How we grow

A fall scene — sweet peppers beside Brussels sprouts!

Our farm’s crops are certified USDA organic by Stellar (an Oregon-based certifying agency). All our animals are raised on our farm, by us, and fed only food we have grown or feed that is also certified organic

So, that answers the question for most of you!

But perhaps you want to know more “behind the scenes” of organic certification and how we do things around here. So, here is a bit more information about our choices as farmers:

We’ve been farming in some capacity since 2004 (first for someone else and then on our own beginning in 2006). In that entire time, we have always practiced organic methods, although we took a break from certification from 2011-2014.

“Organic” is a very useful label — one that I appreciate both as a farmer and a consumer. It is short-hand for goodness that I seek all around, and I know that you do too. But, I also find that many consumers who value organic food still don’t fully understand what this word means, and I thought I’d flesh it out and help explain our growing choices along the way.

As a legal label, in many ways “organic” pertains more to what a farmer doesn’t do — quite a lot of standard farming practices are prohibited, notably:

  • no use of any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides
  • no use of any genetically modified seeds (and organic seeds are mandated when available)

The process encourages careful attention to soil health and other sustainable practices, but for the most part each farmer finds his or her own way and makes up a formal “organic plan” to document and organize those practices. Once a farmer has decided not to use chemical fertilizers, he or she has to figure out what to use instead — and that can look different on each farm! In reality, every organic grower (certified or not) “exceeds” the standards, or farms “better than organic,” because the standards are the “floor” as it were. From there, we all make our own choices for our beautiful farms, keeping in mind the context of our place, markets, personalities, resources, and goals.

What that looks like for our farm has evolved quite a bit over the years. Having such a large expanse of land has allowed us to foster a holistic farm system, where fertility and pest/weed management are incorporated into our rotations of crops and animals. All of which fosters ongoing soil health and creates clean food for our eaters (and a clean environment for us and our employees to work in!).

Here are some more specific details of our farming choices that may be of interest to you:

Red clover cover crop

Fertility: The primary sources of fertility for our vegetable crops are the nitrogen provided by previously pastured animals and the nitrogen (and organic matter) provided by cover crops. We do not farm our land intensively. All of our land is allowed ample time between crops of vegetables (at least a whole season, but sometimes longer). We do add off farm amendments as necessary in the form of organic-approved products such as fish meal and calcium sources such as lime (to help keep our pH low, which allows plants to make best use of fertility and fight off pests and other diseases naturally.)

Tillage, fuel & conservation: In our experience, annual crop growing benefits from some tillage. There are interesting schools of agriculture that are attempting to grow these crops vegetables and grains without disturbing the soil each year, but many of them require either quite a lot of chemical herbicides or lots of human labor and off-farm mulch. We think that excessive or poorly timed tillage can cause erosion and other environmental problems. However, for a tiny little seed to go into the ground and have the space, fertility, water, and sunlight it needs to grow bigger and bigger into a plant, tillage is helpful and necessary. Only part of our farm is tilled each year for the purpose of planting our annual vegetables. Pastures and orchards are kept as undisturbed as possible each year.

Casey using our tractor with chisel plow in spring.

For the purposes of tillage, we have also chosen to use the “gentlest” means that we have found to be effective. We own a 58 hp tractor that we use to operate a handful of favored implements. Our favorite tillage combination is to begin by chisel-plowing the ground (picture several curved tines being pulled deep into the ground), followed by disking (rolling disks that chop the soil) and then harrowing it with a power harrow (which is a series of tines that spin with force perpendicular to the ground). If you are a farmer, you might be able to follow the significance what I just described, but for the rest of you I’ll explain it this way: none of the implements we use turn the soil over. They move it, but always while keeping the layers of soil undisturbed in the top and down relationship.

In our experience, plants thrive in this soil environment. And we haven’t overly worked the soil to the risk of erosion or overly disturbed the valuable bacteria and fungal lives in the soil (another unfortunate side effect of intense tillage). By using gentle tillage, long rotations between crops, and cover crops (so no ground is ever left bare in the winter rains), we are always adding to our soil’s vibrant ecosystem of health.

Casey using our antique (but operating!) weeding tractor in the field.

Weed & pest control: We use careful ground prep, planting timing, and “manual” removal methods of weed control (i.e. we get out there with our cultivating tractor and hoes regularly!). We’ve also found that rotating between row crops (vegetables), field crops (grains) and pastures helps us avoid build-up of weeds, since each of those situations creates a different setting for weed germination or removal (animals especially help with some problem weeds like thistle and prickly lettuce).

