15 minutes with David Ruark, retired Washington wheat farmer
Many farmers continue to lend a hand on family operations after they retire … as does David Ruark when he’s called upon by his son, Paul, and granddaughter Savannah.
But rather than take up golf or woodworking to while away his retirement time, Ruark took to preserving agricultural history. With a great deal of assistance from his wife, Nancy, and many other Garfield County residents, Ruark devoted himself to helping create the Eastern Washington Agricultural Museum in Pomeroy, Washington.
Today those efforts stand as one of the most complete museums of farming and farm technology in the country — two massive buildings (possibly a third in the future) of beautifully curated displays of the advances from the past that helped build the foundation of agriculture today.
The museum also reflects the agriculture of this unique region, the Palouse, with its rich loess soils covering rolling hills, some of which are incredibly steep. This is the land of white “noodle” wheat so tagged because much of the crop is exported to Asia where it’s used to make noodles.
SF: Where did the idea for the agricultural museum originate?
DR: Well, like most things, I guess it was a seed planted during a conversation between friends in October 2005. At that time what would become the founding members of the museum were lamenting that we’d lost so much of the technology from the past. Another person suggested creating a place where we could keep stuff like tractors and tillage equipment or horse implements from the area. After that, the idea just continued to grow and the group set out to make it a reality.
SF: That sounds simple enough. But creating a museum like this isn’t simple, is it?
DR: Oh, there is a lot to it, that’s for sure. First there is fund-raising. We worked to get a state grant that was crucial to the creation of the museum. We were also able to secure many other financial contributions as well, not only from the area but the state and county, too. Also Garfield County has but one town, Pomeroy (where the museum resides), and a small population (approximately 2,300). What was amazing, however, was how people came forward to help financially as well as donate artifacts and their time.
SF: What was your biggest challenge with the museum?
DR: Getting younger people involved with the museum. That is a challenge today because far fewer younger people are involved with agriculture. One of the easiest things was asking for equipment donations. We’ve been so blessed with a huge outpouring of items ranging from smaller pieces of history such as horse harnesses or seed sacks to large items like the very unique Harris Harvester, a horsedrawn sidehill combine from 1932.
Recently we undertook restoring a huge 20-foot diameter fan windmill over 100 years old that originally stood on top of a 50-foot tower. Plus we have two types of tramways that were used to move bagged wheat from the top of the plateau overlooking the Snake River down an 1,800-foot drop (the rail line was 1 mile in length) to the river so it could get loaded on boats.
A huge challenge with a museum like this is also preserving the items we receive. But we have been blessed with a volunteer group who can rebuild and restore anything, even rare equipment requiring parts that are no longer manufactured. This has taken some very talented and dedicated people.
SF: What is the significance of preserving agricultural history?
DR: So many of the items at the museum would have been lost if we hadn’t preserved them. I think the payoff comes when you get a group of schoolchildren who have no idea that farmers once used horses to farm. The museum serves the purpose of educating the public about where their food comes from. So many people today think it comes from the supermarket. Here they discover it came from hard work and the land where they live.
Name: David Ruark
Background: When David and wife Nancy retired from farming, they passed on management to son Paul and granddaughter Savannah Ruark Cranor and her husband, Tanner. Savannah marks the seventh generation of Ruarks to have farmed in Garfield County, Washington.
The operation’s primary crops are winter wheat (mainly soft white wheat ), plus some red wheat, canola, and alfalfa.
“Over the years we have also raised corn, peas, lentils, barley — and eyebrows,” he adds with a laugh. Ruark started with conservation tillage in 1974 when he and Nancy began farming.