Category Archives: Farming In Focus

These are day-in-the-life-of-a-farmer through photo essay posts. They aim to shine a light on what real life farming is like. According to the Center for Food Integrity, most consumers are seven generations removed from agriculture. This project hopes to help, in some small way, bridge that gap.

December Farming in Focus: Christmas Trees

This month’s Farming in Focus is an obvious one, and I’m publishing this story today with the hopes that you’ll read it while you’re winding down from your Christmas morning extravaganza. Kids are playing with new toys and you’re sitting there drinking your coffee next to your Christmas tree. I thought I’d take this prime opportunity to talk about where those Christmas trees come from and the work that goes into getting them from the farm to your festive family room.

Oregon grows more Christmas trees than any other state in the United States: in 2013 Oregon harvested 6.4 million Christmas trees, almost double the second runner up, North Carolina. In fact, in 2013 greenhouse and nursery crops, which includes Christmas trees, was Oregon’s most valuable commodity. This should really come as no surprise to those of us who live in Oregon, where the Douglas fir is a native species and is almost ubiquitous. So it was an easy decision to talk with Christmas tree grower Joel Rohde in Amity, Oregon about how he grows Christmas trees.

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Rohde, a second generation farmer, does more than just grow Christmas trees. He also owns a small grocery store/coffee house and has a straw export business. In fact, Rohde was quick to tell me that he’s getting out of the Christmas tree business because it’s just not lucrative enough and the export hay business makes more money. He keeps the grocery store simply because he likes being part of the community. “Half the high school is in  here in the afternoons. You can’t be in it to make money, but it’s a good community thing.” Rohde primarily bought the store (in partnership with another owner) so the local kids working there could keep their jobs. His wife mostly runs it now.
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Rohde got into the Christmas tree business in 2001 when it was booming and trees were selling for $3.50 to $4.00 per foot wholesale. He started planting trees, but so did everyone else. By about 2007 there was too much supply and the market tanked. Prices dropped to $1.00 per foot. It’s rebounding a bit now, back to about $2.50 per foot, but he’s down to his last 20 acres of Noble firs now (which is still a lot of trees – he told me he grows 1,752 trees on an acre.) He used to grow Noble fir, Grand fir and Douglas fir on about 100 acres. When he decided to scale back, the Douglas and Grands went first because they grow faster (it takes about seven years for a Douglas fir to grow six feet versus nine years for a Noble.) He’s just waiting for the last of the Nobles to reach the right height and he’ll be done in about two more harvests.

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Rohde told me growing Christmas trees is very heavy on labor and he doesn’t love the physical work. He starts planting seedlings from nurseries in April and after three years he starts basal pruning (cutting limbs from the bottom up so they can eventually get the chain saw in to cut it down.) Shearing alone costs about $.30 per tree. He also has to manage for weeds between the rows so the weeds don’t compete for resources and get in the way of shearing. In the summer he sprays for insects and fungus. He fights aphids that turn the inner part of the tree black and cause the needles to fall off, and fights needle necrosis which could be caused by a fungus and causes needles to turn brown. Sometimes he can sell trees with needle necrosis as flocked (sprayed white) Christmas trees. After the fourth year he starts to shear the trees into the classic Christmas tree inverted “V” shape. Ninety percent of trees sold are between six and seven feet, so for a Noble fir that’s about nine years worth of management before harvest.

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Rohde also told me he does a lot of tip pruning and leader work. Sometimes the leader (that characteristic tip you put your star on) will die off and he’ll have to train a new leader with a stick like he’s doing in the image above.

xmas trees-12In July and August the trees get tagged by color based on height. Then in November they start harvesting. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays Rohdes has 12 to 15 high school guys working eight hours a day. I had a heck of a time even catching up to this guy and his chainsaw. He and another guy moved so fast through the rows that I had to run to keep up. They had those trees down in a blink of an eye. It was awe inspiring.

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Following the two guys with chainsaws was a group picking up the trees and hauling them to the edge of the field. Rohdes told me his favorite part about growing Christmas trees is working with the high school and college kids. He spends a lot of time coaching and counseling the kids. “This job defines a kid, physically,”  he told me. “After two to three weeks you’ll have the desire to go back to school and get good grades.”
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The rest of the process would seem familiar to anyone who’s been to a U-cut Christmas tree farm, only on steroids. Another crew picks up the trees from the edge of the field and first puts them on a machine that shakes them to remove loose needles …

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… then the trees are run through a netting device …

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… and piled up by size.

