The farmland held by the Broughton Land Company have been in the family for 100 years and were first farmed using horses and mules, but many modern farming innovations are breathing new life into the land, its soils and water.

In June, the Blue Mountain Land Trust hosted a three-hour tour of the Broughton Land Company’s tens of thousands of acres in Columbia County northeast of Walla Walla, led by Land Company general manager Dan McKinley.

In 1872, Charles Broughton came from Maryland to Montana to take a job working on a pack train bringing supplies over the Mullan Road to Montana miners and to work in a mercantile store. He was 17 years old. In 1877, at 23, he took a job in Dayton at a dry goods store and eventually bought out the owners, McDonald and Schwabacher. His story is painted in murals on the side of the Land Company’s main office in downtown Dayton.

Today, much of the area of the Broughton Land Company’s 33,000-acre holdings are the same as those established by Charles Broughton by the time he died in 1920, having become a successful businessman and entrepreneur.

The eldest son of his nine children, Charles Broughton Jr., farmed the land assisted by his brother, James, and his son, Chad. Now, the Broughton Land Company is owned by a general partnership set up in 1972 of more than 30 descendants of Charles Broughton and his wife, Ina.

Under the guidance of McKinley and the family partnership chairman, the 13,000 acres of farmed land (wheat, barley, lentils and garbanzos), 15,000 acres of pasture and hay land and 5,000 acres of timberland is farmed “with the responsibility of sustaining the resources with which we have been entrusted.” The tour in June, attended by about 30 people, farmers, and those interested in rivers and the lands around them, revealed many details of this responsibility.

The first tour stops were on the Tucannon River where, about three years ago, the Broughton Land Company began work restoring and establishing 100 acres of riparian buffers and river habitat along the river, working progressively along the river. This was done in partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service under the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program.

The Tucannon River has spring chinook and steelhead, fish on the Endangered Species Act list, and is designated as critical habitat for them as well as bull trout. River habitat restoration projects are diverse and include upland conservation tillage practices, irrigation management, adding streamside riparian plants, and projects that slow stream water develop and stream channel complexity. As work can only be done when the river waters are low, most of the work is done in August and September, and stockpiled rocks and logs were present during the tour.

The area of the Tucannon River we saw was largely hidden by trees, winding its way through a lush and cool corridor and flood plain of alder, cottonwood and riparian vegetation at the foot of dramatic, dry, rocky bluffs bordered by hayfields. Long fence lines along the river kept out cattle.

Driving down the roads, we saw vast hillside pastures of waving, tawny grasses and wildflowers that house 700 head of cattle. Wildflowers such as blanket flower, yarrow, wild buckwheat, lomatium, phacelia and many others lit up the pastures among the perennial native grasses. The cattle are a mix of angus, Hereford, and shorthorn and are broken into groups of 200 rotated between summer and winter pastures.

Calves are born in the spring and reach weights of about 600 pounds by the fall when they are sold. Hay is fed in winter, when the dried grasses lose much nutrition. McKinley explained how new, highly efficient, programmable pivot sprinklers included in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program funding have allowed hayfield water use to drop to 400 acre feet per year from 900. Hay is the only Land Company irrigated crop.

On the way up to the Broughton wind farms, our convoy of cars drove past a number of pea, lentil and wheat fields. McKinley described how all the fields are dry farmed and planted with rotations of low soil-water use crops and high soil-water use crops. Low soil-water use crops are grains such as barley and spring wheat, and legumes such as lentils, peas and garbanzo beans. Winter wheat is a high soil-water use crop.

The fields can be cropped every year with the alternating soil-water use regime. Winter wheat is planted in the fall and overwinters to mature in August. Spring wheat, barley and the legumes are planted in the spring, and are ready for harvest in August. All crops are farmed using conservation tillage, a system that minimizes soil disturbance.

McKinley showed us how the crops are direct seeded with seed drills into the stubble of the previous crop, minimizing soil disturbance and allowing soil organic matter to build up, creating more porous soils that water readily infiltrates. Pieces of the past wheat crop were visible in the soil the lentils were growing in.

The legumes are not fertilized with nitrogen as they fix atmospheric nitrogen from nodules on the roots. McKinley explained that until the 1950s, before fertilizer was readily available, fields were cropped every other year, and soil was pulverized with plows and discs to till in legumes for soil nitrogen. Rain ran off the soil instead of filtering in, and gullies were everywhere. The Tucannon River ran brown after a rain.

As McKinley explained, “Soils have once more become porous and can take a lot of rain.”

Now, in spring before planting legumes, they cultivate very lightly for weed control. This allows them to cut down on the amount of herbicides used and to prevent weed herbicide resistance from occurring. Conservation tillage has allowed them to cut down the amount of tractor time by 1,500 hours per tractor per year, to 500.

One of the prettiest places we stopped was the wind farm at 3,000 feet. The giant, white windmills sit on top of a high plateau planted with lentils and overlooking huge, windblown cattle pastures of native grasses and wildflowers. The deeply forested Blue Mountains reside in the distance. The BLC has leased space for 80 windmills, some of the 450 in the area, and receives revenue from them. Questions were raised about bird deaths from blades, and McKinley explained that the blade speed is minimized for this reason, and turbines are monitored regularly for bird deaths.

Back at the ranch headquarters, next to huge, highly sophisticated farming equipment, McKinley gave us one of the most interesting handouts of the day, a map of field soil-water content generated using satellite infrared technology.

He showed us the corresponding fields from where we were standing. Green areas on the map showed areas of high water content, reflecting deep, fertile soils, and orange and red areas reflected shallow soils with low water content. Matching up the maps with the hills around us, we could see the grasses already turning yellow in the orange areas and deep green grasses in the green areas.

McKinley explained that they put the map data on a chip and put it into the tractors. Fertilizer application rates are finely calibrated to the soil water-holding capacity — using more fertilizer in highly productive soils and no fertilizer in dry, shallow soils, where the return (based on past experience) is little. He fertilizes each area for known crop production and can both promote and calculate bushels of wheat per soil area based on this formula.

He explained how the new combines will record the crop yield correlating with the soil moisture map. Yearly mapping of soil moisture content allows them to make precise fertilizer applications and crop projections.

The new tractors and spray rigs run on a GPS system, he said, and basically drive themselves except for turns at the end of each field. This system has reduced overspray to practically nothing as when an arm is over an area it has already gone over, it recognizes this and the individually calibrated sprayers automatically turn off, eliminating excess spraying.

It was evident from this tour that what we were seeing on Broughton Land Company properties was a point on a continuum, and more innovations that sustain the resources “entrusted” to this family business will be forthcoming to benefit the partnership and the lands and waters it owns as well as the local and larger environment.

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