Once you go yak, you never go back

KINGS VALLEY, Ore. — Nick Hazelton knew he wanted to raise something different at his family’s farm in Western Oregon.

Emus were an intriguing option for eggs and meat. So were alpacas, with a fleece similar to sheep’s wool. Hazelton, 20, thought about bison but even that seemed too popular.

While researching exotic animals on the internet, Hazelton stumbled upon domesticated yaks — the shaggy cousin of cattle found throughout the Himalayan Mountains of Asia. Yaks not only provide meat, fiber and milk, but are hardy and efficient for small farmers.

“They look really cool, so immediately it caught my eye,” Hazelton said. “I was just looking for something I hadn’t heard of, I guess.”

A herd of 25 yaks now grazes on 40 acres of pasture at Hazelton Farms, located in rural Kings Valley, Ore. about 20 miles west of Corvallis. The farm also has dairy goats and hogs, though it was Hazelton’s idea to get into the yak business.

It is difficult to know exactly how many yaks are in the U.S. The USDA does not keep count in its Census of Agriculture, but does tally the number of farms with “specialty” animals — not including bison, elk, deer, alpacas, llamas, mink and rabbits.

That number was 3,611 operations in 2017, with 116 in Oregon, 88 in Washington, 37 in Idaho and 166 in California.

Stephanie David, president of the International Yak Association, or IYAK, did not immediately return a call for comment, but in January she told the Denver Post there were an estimated 5,000 yaks in North America. Many of the animals, however, are not registered, she said.

Hazelton was 15 when he and his father bought their first yaks at an auction hosted by Pine Mountain Buffalo Ranch in Bend. Growing up on the farm, Hazelton thought he wanted to be a lawyer or hotelier, but realized how much he enjoyed working with animals in 4-H.

Using the money he earned from selling one of his 4-H steers, Hazelton was able to buy two pregnant yak cows and two yearling bulls to start his herd. One year later, he butchered his first animal and sold the meat at the Corvallis Farmers’ Market.

It was such a success that he convinced his parents to let him drop out of high school after his sophomore year to begin raising yaks full-time.

“While I was in school, I was just kind of getting frustrated with being kept inside and not being able to do the things I wanted to do,” Hazelton said. “I decided animal husbandry is what I wanted to get into.”

Hazelton still sells yak meat at the farmers’ market. He describes it as as leaner and darker than beef, closer in comparison to elk with a sweeter flavor.

“You can definitely taste the difference,” Hazelton said.

He charges $12 a pound or roughly double the price of grass-fed beef. He has sold out every year.

Yaks shed their woolly undercoats in spring, which Hazelton also sells to a local company. The material is soft and silky, and can be used to make clothing and fabric. Last year, Hazelton said he sold about 7 pounds of yak fiber, fetching between $3 and $4 per ounce.

Hazelton said he would eventually like to begin selling yak’s milk, which at 7-11% butterfat is ideal for making yogurt and cheese.

Without a formal agriculture education, Hazelton said he is learning best farming practices — such as rotating pastures and balancing nutrition — through trial and error. Because yaks are such a niche industry, he said he has also been able to chat with other mentors along the way.

One of those is Patricia Young, who has about 21 head of yaks at her farm, Yaks in the Cradle Farm, in Quilcene, Wash., on the Olympic Peninsula. Young is also a board member for IYAK. She began raising her first yak as a pet in 2013 before getting into the business commercially.

“There’s not even enough meat to keep up with demand out here,” Young said. “In the past year, there’s been a good bit of growth on the farms that I know of.”

Yaks are smaller than regular cattle, with bulls reaching 1,500 pounds and cows ranging from 600 to 800 pound. Young said that makes them a good choice for smaller acreages. They also eat and process their food more efficiently.

As the saying goes, according to Young: “Once you go yak, you never go back.”

“They’re just so much fun to have,” she said. “In one animal, there are just so many things you can do.”

Grazing sheep in vineyards and beyond

Oregon State University Extension experts say that research shows that there’s a benefit to year-round grazing of sheep on vineyards.

