as less than 12 inches annually. The Lind Station receives 9.6 inches annually, on average. Most farmers in the drylands practice a wheat-fallow rotation,” Schillinger said. “I strongly encourage as few tillage operations as possible and, when feasible, no tillage. One big change in the past 30 years is that farmers now mostly leave their stubble standing over the winter rather than chiseling the ground in the fall.”
Schillinger is also a fan of rotation crops, especially winter canola, winter peas and winter triticale. He said there is some promising research for producing bread flour-quality triticale that would make it a valuable food crop, instead of only a feed crop.
“We have conducted a lot of research and published many papers on these new winter crops in the past 15 years,” he explained.
In the 1990s, the future of the Lind Station was uncertain. Farmers came together and created a special endowment to ensure the continuation of the station.
Schillinger mentioned other noteworthy endowments over the years, including those established by Otto and Doris Amen, Ed and Arlene Heinemann and Mel and Donna Camp. All of these endowments are ongoing, with only the interest earned each year being used to benefit the research and facility-improvement needs of the station.
In addition to the scientist/director faculty position, the station has four full-time technical and administrative staff and one part-time professional worker. Several of them have been at the Lind Station for more than 20 years. Schillinger believes that these dedicated staff members will be a big plus as WSU rapidly moves forward to refill the Lind faculty position.
In his faculty position at WSU, Schillinger has performed numerous outside consulting assignments for the Food and Agricultural Organization, the United Nations, the World Bank and other institutions. He has completed assignments in Senegal, Gambia, Thailand, India, Nepal, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Canada and Russia. Schillinger and his wife live in Cheney and are looking forward to having more time to travel. They have two grown children, Mark and Kathryn.
His last paid day on the job may have been in January, but Schillinger will be finishing up projects and writing research papers for at least six months.
“In addition, I will certainly be available to assist the new Lind Station scientist/director as they may request,” said Schillinger.
For more about the station, visit lindstation.wsu.edu.