Farming organic: Tough but rewarding

JOSEPH, Ore. – The life of a farmer isn’t easy and when you add organics into the mix, it becomes even more difficult.

“Farming is tough,” said Patrick Thiel, who operates Prairie Creek Farms on about 25 acres of leased land near Joseph and and another few acres outside of Lostine. “There’s times the weather will wipe you out. There are times other things will wipe you out. There are times when it’ll turn out OK, but those are getting fewer and further in between.”

Unlike many in the Wallowa Valley, who rely chiefly on cattle, hay or small grains, Thiel has a wide variety of crops, including several varieties of potatoes, beets and carrots – all grown to organic specifications.

Not all chemicals are banned in organic farming, he said. Often, common, everyday, and non-toxic (to humans) substances can be used instead. For example, ordinary vinegar that can be used as an herbicide. For fertilizer, he uses kelp and molasses diluted in water.

“The overall goal is to avoid sterilizing the soil or introducing substances that destroy the function of the soil,” Thiel said.

It’s true, that running an organic operation allows for more pests and weeds, Thiel said. However, if a weedkiller such as Roundup is used, “It makes it more profitable in the short term,” he said. “But in 10 to 50 years, you’ll have more difficulty controlling pests and weeds” because they become resistant to the chemical.

Organic farming is “more labor intensive, but it’s more productive in the long run,” he said.

“One thing that happens when you introduce high levels of nitrogen is it reduces lot of the green foliage, but the product is more watery,” Thiel said. “Because of the high nitrates, you don’t get as good a flavor.”

While organically grown produce remains more expensive than its commercial counterparts, the gap is narrowing.

“The organic industry has been growing by an average of 20% a year for many years,” Thiel said. “The first farms were small – a scale that can’t compare to a 5,000-acre (commercial) farm. In recent years, more of the larger farms have been converting to organic.”

While his cost for production is higher, the market value of his produce is “roughly double,” he said, but that “depends on the market.” Their, and his customers, all consider that his Prairie farms produce has much better flavor that even many organic competitors.

Thiel’s market is primarily high-end restaurants in the Portland area. What he doesn’t sell in Portland will be available at local farmers markets.

He said he’s heard stories from his Portland customers of occasions when he’d run out of product and restaurants would have to look elsewhere.

“Diners would come back into the kitchen and say, ‘What happened to your potatoes? What happened to your carrots?’ ” Thiel said.

Potato harvest just got underway in a serious fashion Wednesday, Oct. 2, when the weather dropped to 24 degrees Fahrenheit and got a good start on killing the tops of the plants. The tubers still have to remain in the ground a couple of weeks to allow the skins to set, but Thiel is finding some he can harvest.

“I’ve got a dozen varieties of potatoes and some of them are good to go and some need to mature up,” he said. “That’s all part of the reason for having a variety. It hedges your bets against all your weather patterns, your timing, your disease and pest issues and your climate getting too wet or too dry.”

The mainstays of his crop are German butterballs – much like russets – and huckleberry golds that have a purple skin but are yellow inside. Other varieties include large yellow Kennebecs, Yukon nuggets, purple majesties and Valery long yellows that have a red skin.

The potatoes grow near Joseph. Just west of Lostine he has a field protected by a deer fence where he grows about a tenth of an acre of quinoa, just under 5 acres of carrots and about 2.5 acres of various colored beets, all organic.

In Oregon, organic crops are certified by Oregon Tilth, a Corvallis-based nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting and advocating organic food and farming, that certifies organic farms.

Thiel has a personal connection with the group. Back when his father, Eugene Thiel, first grew organic in the early 1970s, organic certification was just beginning. The elder Thiel worked with state officials to establish organic standards.

Eugene Thiel continued to pursue organic farming until his death in 2013.

The Thiels grew seed potatoes in the Wallowa Valley for more than 30 years here and found it was not that hard to transition to organics.

After following in his father’s footsteps, he doesn’t yet know if his farm will continue on to another generation. Of his four daughters, ranging in age from 14 to 24, “That remains to be seen over the next few years. My youngest daughter, perhaps.”

“Farming is a great privilege; I was trained in that,” Thiel said. “It’s a miracle every year we put a crop in.”