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Then the crew hauls the shaking/baling machine up the hill to the next pile of cut trees. One difficulty in the whole process, as you can see in these pictures, is trying to keep the trees out of the mud (who wants to buy a Christmas tree caked in mud?) Anyone who’s ever lived in Oregon in November and December can understand what a difficult task that can be, especially when you’re driving a heavy baling machine and trucks up a down a hilly terrain (where Christmas trees grow best) in the rain.

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Afterwards the trees are piled on to a truck and taken down the  hill.

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Eventually the trees are taken to McKenzie Farms, a Christmas tree yard that ships the trees world-wide. Upwards of 90 percent of Christmas trees grown in the Pacific Northwest are shipped outside the region, with California being the largest market. Rohdes told me his trees have also been shipped to Hawaii and Mexico.

And, obviously, the final destination is your family room where many of us are sitting today, enjoying our festive tree with our families on Christmas day. Remember today, as we sit by the fire and enjoy the fresh Christmas tree smell and all the memories that come with this day, that there’s a farmer out there who put up to nine years of hard work into your tree. He’s thanking you for enjoying his hard work and we’re thanking him for making our Christmas that much more enjoyable.

Merry Christmas.

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November Farming in Focus: Squash

For this month’s Farming in Focus, I wanted to do something Thanksgiving-y. The obvious choice was to try to hunt down a turkey grower and find out what I could learn about how that tasty bird gets from the farm to our Thanksgiving table. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a turkey grower and none of the Oregon farmers I reached out to knows a turkey grower. Turns out, there aren’t very many turkeys grown in Oregon anymore. So, I went with another Thanksgiving staple: squash. I drove down to Aurora, Oregon on a very cold and rainy November day to chat about decorative pumpkins and edible squash.
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Dylan Wells and his family own Autumn Harvest Inc., the largest mini pumpkin and gourd grower in Oregon. Dylan’s father originally got into agriculture at the age of 20 when he started growing tree seedlings for Christmas tree production and reforestation efforts. Eventually he switched to nursery production and grew grafted ornamentals until 2009 when the housing industry crashed and took the landscape market with it. Thankfully, in the meantime Dylan and his brother Darren had created a mini-pumpkin business initially as a way to earn enough money to go to Disneyland and later to Hawaii to see their dad inducted into the Oregon Association of Nurseries. When their roadside mini-pumpkin business inherited the Safeway decorative pumpkin contract from a neighbor, they went from growing three acres to fifteen acres and eventually when the nursery business crashed in 2009, the boys’ pumpkin business was big enough to support the family.

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Today Wells runs the business with his wife, mother, and father. On about 200 acres, he grows 18 to 20 varieties of pumpkins, 25 varieties of winter squash, seven to eight varieties of gourds, and a few acres of dill weed, pickling cucumbers, and Indian corn. About seven years ago he got into edible squash which currently makes up about twenty-five percent of his business. His most popular product is the mini white pumpkin (primarily for weddings and decorations) and his top sellers in winter squash are butternut and acorn (also called danish squash.) When I asked Wells what his favorite squash is he confessed, “I don’t really care for squash.” I seriously laughed so hard I almost fell out of my chair.

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While we were chatting about how Wells gets his product to market, a distributor pulled up to collect just one lonely box of red kuri squash for a local restaurant. Unlike some crops like peas, squash and pumpkin growers don’t get contracts ahead of time from the cannery. So instead of agreeing on a price ahead of time and growing a specified number of acres, Wells says he operates on the “plant and pray” approach. Starting in about January he starts placing seed orders for what he’ll plant in May. He has to guess what consumers and distributors will want based on what they bought last year. Wells sells directly to consumers in their online store (which they are actively trying to grow as it makes them the most money), and also sells wholesale and to distributors. Wells supplies pumpkins and squash to Fred Meyer, Safeway and WinCo, so next time you pick up a squash at one of those stores, it might have come from Autumn Harvest!

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When I visited all the fruit had already been harvested out of the field so I didn’t get any field shots, but I did get to see the crew cleaning and packing butternut squash. Pumpkins and squash are harvested by hand with clippers starting August 15th and are brought into be washed. Here they first go through a floating, sanitizing soak to get most of the debris off.

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Next they are scrubbed and rinsed by hand and run down a line of these spinning brushes.  Wells told me at the height of packing he employs about 50 people, and on average they’re making about $13 per hour. His foreman makes closer to $20 per hour and he has some employees that have been working for him for years who make more than the first-timers. Forty percent of Wells’ cost is in labor, and if the minimum wage increases as it’s looking like it will, Wells told me he’ll be put out of business because he just can’t afford it. The minimum wage discussion  has him already looking into investing more in real estate and considering getting out of farming all together.