OSU will present a program entitled “Grazing Sheep in Vineyards and Beyond” Aug. 8 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Rd
Central Point, Ore.

“Recent research has shown incredible benefits of using sheep year-round in properly designed/retrofitted vineyards, including increased net profitability per acre from the vineyard as well as the livestock, increased soil fertility, and reduced labor costs as well as fewer tractor passes, elimination of tillage and reduced needs for fertilizer.”

Kelly Mulville of Paicines Ranch,  and who is also a Holistic Management International certified educator, will be the presenter.

The cost of the event is $20 for one participant, or $30 for two from the same farm. To register, go to the event website.

Co-op offers farmers loans for produce

Teresa Retzlaff and Packy Coleman, owners of 46 North Farm in Olney, Ore., have provided plant starts and produce to the Astoria Co+op for the past seven years, becoming one of the first local producers to work with the grocery.

The co-op recently launched a microloan program for farmers, starting with $1,500 to help 46 North install more covered areas to protect flowers from the weather.

Retzlaff described the loan as similar to community-supported agriculture, in which customers prepay farmers in the winter and receive produce throughout the harvest season.

The co-op wanted more flowers for the new store opening later this year in Mill Pond, and Retzlaff wanted to grow more flowers. She estimated it would cost $1,500 to build four 100-foot caterpillar tunnels to protect her flowers from the rain and allow the farm to plant earlier in the spring.

“A lot of times when you’re starting out you don’t just have that lying around,” she said.

Retzlaff and Coleman constructed the tunnels in April using local materials and began taking between $100 and $300 off of each invoice on the plant starts and produce they brought to the co-op, paying off their loan in full earlier this month.

Danny Rasmussen, produce manager for the co-op, said the store is trying to support local farmers and expand its selection of local food in the new location. At peak season, the co-op can source nearly half of its produce directly from farmers, he said.

“We’ll take this on a case-by-case basis,” he said of the loans. “I would like to do one farm again next year. We’d like to extend these loans to farms who have a track record of delivering great products to the co-op. These farms will also need to show us a plan for how a loan can help grow their business.”

The support is crucial for small farmers, who often have difficulty obtaining help from banks and the USDA, Retzlaff said. She has seen a growth in state support for small farms, exemplified by Oregon State University’s Center for Small Farms & Community Food Systems. She and Jared Gardner are planning a local chapter of the support group National Young Farmers Coalition.

“It’s hard, because (with) smaller farms, your cost of production is higher,” Retzlaff said. “Usually your cost of land is higher, especially if you’re starting from scratch.”

But smaller, local farms provide fresher food and a closer connection with customers, she said, while investing locally. “That money keeps circling around and getting reinvested,” she said.

How produce safety rule impacts small farms

Blueberry pickers had come to glean the berries left over after harvest and donate them to hungry families in Salem, Ore.

Pat Zurbrugg, owner of Zurbrugg Blueberries, stuffed his hands in his pockets and shrugged as he watched the gleaners.

“I’m glad to donate my berries to people in need,” he said. “But there wasn’t always so much excess until I switched to U-pick.”

Zurbrugg changed to U-pick because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s new produce safety rule made it difficult for him to continue processing his berries.

“For a busy small farm like mine, it’s very expensive and time-consuming to follow the rule,” said Zurbrugg.

The produce safety rule, part of the FDA’s Food and Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), was created to prevent outbreaks of foodborne illness.

The rule gives the government more oversight over farms — inspecting irrigation water for dangerous bacteria, making sure workers wash their hands and protecting against animal droppings, for example.

Joy Waite-Cusic, food safety researcher at Oregon State University, said most farmers were already following safety practices, but FDA made the rule in response to outbreaks linked to fresh foods.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 48,0000 people in the U.S. — one in six — get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, and 3,000 die annually.

Much of that illness can be attributed to improper handling at the consumer and retail level, but some can be traced back to the farm. According to the National Institutes of Health, outbreaks linked to fresh produce were the leading cause of foodborne illness in the U.S. in 2016.

The rule, though intended to protect consumers, has made it harder for some farms to stay in business.