Class will explore small-scale farming

Oregon State University Extension will offer a three-session class called “Exploring the Small Farm Dream.”
The class starts at 6 p.m. Nov. 4 and continues at the same time on Nov. 11 and 18.
Taught by OSU Extension faculty members Sara Runkel and Maud Powell, the class will help attendees get their feet on the ground as small-scale farmers. The instructors will answer their questions about farming in addition to helping them find resources in the area and network with other farmers.
The cost is $60 for one person or $75 for a couple.
Register online at jocosmallfarms
For more information: email sharon.evans@ or call 541-476-6613

Treasure Our Valley farmland protection event set

Treasure Our Valley, a festival that celebrates and encourages the protection of farm and ranchland, will be from 4 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 5, at Indian Creek Plaza, 120 S. Kimball Ave., Caldwell, Idaho.

Participants will be able to “come and celebrate, have a good time, sample food and wine from local producers, and maybe learn a little about the importance of farmland in the Treasure Valley,” said Crookham Co. CEO George Crookham. It’s an opportunity to connect with food producers “and hear about their stories and the things they do, in a fun environment.”

Local wines, beers and hard ciders will be featured. Food vendors are slated to showcase food produced locally. Numerous agricultural organizations are scheduled to participate.

Scheduled events for children include making ice cream and butter, using a cider press and bicycle wheat grinder and setting an irrigation siphon tube.

A Farm Bureau-sponsored scavenger hunt is planned.

Information: Kris Crookham, 208-890-3543 or

From hobby to commercial vineyard

ALPINE, Ore. — As wine hobbyists, Sue and Neil Shay were not originally planning to create a commercial vineyard when they bought their 6-acre property in 2010.

“We bought it for the view,” Sue said. “We were already wine hobbyists before we moved here, we have been making wine together since the early 2000s. We thought it would be a hobby vineyard and we’d grow wine from that, and sometime over the summer we knocked our heads together and decided to become a commercial winery.”

The Shays had started by planting a quarter of an acre in 2013, clearing out the overgrown Christmas tree farm.

From there, they ordered 2,500 vines for the following spring, and continued to purchase more vines. Bluebird Hill Cellars was born, named after the population of bluebirds that inhabit the property.

The Shays grow 80% Pinot noir grapes, 15% Chardonnay grapes and 5% Pinot gris grapes. As of last year, their wine was produced half-and-half from their grapes and the grapes from other vineyards.

At 1,000 cases of production, they have 10 wines: a red and white blend, three whites, one rosé, four Pinot noirs and one Syrah.

One of the biggest challenges for the Shays was scaling up production. The first year they opened with 214 cases of seven different wines.

“That for us seemed like we were making a lot because before that we only made one barrel (around 25 cases),” Neil said.

To avoid any big mistakes, the Shays hired an Oregon State University student consultant, and Sue said in retrospect it was a “great idea” that made the learning curve much easier.

“One of the things we love about wine, you can spend your whole life learning about it and still not know it all,” Sue said. “It’s constantly challenging and you’re constantly learning.”

Along with the winery, they also rent two rooms out as a bed and breakfast. Having a bed and breakfast was always a dream for Sue, but she said that life had gotten in the way. As things were picking up with the vineyard in 2015, Sue opened the bed and breakfast at the house.

“It’s worked out really well,” she said, “A lot of people like to stay on the vineyard.”

She added that bed and breakfasts at a vineyard are starting to be more common, and since they opened a few other smaller wineries have started doing it, too.

“Sue is a great hostess,” Neil said about his wife. “She has a 9.9 out of 10 rating on”

For Sue, the biggest reward has been the sense of accomplishment “of what we put together, just the two of us. Being able to say we built this, we planted this vineyard.”

While that is part of it for Neil, another big part has been the feedback they have received about their wines.

“We’re pouring 10 wines and for someone to go through the tasting and say all these wines are really good,” he said. One couple had told him that they had the best selection of wines in the Southern Willamette Valley. “That was a nice compliment.”

The vineyard was designed for the Shays as they move into retirement, and they look forward to hitting their peak at producing 1,200 to 1,500 cases.