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Then the squash roll down the line under big fans. Moisture and heat lead to rotting squash, so getting them dry is very important. If these were decorative pumpkins, it’d be at this point that they might be sprayed with food-grade wax to make them look shiny (similar to what is done for apples.)

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Next the squash are sorted by size. In the case of butternut, squash that is very small or very large often end up being sold as pre-peeled and sliced. In fact, Wells told me he grows some varieties specifically for the pre-cut market (like the massive butternut he’s holding in the first image.)

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When the squash are being sorted in the last step, some go into the dump bin. Wells told me about 25 percent of his product gets kicked out as “coals.” Sometimes they get tossed aside because of size, sometimes because of scarring, rotting or broken pieces. The stores won’t take scarred squash because customers won’t buy them. Wells told me spaghetti squash are particularly susceptible to scarring as their skins are very thin and when the wind blows the vines scrape across the surface of the squash and damage it. While weeds are Wells’ biggest pest, the cucumber beetle and brown marmorated stink bug are also very serious pests. The bugs take bites out of the squash and lead to scarring and rot. Wells has an arrangement with some pig and cattle ranchers who come collect the “coals”  – he essentially gives away 25 percent of his crop as livestock feed. Often he gets a free pig out of the deal, though. He can’t compost the unwanted squash because the seeds stick around and volunteer squash pop up in the wrong places. I’ve experienced this in my own backyard garden; this year I had a rogue spaghetti squash volunteer in my tomato garden out of my compost. Considering that it vines and produces fruit heavy enough to pull down my tomato cage and leaves the size of dinner plants, I can understand why Wells doesn’t want unwanted squash in the wrong field.

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Wells told me when the squash are harvested they’re selecting for color and hardness. As I mentioned, planting starts in May and harvest begins August 1st and goes through November 1st, but there’s a lot that goes into making sure that red kuri squash looks just right. Squash are thirsty plants and require irrigation throughout the summer – they will abort squash production to conserve resources if it’s too hot or they don’t get enough water which happened a lot this summer when it was really hot and dry. They also produce male and female flowers, meaning they need a pollinator to create fruit. Wells rents about 150 to 200 hives for the bloom. Weeds are a problem too; Wells said if you don’t manage it right the pig weed will get four feet tall. Much of the weed management has to happen before the vines get too big because after the plants are established the only real option is hand hoeing.

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I was blown away by the sheer number of bins of squash. They were everywhere: sitting inside the warehouse, sitting outside in the rain, under non-climate-controlled structures. Wells told me they plan to have it all sold by the beginning of December because once it starts to freeze the squash deteriorate and they have very little climate-controlled storage. After that they clean up, the extra squash goes to livestock feed, they maintain and repair vehicles and equipment and start ordering seeds to get there by April 15 so they can start working the ground and planting in between rain showers in May.

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Wells also grows Indian corn which dries out in this structure under fans for almost a year. The corn above will be sold next fall. One of the reasons Wells grows Indian corn is because it offers crop rotation outside the cucurbita family which includes squash, pumpkin and cucumbers (so pretty much everything else Wells grows.) Squash is susceptible to mosaic virus which leaves the leaves spotted and can stunt growth and ruin a crop. Incidentally, there is one variety of GMO yellow crookneck squash that has been genetically engineered to be resistant to the mosaic virus because there aren’t good treatments for mosaic virus. The only thing to do is rotate your crops to prevent the virus from showing up. Wells trades land with other local farmers every three years, which is about how long he can grow squash on the same field before the virus shows up.

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I asked Wells if he gets a lot of pressure to go organic because of the niche market he’s in. He told me he does, and he’d love to put 50 or so acres to organic production because he could triple his asking price. The only thing holding him back is the crop rotation issue I mentioned. Wells trades land with grass seed farmers for crop rotation and in order to go organic, he’d have to get them to agree to also be organic for a season as well. So far he hasn’t been successful at convincing anyone to do it.

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Right before I left Wells told me he had to show me one more cool thing: Hot Skwash. Daria Knowles, an artist out of Portland, salvages unusable squash stems and corn husks to create velvet pumpkins and corn adorned with Swarovski crystals that sell in Neiman Marcus from $30 to over $100. So next fall, in addition to decorating your table with real mini-pumpkins, you can also decorate with couture squash art!

