Bruce Nelson with his son, Andrew Nelson (Image credit: Microsoft Azure FarmBeats)
It’s not uncommon for us to partner with suppliers and farms that are second- or third- generation family-owned. But family businesses that are several generations old, extending back as far as Bay State Milling’s founding in 1899? This is a rarity.
But it is the reality of our relationship with Spokane Seed Company, whose owner and President Andrew Fontaine runs a 113-year-old enterprise specialized in the growing, processing and marketing of dry peas, lentils and chickpeas. Spokane has sourced its legumes from the fifth-generation Nelson Farm for over 50 years, starting with farmer Walt Nelson, and now managed by Bruce Nelson and his tech-forward son, Andrew Nelson. Trust and friendship underpin their relationship.
The Nelsons have stuck by legumes for many generations. Andrew put it simply, “They are nitrogen-adding to the soil and help us run healthy rotations. Winter wheat does especially well after planting green peas.” Chickpeas, however, are a new addition to their family. Around 14 years ago, the Nelsons were the first to successfully raise chickpeas in Farmington, WA, the location of their farm. Despite being just 40 miles north of the region where chickpeas flourished, they struggled at first acclimating the legume and managing its longer growing season (120-140 days). There are still some challenges today: “Chickpeas absorb a lot of water; it will take a full week for them to dry out, and even one or two percent extra moisture can increase the risk of rot. Our harvest after the early winter of 2019 was particularly difficult.”
As college-educated farmers—Bruce has a degree in agricultural economics and Andrew has dual degrees in computer science and business—the Nelsons are entrepreneurs by heart. Over the past decade, they have married sustainable farming principles with precision technology to improve their chickpea yields and nutritional profile. Andrew leads the agriculture technology projects to manage chickpeas at a sub-acre level. “We use AI and drones to track the health of our plants. Cameras are mounted on sprayers to modulate fertilizer application. Data is used to identify plots on which no-till, or minimum till, can be practiced,” he gave a glimpse of the innovation blossoming on his family farm.
As much as the Nelsons are focused on growing healthy chickpeas, they are also focused on farming healthy soil. “My major concern is to improve soil health and use as little inputs as possible; chickpeas are key to this. Their planting has helped slow the erosion of our hills,” Bruce reflected. His son added, “Yes, and we’re researching new techniques to improve soil health in partnership with state universities and private industries to analyze the soil’s ability to absorb carbon.” The notion that soil is a great untapped carbon sink has gained traction over the past few years; it has become a tenet of sustainable farming and practice to help mitigate climate change.
For Andrew, soil health is also deeply personal. “My wife and two boys are out here farming with me. By taking care of the land in economically and environmentally sustainable ways, I hope that I can leave the land for them better than I what I started with.”
Although technology is a huge feature of the Nelson Farm, both dad and son acknowledge that “there are many limitations to tech, because so much of farming is based on experience and knowledge.” Andrew from Spokane Seed added to this, “software can’t provide that inkling when it comes to understanding markets and what consumers want.” It’s with this same confidence that Andrew acts as the knowledge hub for the legume growers that he serves. “I’m always talking with the Nelsons about what other growers are doing and learning about what they’re planning. For example, when they started growing a new variety of chickpeas, I helped them figure out when to conduct field events and check for blight.” Bruce agreed, “You go into new varieties blind, but Spokane has seen the fields where those varieties were trialed, and they can tell us ‘seed this variety before you seed your lentils.’”
Reflecting on their decades of partnership—and our several years collaborating with them—Andrew Fontaine and the Nelsons shared their confidence and trust in our interconnected fortunes. “Spokane Seed is investing in the infrastructure and technology to improve and expand their business, which many other companies are not willing to do. But this makes them strong, which makes us strong.”