“We don’t plan on getting much bigger than this,” Sue said. “(We want to) keep on keeping on. Keep on making better wine.”

ODA taking applications for Organic Certification Cost Share Program

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) allocated more than $17.4 million for the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (OCCSP) nationwide. Oregon was awarded $284,000 up from $258,000 in 2017. The Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) is a USDA-accredited certifying agent for organic crop production and handling/processing. The purpose of the OCCSP is to reimburse organic operations for specific organic certification costs. Oregon is fourth in the nation in the sales of certified organic commodities.

“The cost of organic certification should not be a barrier for Oregon producers wanting to compete in the organic marketplace,” said ODA, Director Alexis Taylor. “Oregon is very competitive in the organic industry, with more than $351 million in annual sales and nearly 194,000 acres in production statewide and climbing. Our goal is to make these funds widely available in order to increase the opportunities for producers to contribute to the Oregon’s agricultural economy.”

The USDA is authorized by Congress to provide organic certification cost share assistance to Oregon producers or handlers who have paid eligible costs during the period of October 1, 2018 to September 30, 2019.  Oregon producers or handlers that receive certification or renew their certification from a USDA accredited certifier are eligible to receive reimbursement for 75 percent of eligible certification fees, up to a maximum of $750 per annual certification scope.

Complete applications and all necessary documents with proof of payment between October 1, 2018 – September 30, 2019 must be submitted by October 31, 2019. Reimbursements will be made on a first come first serve basis until all available funds have been disbursed. Please allow 3-4 weeks to receive reimbursement.

ODA is now accepting OCCSP applications. For more information please visit the ODA webpage or contact the OCCSP at or 503-986-6473

Stayin’ alive: Agriculture safety tips from the experts

Many farmers consider their work rewarding, but agriculture ranks among the most dangerous professions in the U.S., according to the USDA.

Safety experts share a few tips on how farmers can stay safe in 2019:

Deadliest roads

“Country roads, take me home.” But drivers, be careful. The roads least traveled are the nation’s deadliest, according to federal highway data.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s most recent report reveals drivers on rural roads die at a rate 2.1 times higher per mile traveled than in urban areas.

According to NHTSA, rural highways, which receive less federal money, are more likely to have outdated designs and potholes. Wild animals dart into traffic more often. Rural drivers tend to drive faster. And in a crash, they’re more likely to die before getting medical help since hospitals are farther away.

According to National Occupant Protection Use Surveys, people in rural areas also drive at higher rates without seat belts. Sixty percent of those who die in pickup trucks aren’t using a seat belt, according to NHTSA.

Safety officials encourage rural drivers to wear seat belts, watch out for wildlife, be careful on old highways and recognize that the “it won’t be me” mentality won’t work when it is you.

Crushing truth

According to researchers at Purdue University, more than 900 cases of grain engulfment have been reported in the U.S. in the past 50 years — with a 62% fatality rate.

Entrapment happens when a person gets sucked into grain and can’t get out without help. This typically happens in silos or grain elevators but can also happen in freestanding piles.

Jose Perez, corporate senior manager for health and safety at the Wonderful Co. and member of the American Society of Safety Professionals, said communication is crucial.

“Tell someone when you’re going into the grain area,” he said.

Perez said you should also have a lifeline. “Always have a harness and lanyard when you go into a silo,” said Perez. “If you get engulfed like quick sand, having a line attached will save your life. This isn’t new. It’s just not utilized anywhere near enough.”

Overheated workers

One of the most serious dangers for nursery workers is heat illness, said Perez.

“Pay attention to the temperature inside greenhouses and how that impacts people,” said Perez. “Create a good heat illness prevention program. Hydrate, hydrate.”

Safety culture

Perez said agricultural safety is about mindset.

He said it’s important to consider the culture and background of agricultural workers. He immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico, where he said he did not feel comfortable talking with managers. If an agricultural laborer comes from a hierarchical background, Perez explained, they may believe they should not bother the “boss” and should use whatever tool they’ve got.

“But ‘get-the-job-done’ culture can work against you if you’ve learned to think you shouldn’t ask for help,” said Perez. “Farm managers need to recognize workers’ backgrounds and tell them, ‘It’s OK to ask for help. Please tell me when something is hard or dangerous.’ And workers need to talk with each other, too.”