As always, I hope you learned something cool about squash production today. Leave a comment if you did!

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October Farming in Focus: Wine – Another Favorite Thing

A few months ago I did a Farming in Focus on hops, so I felt it was only fair to also pay homage to an equally worthy beverage, especially since I live in a region of the country very well known for its production of Pinot Noir. While I really enjoy the craft brew culture Portland provides, I do drink my fair share of wine and find wine production intriguing. In our early married years my husband and I dabbled in home beer brewing, but wine always seemed a little too scary to take on, so I was really interested to visit with Dave Coelho at Coelho Winery in Amity when they were processing Pinot Noir grapes last month.

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Dave Coelho is a first generation grape grower who moved to the Willamette Valley 25 years ago from California with his wife and four kids. While he’s the first in his family to start a winery, Coelho’s family has history  in agriculture. His father was a dairy farmer, and before he moved to Oregon, Coelho farmed tomatoes, sugar beets, corn, alfalfa and dried beans in the San Joaquin Valley, about 60 miles east of San Francisco. When I asked him what he liked better, he told me he likes making wine better because he gets to interact with the end user. He currently farms 40 acres of grapes with his wife and sons David and Samuel. They primarily grow Pinot Noir but they also grow some Chardonnay and Pinot Gris. His son experiments with Riesling and botrytized wines, a method of allowing a fungus to infect the grapes to a point before making them into a desert wine.

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Aside from growing their own grapes and creating estate wines (which I learned means wine made from grapes grown by the winemaker), Coelho also incorporates his Portuguese heritage by making a number of Portuguese-style wines with grapes he drives to California in a refrigerated truck to buy. The winery also provides warehouse storage and custom grape crushing for other winemakers. The day I visited they were making a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, which is a blend of Pinot Noir grapes from several vineyards, including Pinot Noir grapes from Scharf Farms nearby. I tagged along with Jason Scharf back to his vineyard after he delivered grapes to Coelho to take the above picture because Coelho had already harvested all the grapes off the vine. Pinot Noir grapes can be very fickle, they like a cool climate with well-drained soil making the Willamette Valley a superb region for growing them. They’re also prone to rot because the grapes are so tightly clustered and their preferred cool, wet growing conditions are ideal for bacterial growth. Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley is considered some of the best in the Americas.

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Scharf told me that grapes can be harvested by hand, or by machine, but Pinot Noir is difficult to harvest. That might be because of their tightly clustered pine cone shape – the name Pinot Noir actually comes from the french words for “pine” and “black.” A machine can do the harvesting work of 40 men, but the grapes have to be processed right away, unlike when they’re hand picked, which is what Coelho prefers and uses for his wines. Either way, the first step in the process is to crush the grapes through this machine that separates the grapes from the stems.

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See that ladder there? Yeah, I climbed that ladder to take the previous photograph. Then I actually got up on a cherry picker to take this picture, which is saying a lot because I’m kind of squeamish about heights. But, it was worth it because you can see a really good overview of the crushing process, from the dumping of the grapes all the way through to the leftover stems. The crusher removes the stems but it also releases juices and leaves the juice in contact with the skins where it travels out through that white tube at the bottom.

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We have Concord grapes growing in our backyard, so I know just how difficult it is to separate the grapes from the stems by hand. You can’t really make good wine from Concord grapes, but if I could, I’d seriously consider taking my grapes to Coelho to use that efficient crusher! Just look at all those stems! Coelho told me they compost the stems and skins (called pumice) and spread it back on the fields as fertilizer.

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The main reason I got up on the cherry picker was to look in this vat. After the grapes are crushed they’re funneled into this vat where they add wine making yeast. The vat can hold 20 tons of juice, which translates to 3,000 gallons of wine!

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Next the juice is chilled or “cold soaked” for several days if time allows to get the color out of the skins and add complexity and flavor to the wine. This is particularly  important for Pinot Noir because the grapes are thin skinned and don’t provide a lot of color to the wine. A cold soak does increase the risk of spoilage and spontaneous fermentation, so to avoid that, Coelho adds sulfur to prevent unwanted microbial activity. Cold soaking also provides an opportunity to get a good base reading on the sugar content of the juice. After that the juice is heated to ferment.

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During the fermentation process the skins float to the top and eventually the wine is drained off and the skins are gently pressed over two and a half hours to release all remaining juice which is added back to the wine.

