We are very pleased to introduce you to Les and Laurie Ryan, farmers who live in Colton, Washington. This is the heart of the rich Palouse region located on the Washington-Idaho border. Their operation is called Ryan River Ranch, and comprises of crops and cattle. Les has been farming his entire life. He and Laurie are the epitome of American farmers. Their whole lives revolve around the land and caring for it.
Les’ great grandparents settled around 1880, on what is still the family’s land south of Pullman, Washington near the Snake River. The Ryan family has been living on and working the same land since then. In fact, the name of their road is Ryan Road. I met Les’ mother, Marlene some years ago, and she told me that as a bride, she had moved into the “new house,” which, at that time was 100 years old!
In addition to being a full-time farmer, Les’ grandfather was a county commissioner of Whitman County. This is an elected position, one of high regard in his community. During his reign, he was able to get many of the roads in the area graveled, which at that time was a huge improvement over dirt roads. The countless farmers who travel those roads today have Mr. Ryan to thank for their good gravel roads.
Les’ father, Jack Ryan, grew up during the time when horses were still prevalent in all phases of farming. As a young man, he ran a harvest of 33 head of horses pulling a combine. Jack, who is deceased, loved horses, and kept several teams of huge, magnificent draft horses, which his family still have. When farming veered toward tractors and away from horses, Jack just didn’t have the heart to farm anymore, so he turned the farm portion of the family operation over to his boys, and he stayed in the cattle and horse business. Les and his siblings are the 4th generation of Ryans to farm their family land.
Les has one significant memory about how he fell in love with farming. When he was about 8 years old, his dad put him on a tractor, showed him how to turn it on and turn it off, then Les was on his own.
While this sounds outrageous in today’s world, for Les, it taught him responsibility. He was responsible for that machine. If he broke it, it would cause problems for the family. Between the care of machinery and caring for the livestock, Les grew up learning how important it is to take care of stuff. He has been farming ever since that day, he grew up with it, never wanted to do anything else, and learned to love the life of a farmer and rancher at an early age. As a teen, Les participated in FFA (Future Farmers of America), and as a young man, attended Spokane Community College, attaining education and certification in heavy machinery maintenance. This has served him well over the years.
Les farms our own Bald Butte Ranch, which he has operated for approximately 30 years. He also works another farm, which he has operated since 1987. He is a dryland farmer, meaning that he doesn’t irrigate, but that God supplies the rain (at just the right time).
Les farms on a 3 year rotation: barley, wheat and legumes (garbanzos, lentils or peas). This means that in each field he plants one of these crops every three years, on the same basic rotation. Les also has dryland alfalfa hay on some of his land, which is planted only once every 4 or 5 years. The hay is fed to his cattle in the winter.
He uses a minimum-till method, meaning that, after harvest, he works the soil to chop up the crop stubble (stems, roots, leaves). This helps them to break down over the winter, and adds organic matter to the soil. He makes the fewest passes across the soil as possible (usually 1-3), in addition to planting the seed and harvesting the crop. Les also utilizes contour farming, where he drives horizontally across the hills, rather than up and down. This greatly reduces soil erosion from water running down the hills.
The biggest challenges for Les are the weather and the world market. There are many things in his operation that he can control. But he can’t control the weather, and he can’t control the market.
As a lifelong farmer and caregiver of the land, Les still finds that watching the crops grow and come to maturity are his greatest rewards. Watching what he has worked so hard for a year to produce, observing the results of the decisions he has made and methods he has tried, makes it all worthwhile, and is why he loves what he does.
Les is a member of the Whitman County Cattlemens’ Association as well as the Pacific Northwest Growers’ Association. His leisure pursuits match his livelihood. He and Laurie both love horses, and Laurie trains and shows beautiful Quarter horses. She also is an accomplished photographer (all of the photos in this post were taken by Laurie).
If there was one thing Les could express to everyone it is this: that farmers are the world’s best conservationists. The land is their life and their livelihood, and because of this they take the best possible care of it, and will not abuse it.
We appreciate Les and Laurie Ryan, as our farmers on Bald Butte Ranch. They are excellent stewards of the land and our good earth, preserving and nurturing it for the generations to come.