Keep learning

The North American Agricultural Safety Summit, hosted by the Agricultural Safety and Health Council of America, will take place March 19-20 at Bally’s Las Vegas Hotel and Casino in Nevada.

Small nursery a big job for couple

Thirty years ago, Spencer and Connie Davis opened Dirty Thumb Nursery on State Highway 6 outside Chehalis, Wash.

“We had been in Orting with two partners,” Connie explains, “but it didn’t produce enough income for two families. Since I was from Lewis County, we found property here and started the nursery.”

When the Davises purchased the property, it was just buildings and fields.

“We had two greenhouses,” Spencer says. “Only one was heated, and that was by a wood stove.”

“Spencer was so confident and determined,” Connie recalls. “I was the scaredy cat. He wasn’t afraid of anything. I knew nothing about plants.”

“It was always the two of us and family,” Connie says. “We raised our daughter here. Every member of our family has been involved, and now we’re into the second and third generation of some of our client families.”

Everything hasn’t always come up roses.

“In the windstorm of 1992-93, we lost a couple greenhouses,” Connie recalls. “Then in the flood of 2007, we lost five greenhouses.”

They just got back on our feet a couple of years ago, she says.

Could they build what they have if they were starting now?

“No way,” Connie asserts. “This was farmland. There are way too many permits required now.”

They consider themselves to be a “mom-and-pop” operation but produce much more than the typical small nursery.

“We have tree lots, a florist shop, gift shop, perennials, shrubs, vegetables, hanging baskets, 500 roses and annuals. That’s not typical,” she says.

Spencer adds, “People can go into every aspect of the business and see it.”

They do all of their transplants and grow all their own product, Connie explains. “We do purchase the trees and shrubs, but all our plants are hand-watered or sprinkled. We’re strictly low-tech.”

They’re open year ’round, and seven days a week April through July or August.

The Davises are full-time, and they hire two part-time seasonal workers.

“I love working with my husband,” Connie says. “He just never stops.”

“We’re thinking of retirement sometime in the next four years,” says Spencer, who will be 70 next year.

He laughs and adds that he’s “looking forward to the golden years.”

He smiles, and says, “An eight-hour day, maybe five days a week, sounds pretty good.”

New sheep dairy opens in SW Oregon

LANGLOIS, Ore. — Armed with years of sheep-raising experience, agriculture degrees from Oregon State University and a lot of support from fellow sheep growers, entrepreneurs Woody Babcock and Cora Wahl have opened a sheep dairy in Langlois, Ore.

The couple started Woodrow Farms LLC in 2018 with 73 East Friesian ewes and started milking them in 2019. Hoping to increase their flock to 220 by next year, they are now milking 100 ewes and selling all of the milk to Face Rock Creamery in nearby Bandon.

Woody, 29, and Cora, 27, have degrees in ag science and ag business. They met as students at OSU.

Woody, who was selected in 2014 as one of two young shepherds to represent the U.S. at the second World Ovinpiades challenge in the Auvergne region of France, gained his experience from working and shearing for other sheep growers.

Cora, who was born and raised in Langlois, grew up working on her family’s sheep ranch.

“It’s been a chaotic year and if we both hadn’t known a lot about sheep, we wouldn’t have made it,” Woody said. “The first five months we milked twice a day. With three hours per milking (considering clean up and everything) and feeding and working with all of the bummer lambs, it added up to very long days.”

In addition, he sheared on the side to help make ends meet, so at times Cora was left to do it all by herself.

“We recently cut to milking once a day so at least until it’s time to start up again we can take time to go to dinner,” he said.

“Still, he said, “the whole project came together through a community effort, and if it weren’t for the help of friends and family there wouldn’t be a dairy.”

Cora and Woody, who for the last four years were in charge of 1,000 bummer lambs on the Wahl family ranch, were unknowingly preparing themselves for the sheep dairy business.

“Raising bummer lambs is an important part of a sheep dairy and it is very intensive work,” Cora said. “We worked closely Woody Lane, a livestock nutritionist and forage specialist who developed an early weaning system that pulls the lambs off milk replacer in 21 days and puts them on grain.”