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After the yeast has converted all the sugar to alcohol, the wine is aged in barrels for 11 months before it is bottled. Then it lives in a bottle for six to eight months before being sold. In his first year, Coelho produced about 4-500 cases of wine. Now in his 11th vintage (which I learned means he’s been making wine for 11 years) he produces about 20,000 cases of wine.

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Of course I couldn’t leave without sampling! Obviously. 🙂 I asked Coelho why he likes Pinot Noir and he said it’s because it’s versatile and pairs well with so many meals. He views wine as a food, and drinks it to compliment other flavors in the meal. I sheepishly admitted to him that I don’t actually like Pinot Noir (shhh, don’t tell anyone) because I think it tastes kind of thin. I like the fuller-bodied reds and red blends. So I am happy to report that I found a wine that I really enjoyed in his tasting room – the traditional Portuguese red wine blend. I ran out of time at the end of my visit because I had to dash back to get my kids off the bus, but next time my husband and I are in Amity I’m planning to stop by and get a bottle. I learned a lot about wine production, and I hope you did, too. Leave a comment if you learned something new!

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September Farming in Focus: Hazelnuts

I’m sure by now you’ve come to expect that I’m going to be late on my Farming in Focus post. This is a new level of late for me – I’m almost a month late posting this! There are reasons (excuses) that may or may not be any good, but I’m going to go with them anyway. The primary driver in this being late is that we had to wait for the nuts to fall off the tree, which is a pretty good reason, right? This harvest was supposed to take place at the end of September, but it got pushed out to middle of October. Because I had it slated for September, I’m still calling it September! This  month I visited a good friend whose husband grows hazelnuts, among other things, in Rickreall, Oregon.

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Keith Marx (left) is a 4th generation farmer who came back to the farm six years ago after leaving a career in engineering. He now farms roughly 1,000 acres with is his father, Merle (right). The original family farm was much larger, but when Merle’s father died the acreage was divided amicably between Merle and his siblings.

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In addition to hazelnuts, Marx grows grass seed, wheat, turnip seed, canola, vetch, and rotates in other crops as it makes sense. Some of these crops are irrigated using the irrigation pond (above) which is filled from rainwater and rainwater runoff.  The pond was built in the 80s and fills itself completely every year. Much of what Marx grows depends on what kind of contracts he can get for the season, but as hazelnut trees can produce for up to 80 years, that crop is a bit of a long-term commitment and therefore doesn’t necessitate a contract.

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Marx’s family is only recently getting back into growing Hazelnuts, as are many Oregon growers. A fungal disease called Eastern Filbert Blight (EFB), evident in the above image by the dead limbs on a neighboring hazelnut orchard, destroyed roughly 1,600 acres of Oregon hazelnut trees during the 1990s. Farmers can attempt to manage EFB by a number of methods, but there is no single solution to cure the trees. Fortunately, ongoing breeding efforts at Oregon State University have resulted in the introduction of new blight resistant varieties. Oregon growers have since planted roughly 4,000 acres of these new varieties, many of which are now beginning to produce nuts.

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Marx has roughly 140 acres of hazelnut trees, all of which are blight resistant varieties. Only about 40 acres are currently producing nuts, as it takes four years for the trees to produce nuts. These baby trees above are in their first year, and it’ll be another three before Marx can start to see the fruits of his labor.

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Until I moved to Oregon, all I knew about hazelnuts is that they’re in Nutella. Now I know that hazelnuts (also called filberts) are the Oregon state nut and that 99 percent of US-grown hazelnuts are grown in Oregon. Turkey produces about 80 percent of the world’s hazelnut market, followed by Europe which produces about 13 percent, and the US (almost exclusively from Oregon) which produces about seven percent. Interestingly (at least to me) hazelnuts are actually harvested off the ground. Growers wait until hazelnuts fall off the tree and then essentially drive through the orchard and sweep them up.

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As you can imagine, hazelnut growers spend a lot of time managing the floor of the orchard, because when the nuts fall to the ground and get swept into tidy rows, anything that’s on the ground gets swept with them. This is a relatively new crop for Marx, and he’s learning as he goes. This year’s harvest was hindered a little by weeds on the orchard floor, and he plans to spend more time managing those weeds in the future.

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After all the nuts are swept into a row, the harvester comes through and collects the nuts and debris. The harvester tumbles and shakes the nuts to separate them from the husks and debris.