Oregon Blueberry Commission Administrator  Bryan Ostlund said the rule has both positive and negative sides. It’s positive, Ostlund said, because it improves safety education and practices. “We need farms to understand food safety better, and this rule helps with that,” he said.

But Ostlund said the rule costs farmers time and money. Farmers must keep records, train employees and get inspections. Although the FDA does not charge for standard inspections, some farms need to buy new equipment or hire staff for record-keeping.

“It’s a good rule in many ways, but no one wants more bureaucracy,” said Ostlund. “It’s a march forward, but also a fall back. How does a small-scale farm keep up administratively? How do farmers survive?”

According to Waite-Cusic of OSU, some farms are exempt — such as those with average produce sales of less than $25,000 annually. But for farms big enough to fall under the rule yet small enough that income is tight, the rule creates a burden.

“Those farms are in a financial pinch,” said Waite-Cusic. “They’re impacted the most. They typically run a very lean operation, and they may not be able to afford a record-keeper or food safety staffer. So some are going out of business.”

But not every farmer dislikes the rule.

Greg Bennett, owner of Northwest Onion Co. in Brooks, Ore. said the rule is worth the extra work.

“There’s more training and accountability,” he said. “We’re protecting consumers better. We’ve got more peace of mind that people won’t get sick. The rule protects us, too. If we get into a food recall, we have the documentation behind us to back up our story. But it’s more work. We have a lot more dividers in our notebooks now.”

Waite-Cusic said resources are available to help farms comply with the rule without hurting their businesses. Farmers can request free consultations — called on-farm readiness reviews — with Oregon Department of Agriculture and OSU Extension staff.

Waite-Cusic said resources are under-utilized, and grant money to support the consultations may run out in 2020.

“This is one of the only ways you’ll ever get your tax dollars back,” she said, and laughed. “I want to keep farms in business and keep people from getting sick — a win-win.”

Pollinator Partnership CEO: Good work, communication must continue

Laurie Davies Adams likes the work she sees some farmers and ranchers doing to benefit pollinators, and believes it must continue.

“What would really solve the problem is right out there in those fields,” the president and CEO of the San Francisco-based Pollinator Partnership said in an interview at Vine and Branch Ranch outside Caldwell, Idaho, on June 22. “People communicating with other people and sharing their experiences — that is what is going to create the change.”

Many populations of bees and other pollinating insects are in decline for reasons including loss of feeding and nesting habitats, the group says.

Pollinators benefit when farms and ranches add or preserve pollinator habitat, and take care of soils, Adams said.

“We never lose sight of the fact that the farmer is here, raising crops and making a living,” she said. “But as good stewards, farmers want their landscapes and the soil to be as productive as possible. Pollinators play a real role in that.”

Many farmers in the Northwest and California are using pollinator-friendly practices, Adams said. Their experiences with soils, plants and pollinators can have a larger impact.

She was in Caldwell to wrap up National Pollinator Week largely because new Pollinator Partnership board member Ron Bitner, a local wine grape grower and bee scientist, aims to expand the organization’s Bee Friendly Farms certification program in the Northwest and California.

For the national awareness week, “I had the chance to attend a congressional briefing, or to come to Idaho to talk to alfalfa growers,” Adams said. “I made the right choice.”

Southwest Idaho’s abundance of seed and specialty crops, much of that bounty requiring pollination, was a draw, she said.

McIntyre Farms outside Caldwell uses no-till farming, and incorporates pollinator-friendly plants in cover crops and in premium pasture, farmer Brad McIntyre said. Goals include soil and animal health, and “to keep things blooming as frequently as we can” for pollinators.

Bitner said 400 to 500 species of non-honey bees have been identified in southwest Idaho. The total is about the same for southeastern Oregon, around 900 in California and 4,000 nationwide.

Pollinator planning is best done by ecological region rather than by states acting independently, Adams said.

“Regional activities always mattered, and they matter more now,” she said. “The whole chain of influence that starts here, these efforts are impacting agriculture everywhere.”