They keep replacement ewe lambs so they can get their numbers up and sell the rest, she said.

“We definitely have had a leg up in the game by knowing how to raise bummer lambs at a profit,” she said.

With advice from the USDA inspectors who contributed to the information on parlor construction and help from fellow sheep growers, the couple renovated an old dairy parlor and barn on property they rent from Brownsville friend and adviser Reed Anderson.

They were able to buy the milking parlor equipment from Mac Stewart of Salem.

Brad Sinko, co-owner and cheesemaker at Face Rock Creamery, is optimistic about what Woody and Cora are doing.

“Sheep milk is more nutritious and also more expensive but that didn’t scare people off when during the years I was making cheese for Beecher’s Hand Made Cheese in Seattle,” Sinko said. “It’s pretty neat having a local source of sheep milk only 10 miles away. We are starting with a half-and-half cow and sheep block cheddar and a natural rinded cloth-bound wheel, which will make a milder cheese.”

The new product should be on the shelf ready to buy in about six months, he said.

A dry farming trial produces some success

In mid-May, as soon as the sun came out and the soil warmed, Teresa Retzlaff dug into the earth at 46 North Farm. She filled holes with seeds and starts of zucchini, dry beans, summer squash and more. She covered the holes with soil and made sure the beds were free of weeds.

And then, she walked away.

About 10 miles down the road, the same thing happened at LaNa Conscious Farm. On a 2,000-square-foot plot of land, Larry and Nancy Nelson’s field was filled with the same plant varieties and, aside from light weeding, was left untouched.

Now, in late August, the starts have grown to produce-bearing plants. The zucchinis’ wide leaves shade dozens of vegetables, the full-sized tomatoes are ripening from green to red. One of Retzlaff’s winter squash is more than 2 feet long.

All of this happened without any irrigation.

“I didn’t really think it was going to work,” Retzlaff said. “I kind of thought they’d all be dead in a few weeks and they weren’t … It was phenomenal.”

The process is called dry farming. Farmers who practice it do not irrigate their plants throughout the dry summer season. Aside from occasional rainfall, plants rely only on moisture from below the surface to sustain growth.

It’s a historic agricultural practice, but until recently it has remained widely unheard of on the Oregon Coast.

In 2015, Amy Garrett, an assistant professor at Oregon State University, kick-started a dry farm trial that now stretches across the state. As of 2019, three farms on the coast participate in the trial, two of them just a short drive from downtown Astoria.

“It seems like the coast is a really good place for dry farming, mostly because of the climate,” said Matthew Davis, the project coordinator at Oregon State for dry farm site suitability. “It’s a lot cooler on the coast … It’s just a more forgiving place.”

Davis began working with the project in May under professor Alex Stone and alongside Garrett. Their research is ongoing.

Davis visited both North Coast farms in May, where he installed plants and soil moisture monitors. The monitors are inserted and left in the ground, where the small white rods and green cords help scientists and farmers know how much moisture is being held in the soil below.

“Dry farming doesn’t mean that no water is used by the plant,” Davis said. “Water is stored in the soil, it’s held there.”

The farm’s soil type controls how much water is held. On the coast, moist soil and a high water table, coupled with the cool, damp climate is the reason both farms have seen success.

“The plants are less stressed, I think, in the coastal environment,” Garrett said. “Teresa was kind of our pioneer there.”

Quality, not quantity

Retzlaff got involved with the project in 2016, and has dry farmed a portion of her plants ever since. This year, she is dry farming eight rows of produce for the trial’s research and 10 additional rows on her own.

Dry farming is not a yield-maximization strategy. In order for dry farming to work, plants are plotted more sparsely to decrease competition and help ensure each plant’s roots has access to enough water.

“You can’t plant as densely as you would if you are irrigating,” Retzlaff said. “Because all the moisture they have is just what’s in the soil.”

But for Retzlaff, her main goal isn’t the quantity of produce, it’s the quality.

Dry-farmed produce typically has a stronger flavor and a firmer texture. Retzlaff strongly prefers the taste of her dry-farmed crops.