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Then the nuts are unloaded into bins to be sent to be processed. There they are washed and disinfected, dehusked and dried to about ten percent moisture. At that point they are sent to packaging or to long term storage. Last year, most of Marx’s hazelnuts went to the local confection market, ending up in things like chocolate covered hazelnuts. About 60 percent of Oregon’s hazelnuts are exported in their shells, primarily to China.

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As this is only Marx’s second harvest of hazelnuts, they’re still working out the kinks. I got to experience some real-life farming when I visited: a broken harvester. Marx, like most farmers, spends a lot of time fixing machinery. I’m sure it helps that he’s also an engineer. I stood around and munched on raw hazelnuts while we waited. I didn’t have to crawl under the harvester with a screwdriver, so I think I got the good end of the deal. 
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Last year hazelnut prices jumped after a frost seriously damaged nearly one quarter to one half of Turkey’s crop. As a result, domestic consumers are demanding higher quality nuts, and it’s projected that this year prices will remain high.

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Before the nuts have even fallen off the tree, the hazelnut tree is already preparing for the next season. Green catkins (as seen above) create pollen that pollinates tiny red flowers in the middle of winter. Then the tree stays dormant until June when the nuts begin to form. After harvest, Marx will feed the trees with fertilizer and apply lime to the soil. Because hazelnut trees are actually a bush, not a tree, they send out new shoots from the ground called suckers in an attempt to become a bush once again. Marx will spend quite a bit of time pruning those suckers so they don’t trap falling nuts and sap the resources the tree could be using to produce nuts. Marx says the biggest pest he’s faced are squirrels that steal the nuts off the ground before he can harvest them. “There are hundreds of nuts literally squirreled away over there,” he told me, pointing to the edge of the field. If he waits to harvest until all the nuts fall from the tree, a good portion of it will be lost to squirrels.

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I got to do some real day-in-the-life of a farmer stuff while I visited, too, like going to fetch coffee for the hard working farmers. Turns out farmers do actually go to the local coffee shop where they know you by name and you get to hear all the dish on the locals. I even got a free cookie with my coffee. Tiffany, Marx’s wife, who works as an appraisal services coordinator at Contour Valuation Services, was nice enough to help me out by giving me a great tour and providing me much of the factual information for this post, and she even bought my coffee! 🙂 You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter as to see cool farm photos and facts. Did you learn something fun about hazelnuts today? Leave a comment if you did. See you next time!

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August Farming in Focus: One of my Favorite Things

This farm visit was by far the best smelling visit I have ever done. Mmmmmm… hops: smells like beer. I’ll talk about agriculture just about anywhere, but (no offense to the dairies and the sheep farms I visited) hands down, talking about beer in a hop house takes the cake. The only thing that would have made this visit better is if I could have been drinking a beer during it! But, then my pictures probably wouldn’t be so great. One of the things I just love about the Pacific Northwest is the beer and the culture surrounding beer. I love learning about beer, I love drinking beer, I love trying new beers,  I love visiting breweries – in fact, I consider it a personal challenge to visit every brewery in Portland, and eventually Oregon. My husband and I are well on our way to making that vision a reality. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it, right? 🙂 The hoppy flavor of the beer here took some getting used to, and I still have a tough time with an extremely hoppy PNW IPA, but practice makes perfect, my friend, and I never give up.

Technically I took these photos the first week of September, but I’m still counting them for August. This month I visited Ben Coleman in St. Paul, Oregon to see the hop harvest and to talk about how the craft brew industry has changed how Coleman’s farm grows hops.

hops-8Ben Coleman is a 3rd generation hop grower who farms with his two cousins, father and uncle in St. Paul. The Coleman family has a long history as hop growers in the Willamette Valley – Coleman’s grandfather built the oldest block hop house still in use in the state of Oregon in the 40s when they still formed the bricks by hand – as you can see by the handprints in the image above. His family also manages eight of the 30 hop picking machines in Oregon, so as far as hop growers go, Coleman’s family is one of the bigger growers in Oregon (although Washington has much bigger growers) – his family grows about 1,000 acres of hops. The Yakima Valley of Washington far and away grows the most hops in the nation, but the climate and soil in the Willamette Valley are just right for hops – and Oregon comes in a distant second for hops production. Idaho follows Oregon in a very close third place.

