In June, the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) welcomed two new board members, Leif Claassen from Asotin County and Dave Swannack from Whitman County.
Claassen is the third generation on his family’s Asotin County farm. He graduated from Washington State University (WSU) in 2006 with a degree in ag technology and management with a minor in business. He said coming out of high school, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to farm, but a conversation with one of his professors was instrumental in changing his mind.
After college, Claassen headed to Texas to take a job as a farm manager. That job fell through after a few months, so he took work in a family dirt construction business. In 2011, he returned to the Pacific Northwest and went to work for CHS Primeland, where he remained for eight years.
“At some point in there, I realized that I was interested in all aspects of farming,” he said. “As a typical kid, I just liked the big machines and liked to drive stuff. During my years at Primeland, I had passion for more than just the things that moved, so to speak.”
By this time, Claassen’s children were getting involved in various activities, and he was looking for the flexibility to spend more time with them. He began exploring other career options, including considering working for another area farmer.
“That individual and my dad started talking, and my dad realized that it was time for me to come back to the family farm,” he said. “While coming back 18 years after high school was a little odd, considering how most family farms go, in way, it was a real blessing. I got a lot of life experiences and can contribute a lot more with the knowledge I have now compared to what I had coming out of college.”
The Claassens employ no-till, direct seeding methods, following a two-year rotation of chem fallow winter wheat.
“We are open to growing other things, it just has to fit economically,” Claassen said.
Claassen’s father, Steve, has been involved in the Washington wheat industry for many years, serving on the Washington Grain Commission. It was his encouragement that got Leif involved in WAWG.
“My father saw how important getting involved with grain production outside of the farm really is. I expressed interest in getting involved at the county level at one of the first meetings I went to,” Claassen said. “When we were finally able to meet again, I was elected.”
Regulations around pesticide use is one issue Claassen feels is of concern. He said he is apprehensive about being allowed to use pesticides in the future, and he hopes decisionmakers consider a more individualistic approach instead of a one-size-fits-all approach if pesticides are to be more heavily regulated in the future. That’s not all he’s concerned about.
“My number one concern would be logistics for continuing to produce wheat in the inland Pacific Northwest. The river system and what it allows is so important to us to be able to keep producing with the rainfall that we have and the average yield that we work within. Without river transportation, I don’t know that we would be able to do it,” he explained.
Claassen and his wife, Rikki, have two children, Braxton, who is 6, and Jayli, who is 3. He also has two sons from a previous marriage, Grady, 11, and Landry, 10. He replaces Bruce Petty as county president and WAWG board representative.
Dave Swannack was raised in Eastern Washington. As he was finishing up his agronomy degree from WSU in 1979, he was offered the opportunity to lease farmland near his hometown of Lamont. He jumped at the chance and has been farming ever since. He primarily grows dryland wheat and barley, but used to raise cattle as well. He’s been married to his wife, Leslie, for 42 years and has two sons that have careers in computer science and technology.
Swannack replaces Randy Suess as county president and WAWG board member. He said Suess has done more for Pacific Northwest farmers than just about anyone else he knows.
“It’s important farmers get involved (in industry organizations) because we are going to lose everything we farm for if we don’t get involved,” he said. “We’ve got to keep our markets going. We need to let the rest of the U.S. know we are important, that we work hard, and we love it. We aren’t living off the government.”
Swannack said he’s concerned about depression in farmers because of the amount of pressure they are under, from adverse weather to the rising cost of inputs and machinery. He’s also concerned that politics is the driving force in agriculture.
“The price of machinery is horrible,” he said. “I only know one or two farmers with a combine that’s less than three years old. Most of them are 10 years old. Tractors are the same. You just can’t afford them anymore.”