Western innovator: Farmer profits from conservation
'Conservation is a business whether you like it or not,' Berg-Tobin says
By MATTHEW WEAVER
PATERSON, Wash. -- Nicole Berg-Tobin believes conservation is part of a farmer's job description.
It's something her family has always believed.
Her grandfather always said, "If you mess with Mother Nature, she's going to mess with you," she recalled.
Berg-Tobin grows wheat with her father and brothers Matt and Steve on about 21,000 acres in southcentral Washington state.
A fourth-generation farmer, Berg-Tobin first became involved with the Benton County Wheat Growers in the early 2000s as the Environmental Protection Agency was considering tightening dust standards. Those standards are now being revisited, Berg-Tobin said.
From there, she joined the Benton County Conservation District board. He goal was to focus on environmental issues and help as a spokeswoman for agriculture.
"I think that farmers need to tell their story, and I'd like to help farmers tell their story," she said. "Whether it's water quality issues, air quality issues, I think we need to showcase what we're doing more."
In February, Berg-Tobin received the national Olin Sims Conservation Leadership Award from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service for "superior service in promoting and leading conservation on private lands."
Her family's farm regularly adopts new technology aimed at conservation. They will direct seed more wheat this year, in the interest of comparing the results with conventional farming.
"We've had our winners and we've had our failures, but at least we're trying new stuff," she said.
Berg-Tobin sees conservation as management of the land and all of the environmental pressures, including soil and water.
"If I just dumped water on my crop, it'd wash away," she said. "Precision agriculture is so key anymore because it helps you save money and helps conservation."
But she also said that conservation efforts come with a price.
"Conservation is expensive, and technology is expensive," she said. "Conservation is a business whether you like it or not. It takes money."
The farm signs up for the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program funds to help pay for conservation efforts.
Berg-Tobin also recently joined the Yakima Basin Clean Water Partnership, serving as chair as the group works to determine the results of conservation efforts.
"Any time you can quantify conservation, that's a good thing," she said.
Chris Herron, president of the Washington Association of Conservation Districts and a Connell, Wash., wheat farmer, befriended Berg-Tobin when both represented their counties on the Washington Association of Wheat Growers board of directors.
Through their conversations, they realized it would better serve the conservation districts in Benton and Franklin counties to combine and share staff.
"She is just a ball of energy," said Mark Nielson, manager of the Benton and Franklin County conservation districts. "Whatever she decides to do, she does it with gusto."
Nielson pointed to Berg-Tobin's efforts to stay ahead of regulations and use technology for efficiency.
"Really, she's a business lady," he said. "She recognizes that farms have to be profitable; they have to keep squeezing efficiency out of farming to stay competitive."
Mary Palmer Sullivan, program director for the Washington Grain Commission, credited Berg-Tobin with highlighting conservation issues.
"She takes a common-sense approach," Sullivan said. "She looks at things with a different perspective, knowing the bottom line is ultimately what growers are looking for."
Sullivan believes Berg-Tobin provides a different perspective as a woman in an industry dominated by men.
"With Nicole, you don't have to second-guess what she's thinking," Sullivan said.
Berg-Tobin said she wants to see agriculture continue to grow.
"Just keep trying new things," she advised. "Change is not a bad thing. Everybody has a tendency to resist change, but it can be good."
Occupation: Owner and partner in Berg Farms, Berg Partnership and Lenzie Ranch
Hometown: Paterson, Wash.
Current location: Zillah, Wash.
Education: Bachelor's degree in ag communications, Washington State University
Family: Husband, Mike Tobin