hops-9Coleman’s family grows more than just hops. All told they grow about 13 crops including grass seed, green beans, table beets, corn, alfalfa, wheat, pumpkins, radish seed, cauliflower, hazelnuts, garlic seed and kale seed. Though, when I asked him what he calls himself, Coleman said he definitely identifies as a hop grower even though in acreage they grow more grass seed than hops. Coleman told me this summer’s drought has been really good for the hops – they like it dry and hot. And with the recent surge in craft brewing, his family is steadily growing their hop acreage. This is the first year in six or seven that they’ve had enough yield to necessitate harvesting hops 20 hours a day. I’ll be honest, before I moved to Oregon I had never seen hops growing – I had no idea they grow on an 18 foot trellis. Another interesting tidbit: hops are closely related to cannabis – both are in the Cannabaceae family. Unlike cannabis which has multiple uses, hops are only used for making lovely, lovely beer.

hops-10In March and April stringing begins – a specially trained crew ties strings made of hand woven coconut fiber made in Indonesia from the ground to the wire cable running between the 18 foot poles. The crews can do a one-handed tie that allows them to string between five and ten acres per day. The hop bines (that’s not a typo – hops are a bine that climb without the use of tendrils, distinguishing it from a vine) grab tightly to the coconut fiber, making it an ideal choice for a trellis. Another alternative is thick paper rolled into a rope, and in Europe growers use metal twine. About three to four weeks after stringing, the plants must be trained up the trellis by hand. The crew passes through twice and prunes to ensure the bines all grow to the same height.

hop harvestWhether it’s coconut fiber or metal twine, it all comes down at harvest time. Figuring out when it’s time to harvest is a very precise science: the hops are regularly sampled as harvest time nears and dried in a food dehydrator to test for the proper amount of lupulin oil – what provides the distinct flavor and aroma to beer.  Coleman’s family has retrofitted old combines to be specialty hop harvesters. First, what they call the “mosquito” comes through and cuts the bines (and the strings) at the base of the plant near the ground. Then the second harvester pushes a truck in front of it and cuts the bines at the top, where they fall into the truck. A crew follows behind picking up any bines that have fallen or were missed.

hops-1From there, the trucks drive to the hop house where the part they’re after, the hop flower, is separated from the bine and dried. First the bines are strung up on a belt that moves them inside the house. Another interesting tidbit: in this image you can see birds flying around above the truck – swallows take advantage of the bugs that are roused into the air during the harvest process – they were all over the fields and dipping and diving above the truck.

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The bines travel into the hop house where they take an intense (and loud) beating to get the hops off the bine. They travel through a number of conveyor belts, turbines, and shakers to separate the flower from the leaves and bines. The leftover leaves and bines are composted and later spread onto the fields.
hops-3When all that’s left is the hop flowers, the next (very important) step is drying them.  The hops are spread at a precise depth in a kiln heated from below at 135-140 degrees. It takes about eight hours for the hops to go from about 75 to 80 percent moisture to the target nine to ten percent moisture. One of these square kilns holds between 12 and 20 bales of hops, depending on the variety. For perspective, one acre of hops produces between five to 12 bales of hops. One bale is equivalent to about 400,000 12 ounce bottles of beer. If you drank one of those bottles each day, it would take you over 1,000 years to drink one bale of hops!
hops-4As I mentioned, the key part of the hop flower that brewers are interested in is the yellow waxy substance inside the hop flower called lupulin – not only does this give beer it’s distinctive aroma and flavor, it also contains antibiotic properties which limit bacterial growth allowing the yeast to ferment. Different hop varieties contain different amounts of lupulin. Coleman is holding cascade hops, which his family grows for Anheuser Busch. Coleman grows 16 varieties of hops, some of which he directly sell to both Anheuser Busch and MillerCoors, but many of which he sells to Indie Hops which supplies Oregon-grown hops exclusively to craft brewers. Coleman told me that the craft beer industry has drastically changed the way they grow hops. “The whole craft brew thing is really exciting, but we went from growing four to five varieties of hops really well to growing 16 different varieties. Sometimes we make a mistake now.” Not only that but the craft brews, particularly that hoppy IPA I mentioned, uses about ten times as much hops as high-volume domestic beers.