Oregon State’s small farms collaborative conducted blind taste tests, where consumers and farmers preferred the dry-farmed produce over the same variety that was irrigated.

“They have a very intense flavor because they’re not watery,” Retzlaff said. “Because you’re not watering them.”

Last year, 46 North Farm sold their dry-farmed produce to local restaurants. The Astoria Golf and Country Club’s kitchen bought more than 80 pounds of dry-farmed zucchini and squash.

“They had a really nice, concentrated flavor,” said chef Gehrett Billinger, who used the produce on specialty dishes, to create kimchi and to flavor beverages and meat marinades. “It’s a really really delightful flavor.”

“And,” he said, “I like that it uses less resources.”

Resource conservation is one of the aspects that initially sparked the dry-farmed trial, and it’s a theme that keeps farmers and researchers coming back year after year. As the climate changes, summer water availability has become a pressing issue.

“It’s of more interest now because of drought and decreased summer water availability,” Garrett said. “A lot of people are looking at alternatives to irrigated crop production in our dry season.”

The farmers that participate in the trial meet annually to discuss how specific crops weathered the dry season and exchange ideas to improve the next year’s yield.

“I think that this collaborative approach of adapting to a changing climate is super important given the predictions for summer water availability into the future,” she said. “We’re going to see a lot less of it.”

Coastal farmers, whose summer season is cooler and wetter than farmers in the Willamette Valley, are still paying attention to summer water access.

“Water is one of those resources, I feel like especially out here on the coast, we really take for granted because it feels like it’s so abundant,” Retzlaff said. “Just because you have a lot of it doesn’t mean you have to use all of it.

“If you’re a farmer and you’re irrigating with that water or you’re pulling that water out of a creek or a stream in August, that’s water that’s not being left in a waterway to help fish habitat and wildlife habitat. I think the more we can share with wildlife habitat, the better.”

Inherent risk

Retzlaff recognizes that not all farmers can practice dry farming. There is inherent risk with the technique. It requires fertile, moist soil and more land to produce the same yield. For some crops, dry farming is not a profitable practice.

“Part of the learning curve is finding out which crops you can break even on,” she said. “The zucchini has more than paid for itself already,” as have some of the squash varieties.

Other products, such as the dry beans, won’t make it to the public market, but will feed the 46 North Farm team throughout the upcoming season. Retzlaff will likely harvest just one or two melons per plant this year.

But even without the high yield, she saved time and money by not paying for water or labor to irrigate the plants for months.

“I feel like that’s profitable,” Retzlaff said. “There’s also the knowledge. To me, that’s a huge return on investment.”

There is also an economic incentive. On the Nelson’s farm, their winter water bill is typically around $35 a month. In the summer, that bill can be up to $250.

“I am fascinated in growing things without water because water is a big expense,” Nelson said. “The dry farming for me is just another aspect of the farming itself. It’s another tool in the tool shed that we can utilize to grow some things less expensive.”

Both farms still irrigate the majority of their crops, but they are hopeful to continue transitioning and evolving their dry farming for many seasons to come.

“The more that I can do dry-farmed, the more that I will do,” Retzlaff said. “It’s less of a resource that we’re pulling on, and I honestly feel like the plants are better for it.”

Dairy owner to share lessons learned in starting creamery

OLYMPIA — Rachael Taylor-Tuller and Matthew Tuller of Lost Peacock Creamery will share lessons they learned in starting their goat dairy during a crop walk Sept. 9.

“Join farmers Rachael Taylor-Tuller and Matthew Tuller of Lost Peacock Creamery as they share their story of how they came to be farmers, why they landed on a goat dairy, and how they are working to create a sustainable business model while sharing some of the harsh and humorous lessons they’ve learned along the way,” according to the event website. “As a veteran farmer, Rachael will talk about farming as a method of healing and guest experts will be on hand to share resources and opportunities that exist for veteran farmers.”

Participants will tour the farm and watch the afternoon milking.

The farm is located at Lost Peacock Creamery 5504 Cross Creek Lane NE, Olympia, Wash. The event begins at noon.

The cost of the event is $15 for students and Tilth Alliance members, and $25 for all others. Go to the event website to register.