Highly contagious rare virus kills W. Washington rabbit

A pet rabbit in Western Washington died of a highly contagious disease found only once before in the U.S., according to officials.

The 2-year-old, male European dwarf rabbit on Orcas Island was killed by rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus 2, the state Department of Agriculture said Monday.

The department has not discovered how the rabbit was infected, a spokesman said. It was the only rabbit on the property, he said.

The owner told the department the rabbit went to the San Juan County Fair last year, but has not traveled since then, the spokesman said.

The first symptoms of the disease can take up to nine days after infection to show, according to animal health officials. There is no vaccine.

The agriculture department asked owners to not take rabbits off Orcas Island. The virus infects European rabbits that are popular to exhibit at fairs.

The rabbits shed the virus in feces and urine. It can be spread from rabbit to rabbit, but also picked up and carried by biting insects, birds, rodents and by contaminated clothing and equipment, according to officials.

The disease does not infect humans or other animals, officials said.

A few cases of a related strain — rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus 1 — were documented in the U.S. between 2000 and 2010. The strain was first detected among non-native European rabbits in China in 1984 and killed some 9 million rabbits there.

The new variant surfaced in Europe in 2010. Canadian authorities found the disease among European rabbits running wild on Vancouver Island in March 2008.

The previous documented case of the 2 strain in the U.S. was among four pet rabbits in Ohio in September 2018. The source of the infection was not found, according to a USDA report to the World Organization for Animal Health.

The virus is extremely contagious among domesticated and wild rabbits, according to a 2016 report by the Center for Food Security and Public Health and Iowa State University.

The disease is so widespread in Europe that it’s damaged the ecosystem by depriving endangered species of prey, according to the report. In Australia, the virus has been used to control the population of wild, non-native rabbits.

You could get reimbursed for some organic certification costs

The National Organic Certification Cost Share Program is now accepting farmer and processor applications for reimbursement of 75 percent of your certification costs (up to $750 per scope of certification), according to Oregon Tilth.

The USDA National Organic Program currently recognizes four scopes of certification: crops, wild crops, livestock and processing/handling. Reimbursements will be made on a first-come, first-serve basis until all funds have been allocated.

The Help Center provides information on requirements, eligibility, the application process, and key deadlines.

To learn more, please visit: www.tilth.org/getcostshare

Small, urban cherry orchard nears its last harvest

EAST WENATCHEE, Wash. — The 20th harvest season at one of the smallest and most urban U-pick cherry orchards in the area is done, and its owner says it may be the last.

“I’ve been saying it for 10 years, but this year or next year is probably my last,” says Rick Gifford, owner of R&J Cherries with his wife, Janet.

“I’m doing all this work and not making any money,” he said. “There’s other things I could be doing, like having fun.”

He broke even this year for the first time in several years, making about $6,000 to cover insurance, irrigation, chemicals and taxes.

“It’s frustrating when you have a light (fruit) set. Last year we had less than a ton of cherries and this year only double that,” he said. “One year I had 7 to 8 tons and couldn’t sell them. Most of them sat on the trees and dropped to the ground. Everyone had so many cherries that you couldn’t give them away.”

It’s been a labor of love.

Gifford enjoys being outside. He enjoys working in the trees. But at 59, the work isn’t as enjoyable as it once was.

The orchard is just 2 acres. It isn’t large enough to warrant hiring help so he does all the work. Packing sheds generally don’t want to buy fruit from any orchards under 5 or 10 acres, he says, so he sells U-pick.

He used to haul cherries to roadside stands as far away as Spokane, but when owners of stands reneged on the price it wasn’t worth the hassle.

Besides being small, the orchard may be the last one so close to the heart of town. It’s just a quarter mile up Third and Fourth streets Southeast from the busyness of Costco and four auto dealerships. It’s just across the street from the city limits.

When the Giffords bought it in 1999, orchards bordered it on three sides. Now they’re all gone.

“I was told it was one of the first orchards planted in East Wenatchee and originally had apricots and apples,” he said. He thinks it’s about 100 years old.

It’s mostly Rainier cherries with 12 Bing trees and 12 pie cherry trees.

