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Grower Passionate to Save Agriculture

by Patricia McCoy
Capital Press, December 18, 2008

Robert Blair, a grain and legume grower in Kendrick, Idaho, believes strongly in modern ag technology -- and in speaking out on behalf of his industry. He's concerned about efforts to remove dams within the Columbia River system. Farming is a full-time job, but Robert Blair believes it's time for farmers to educate people about where their food and fiber comes from.

That drive keeps him busy off the farm as much as on it.

He's especially concerned by environmentalists' efforts to get rid of various dams on the Columbia River system, the very dams that provide agriculture with irrigation water, electrical power and a barge system to take their crops to market.

"Agriculture contributes 30 percent of the Lewiston economy, while another 20 percent comes from timber. The income we make from our crops lets us support restaurants, vehicle dealers and all the other businesses in the area," said Blair, who farms about 20 miles from Lewiston, Idaho, near Kendrick.

Idaho sells almost its entire grain crop out of state and overseas. It would take 700,000 trucks to replace all the barges needed to haul the crop down the Snake and Columbia rivers to Portland, he said.

"That's over 1,100 trucks a day that would be needed just to haul the grain," Blair said. "It's not just about the dams alone; it's also about the environment and fuel. We talk about wanting to solve the energy crisis, so why would we want to take out the dams? You'd think people could understand that, but look at how environmentalists stopped timber harvest, introduced wolves and designated and retained roadless areas."

As a grower, those thing are scary, Blair said.

"We farmers are the true conservationists. We're dealing with radical organizations whose main objective is to get rid of our industry," he said. "I say if they wanted to bring wolves back they should have put them everywhere they once roamed, including San Francisco and Central Park in New York City."

He said agriculture hasn't done a good job of speaking out for itself. Farmers are busy trying to farm, coach Little League, serve on school and church boards and support their communities in other ways. Concern over issues like saving the dams has driven Blair to serve on the executive board of the Idaho Grain Producers Association and work with the Idaho Farm Bureau, as well as serve locally. He serves on the agricultural committee for the Lewiston Area Chamber of Commerce.

Blair also teaches the laboratory part of a course on precision agriculture at the University of Idaho called Ag Systems Management 305. That involves hands-on training in how to use various technologies. UI students come to his farm for instruction.

"We need to get our voice out to survive. That takes time," he said. "We already have several federal agencies and our bankers telling us what we can or can't do. We don't need environmentalists running us as well."

Blair farms 1,500 acres, raising wheat and legumes on dryland. He also has a few head of cattle and 12 acres of alfalfa. He's trying alfalfa seed to give himself another rotation crop to lower disease pressures and improve sustainability. He also uses a lot of precision agriculture technology, such as no-till.

"We can't control yields or prices, so I'm trying to use modern technology to cut my costs. It's the wave of the future," Blair said.

Travis Jones, executive director of the Idaho Grain Producers Association, said Blair is an innovator and an idea guy.

"Robert is always on the cutting edge and tirelessly energetic," Jones said. "Whatever he puts his mind to, he does, at 110 percent. He's involved in a lot of things, but shortchanges none of them. He's also extremely trustworthy and puts quality into all he does."

Steve Johnson, UI director of alumni relations, said it's no surprise that Blair utilizes new technologies.

"He'll make them work and work to his advantage," Johnson said. "He definitely is an innovator."

Blair is working for the next generation.

"I have two boys," he said. "My main objective is to give them what my dad gave me - the opportunity to farm."

Patricia McCoy, staff writer based in Boise.
Grower Passionate to Save Agriculture
Capital Press, December 18, 2008

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