As far as insects and animals that might hurt our plants, we take no measures to harm pests, with chemicals, traps or otherwise. We keep our crops healthy and uneaten through other measures: careful crop timing (for example, planting later or earlier to avoid spring flea beetle pressure) and exclusion (using “row cover” to protect certain vulnerable crops at key times in the season). Adequate ground prep and weed removal can help prevent slug damage. We also aim to foster peak plant health through fertility, irrigation and good seed stock — we have found that vigorous plants can “defend” themselves against pests.

Picking apples with our children.

We do not actually own a sprayer or use any sprays, organic-approved otherwise. So far, we have not even sprayed our orchards, instead working with natural systems to achieve tree and fruit health. We carefully selected all of our fruit varieties for maximum hardiness in our particular region and climate (most of them are naturally resistant to the major tree fruit diseases here). We also “thin” our apples and pears every spring to provide them with maximum air flow and space to grow into large, juicy fruit. When seasonally appropriate, we graze animals in our orchard, to help with weeds and provide fertility for our trees. Irrigation is also important for our orchards’ health and vigorous growth. This is one part of our farm that we are always watching for signs that we need to change our habits (since there are many organic-approved sprays available for orchards), but so far our variety selection and careful tending has yielded the results we are seeking.

So that you know, we have also tested all of our soil for pesticide residues in the soil. Our vegetable growing ground is completely clean of residues. The testing process was expensive, but we are thankful for this knowledge so that we can make healthy choices — our own children eat our food as the bulk of their diet, so we have a lot of incentive to make sure it is as healthy as possible in every sense!

Chicory seeds grown by us on our farm!

Seeds: We buy as many organically grown seeds as possible for our farm. It is legally mandated for our certification, but would choose organic seeds either way for a few reasons. First of all, we want to support other organic farmers of all kinds. Also, seeds that have been selected for growth under organic conditions so are more likely to perform well on our farm. When organic seed is not available for one of our crops, we buy seed that is verified as non-GMO. We also save quite a bit of our seed for the farm each year. Many years ago, we grew organic vegetable seed commercially as a side enterprise on our farm, and although we’ve moved on from that project on a large scale, we got hooked on the process of saving seeds. We have saved our own seed for tomatoes, peppers, winter squash, broccoli, kale, chicories, popcorn, and more. We don’t save everything every year by any means, but we enjoy saving at least some each year. We consistently find that our own saved seed outperforms anything we can buy on our own land — the vigor and the qualities of the plants are superb. So, we keep doing it year after year!

Casey moving pipe in the corn.

Irrigation: We are blessed to farm on a river island, where water is abundantly available to us all summer. Between all the parcels we manage, we have legal water rights to irrigation wells, which we use to irrigate our crops appropriately in the dry months (which for us can last from June through October, depending on the season). We consider appropriate use of water to be an integral part of our farm’s success, both in terms of growing healthy vegetables and helping pastures reach their peak potential. The animals help us water the pastures too, by moving water all over the land in the form of their urine! (This is no small contribution!) That being said, conservation is also always on our mind, both in terms of the water itself and the electricity used to move it. We feel blessed to be tapping a renewable source of groundwater, but we don’t take it for granted! We’ve chosen to irrigate with “hand lines,” which are 40′ long “sticks” of aluminum pipe with sprinkler risers at one end. We have found the best results with this kind of overhead irrigation, which covers the entire surface of the ground evenly. We manually carry these from location to location every day in the summer in order to water the crops that need it most. Moving pipe is quite a lot of work (2-3 hours every day during irrigation season), and the work alone creates gratitude and a daily measure of conservation on our farm!

Labor: (This is an area not covered by the label “organic,” but I know that for many people it is a critical part of a farm’s sustainability!) People are often surprised to learn how few people work on our farm. In 2015, all the work of our farm was completed by Casey (Head Farmer), me Katie (Business Manager behind the scenes), and one or two other full-time employees. Starting in 2016, we’ll be back to operating our farm with just our own labor. We’ve worked hard over the years to create efficient systems so that we can be a profitable farm and be a place where people don’t burn out their bodies doing inefficient laborious tasks — especially since our own bodies are the ones doing the work!

Phew! That’s a lot of information! If there is any area of growing crops that we have missed, please ask us and we can provide more information personally or update this page on our website. We want our community to understand and appreciate the work we do out here on the farm. Every choice is made with health in mind: health of our land, animals, farmers, and eaters!