“We bought it to cut the trees down and build a house and have our horses, but we found our dream home a couple miles away and ended up stuck with a cherry orchard,” Gifford said.

He didn’t mind.

Pruning, spraying, mowing and picking were all nice diversions from his job as a metallurgist at KB Alloys, now AMG Aluminum. He retired in 2012 to manage his rental properties and run the cherry orchard.

He keeps spray drift from being an issue by using a hand sprayer instead of a tractor-drawn airblast sprayer to control cherry fruit flies and aphids.

Some residents and the local fire department have complained when he burns clippings from winter pruning, but the state Department of Ecology backs him up on his agricultural right to burn, he says.

A few other small cherry orchards remain on the northern edge of town. Some of them are large enough to sell to packing sheds, and in good years the owners can make decent supplemental income to their regular jobs.

Gifford figures even for them it’s getting harder to do.

As El Nino fades, winter forecast a ‘crap shoot’

The Pacific Ocean along the equator cooled in June and is expected to be at normal temperatures in a month or two, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported Thursday.

The cooling and rapid demise of an El Nino system was unforeseen a month ago by NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. The drop in sea-surface and subsurface temperatures leaves long-range weather forecasters with no strong clue about the months ahead.

“The bottom line is that it’s pretty close to a crap shoot for this fall and winter,” Washington State Climatologist Nick Bond said. “The deck isn’t stacked one way or the other.”

A weak El Nino formed in February. A month ago, NOAA said there was a 66% chance it would stay through the summer and a 50 to 55% chance it would last through the winter.

One forecasting model used by NOAA even predicted a moderate, rather than weak, El Nino in the coming winter. El Nino winters are generally warmer than usual in the Northwest, and less snowpack accumulates for use in summer irrigation.

In a turnabout, NOAA now says the odds favor neutral conditions, beginning next month and continuing through the winter. “Neutral means things are more more up in the air,” NOAA climate scientist Michelle L’Heureux said.

Last month’s outlook, a 50-50 chance that El Nino would stick around, reflected uncertainty about the course of atmospheric conditions. In the past month, the conditions fell in line with a weakening El Nino, according to NOAA.

“It was very difficult for us to predict what was going to happen,” L’Heureux said. “This situation now is not as opaque.”

In the mid-Pacific along the equator, the stretch that most influences seasonal forecasts, the sea-surface temperature cooled in June to 0.6 degrees celsius above normal from 0.7 degrees celsius above normal. The threshold for an El Nino is 0.5 degrees celsius above normal.

Subsurface temperatures were above average at the beginning of June and returned to near average by the end of the month.

As El Nino fades, the chances of an La Nina forming rise, though it’s still a long shot. NOAA estimated the chance of a La Nina prevailing by December at 16%. Last month, the chance was only 6%.

La Nina, a cooling of the sea’s surface, generally means colder Northwest winters.

In the meantime, less precipitation continues to be seen in Washington. The U.S. Drought Monitor reported Thursday that 55% of the state is in severe or moderate drought, nearly unchanged from the week before.

Assistant State Climatologist Karin Bumbaco said more of Central Washington is drying out, but still not in a drought.

Recent rain in Western Washington stopped conditions from worsening, but did not pull the region out of drought, she said. “If you look at the long-term picture, the drought is not over.”

Gov. Jay Inslee declared a drought emergency in about half the state in May. No area has been added to the declaration since then.

NOAA will release a new three-month outlook July 18. When neutral sea temperatures prevail, forecasters often base their predictions on recent climate trends.

Take stock of your farming operation

The Oregon State University Small Farms program will offer a class July 29 that will teach farmers how to conduct a Gross Profit Analysis and plan for profit as an expense.

“While diversification can increase overall financial health, keeping or adding unprofitable enterprises robs you of time and energy while decreasing overall financial sustainability,” according to the event website.

The class will be conducted from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the auditorium at the Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, 569 Hanley Road,  in Central Point. The cost is $20 for one attendee and $30 for two from the same farm.

For more information and to register, go to the event website.