From Seed to Pantry
On any given summer’s day, farmers around the world tend to their crops. Their sunburned bodies take a beating while they plant seeds, ensure proper watering, and harvest vegetables to be sold to restaurants, grocery stores, and patrons of local farmers markets. Closer to home, local organic farmers battle a short and unpredictable growing season to bring fresh foods to sustainability-minded people. Three local farms, each with a different history—Fields Farm, Rainshadow Organics and Mahonia Gardens—are on the front lines in the battle for a healthy America.
“The importance of local farming lies in the awareness of your food source and what it takes to grow your food,” says Benji Nagel of Mahonia Gardens in Sisters. “What we do has an effect on our planet.”
There are many reasons to support your local farmer, including food security. If something happened out of our area to our food supply chain—such as an increased cost of gas or a climate disaster—locally-farmed food would remain unaffected. Second, shopping at farmers markets or using direct-from-farm programs such as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), helps to employ a neighbor. Finally, by taking transportation out of the food equation, you get freshly-picked foods, ensuring all the nutrients are still intact.
“Buying from a local farm supports a small business and creates a smaller carbon footprint,” explains Sarahlee Lawrence of Rainshadow Organics. “It’s really socially, environmentally, and financially responsible.”
When Jim and Debbie Fields purchased their ten acres in Southeast Bend 27 years ago, they were considered outcasts. Recognizing the farm lifestyle paralleled their family values, the Fields set out to create an organic farm with as close to zero carbon imprint as possible. Jim used what he learned in the Oregon State University Master Gardener Program—and his hands-on experience pulling weeds Saturday mornings as a child in his grandma’s organic garden—to shape the local farm through local input. They immediately started a CSA program and then began selling at farmers markets. Jim pursued his passion for composting by collecting food waste from area businesses—including spent grain and hops from Deschutes Brewery—to be used for soil amending.
Today, Jim, plus two other full-time farmers and many volunteers, continue to sell their bounty through a CSA program, at the Bend Farmers Market, and to local restaurants. Jim continues to spread the gospel of organic farming by teaching compost classes through the Rogue Farm Corps and the OSU Master Gardener Program, the latter of which honored the Fields with a Service Cooperator Award in 2010. As if they haven’t given back enough to the community, Jim hopes to put their property into a land trust to ensure it continues to be used as a farm after he retires.
In 1984, Sarahlee Lawrence’s family bought 80 acres of farmland in Terrebonne and named it Lawrence Farms. As most farmers dream, their prodigal daughter returned to the farm in 2010, took over operations alongside her now husband, turned the farm into a full-diet organic farm, and renamed it Rainshadow Organics. Sarahlee’s path to the family business began with life on the farm, but included some twists and turns along the way, including a Masters Degree in Environmental Science from Montana University and becoming a published author. Today, she heads a group of three family members, one employee, and a handful of interns as they bring their harvested fruits and vegetables to their CSA customers, as well as the Bend and Sisters Farmers Markets. Coming this September, Rainshadow Organics will open a full commercial kitchen and farm stand on their Lower Bridge Way property.
Like most farms, Rainshadow Organics believes it’s important to give back to the community that supports the farm. During the school year, you can expect to find groups of school children roaming the grounds and learning about organic farming. Each October, Rainshadow Organics hosts their annual Potato Day, offering free dig-your-own potatoes to interested parties. But perhaps their most fun and informative event is their Long Table Dinner. Forty-eight lucky diners head to the farm to have dinner in the garden. A local musician plays while a meal is served consisting of all food from the farm, with the exception of olive oil or salt. The dinners not only showcase the food grown on the grounds, but highlight the farm lifestyle.
When Benji Nagel and Carys Wilkins told their Sisters-area neighbors they were planning on starting a farm to grow vegetables and herbs at local markets and restaurants, the reaction was mixed. Even the most supportive friends were skeptical, with memories of late-summer frosts wiping out gardens just before harvest. But, Nagel and Wilkins, armed with a newfound love of organic gardening and permaculture, remained undeterred, and opened Mahonia Gardens in 2013. They began by asking the community—though an online crowd-source funding website called Kickstarter—for monetary support in exchange for vegetables, a t-shirt, or a prepared feast. By the end, 161 backers raised over $9,000, while a local family, the Tehans, graciously offered an acre of their Northwest Sisters property for planting.
Mahonia Gardens— using both starts and seed to ground planting methods—offers 50 different food crops and 100 other flowers and herbs to Sisters and Northwest Crossing Farmers Markets, local grocery stores and Agriculture Connection. Nagel, also a local professional musician, points to knowing what plants will grow as one of the biggest challenges. The recently married Nagel and Wilkins work with the Farm Corps Community, High Desert Food and Farm Alliance, the Seed to Table project, as well as a group from Nagel’s alma mater, Sisters High School, each spring.
Each of these local farms—along with others such as Juniper Jungle, Good Earth Farms and Windflower Farm—face many challenges in running a farm. Because of the difficult climate—think frost in July—and soil, having diversity in crops is extremely tough. In addition, farmers must not only know how to work the fields, they must also be small business wise, as a small percentage of people actually look to local farms for their food. But, for many local famers, the hardest part lies in the number of hours in the day.
“There is truly not enough time in the day,” explains Lawrence. “I wish I could grow time, and not just thyme.”
While the challenges are many, the farmers take solace in the fact they are doing what they love as part of a close-knit community of local farmers. The area farms work together to ensure successful growing seasons. The sense of competition is replaced with a spirit of camaraderie.
As concern over maintaining healthy eating habits grows, so does the number of small local farms. Next time you sit down for a meal of fresh salad greens or vegetables, don’t forget to thank a farmer.