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The craft brew industry has also changed hop production by way of traceability. Craft brewers have placed an emphasis on using local hops, which requires that Coleman do a really good job of labeling his bales with both what kind of hops they are and where they were grown. Coleman foresees that it won’t be long until he’s labeling with specific field-by-field information. Coleman said he spends a lot of his time making sure that labeling process goes just right. Keeping those 16 varieties straight is important because different hops have different uses – some are bittering hops, some are aroma hops – and they’re used at different times during the brewing process. hops-6

Craft brewing has also changed hop production from a food safety perspective. It used to be that hops were added to the boiling part of the beer making process, which essentially pasteurized the hop, but craft brewers also do what’s called dry hopping where they add the hops after the boil, usually in the secondary fermenter,  to get that super hoppy aroma characteristic of an IPA. Adding the hops after the boil means the hops are not pasteurized, so brewers are demanding a much cleaner process of hop production on Coleman’s end to help reduce the risk of infection. Don’t freak out about your IPA, though – like I said, lupulin has antibiotic properties, which is one of the historical reasons hops were added to beer in the first place, so the risk is inherently low.  hops-7Another risk associated with hops is the risk of spontaneous combustion. Not for you, beer drinker, but for the grower and the transporter. Earlier I talked about the target moisture range of nine to ten percent, and part of that is because that prevents the bales of hops from catching on fire. Coleman told me that hop houses and warehouses have burned down in the past because of that, and his cousin just barely saved their own storage warehouse from that same fate. Walking through the warehouse, his cousin smelled something amiss and started feeling the bales until he found a few that were hot to the touch. They pulled them out of the warehouse into the field and sure enough when they slit it with a knife the whole thing went up in flames. The moral of this story is to get a good moisture reading on your hops, like Coleman is doing here. Also, Coleman is paid by the pound, so he wants to make sure that the moisture level is at that top end of the target range – the more moisture they have, the more they weigh, and the more he gets paid. From  here the hops are delivered directly to cold storage and are tested for moisture and leaf and stem content. Smell is of utmost importance, so brewers get a special sample cut out of the bales and sent to them just so they can smell and verify before they put it in their beer.

That’s pretty much everything I learned about hop production. I hope you learned something, too! Now, I need a beer. Cheers.

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Farming in Focus: July Wheat Harvest and a bonus at the end

I’m slow this summer, so forgive me. I know we’re half-way through August and I’m just posting my July Farming in Focus. That’s life. I’m just happy I’m getting to this at all with two kids running around my legs all summer!!

At the end of last month I visited my friend Marie Bowers Stagg’s farm just north of Eugene to see how they harvest wheat. Then, earlier this week I got to tag along with her husband Tristan as he delivered almost 60,000 pounds of wheat to the grain elevator in Portland. Read on to see my adventures – and as a reward, if you make it to the end you’ll get to see how blueberries are harvested by machine! I finally caught back up with last month’s blueberry farmer in Albany and got to climb aboard a mechanical blueberry harvester!

Bashaw land and seed-4Bowers Stagg (who blogs at Oregon Green) is a fifth generation grass seed farmer on her family’s nearly 100-year old farm in the Willamette Valley. Her family primarily grows annual rye grass seed on a few thousand acres, but they also grow about 500 acres of wheat, 200 acres of meadowfoam, and this year grew about 50 acres of forage peas for cover crop. As is the case for all farmers, one of the most challenging aspects of farming is dealing with the unknown of the weather. This spring and summer in Oregon have been extremely hot and dry, so much so that it’s the first year Bowers Stagg has had to carry around a water tank in the bed of her truck everywhere she goes in case something catches on fire. Dry wheat is highly flammable and Bowers Stagg told me merely a spark from hitting a rock in the field with the combine can catch the wheat stubble on fire, something that happened in July on their farm. When I was visiting, Bowers Stagg had to stop to spray water on a compost pile consisting of leftover combine remains that ignited itself.

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One of Bowers Stagg’s primary concerns this year is fire hazard, but the heat and dry weather have also impacted their (and almost all farmers she knows) yield. This year their wheat yields are down about 30-50 percent. The last field they harvested yielded about half of what it did the previous two years.  Not only that, but because it was such a dry spring, the amount of protein in the wheat is higher than it usually is, which may sound like a good thing but it’s not. Eastern Oregon is expected to grow high-protein wheat because it’s always dry there, but western Oregon is expected to grow low-protein wheat because we get more rain. These two balance each other and the final product has just the right amount of protein. Except this year we didn’t get that rain and as a result, when Bowers Stagg’s husband Tristan delivers the wheat to the grain elevator, they get docked for having too much protein.

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One of the ways Bowers Stagg’s farm can off-set losing money on that low yield and high-protein wheat is to store it until the price of wheat goes up later in the year when demand is down. Pictured here is about 15 truck loads of wheat, or about 15,200 bushels that they’ll be saving and selling later in the year. Bowers Stagg grows soft winter wheat, which is primarily used in flatbread, crackers and wheat noodles (like Yakisoba) as it’s not the right consistency for bread. Most bread that we’re familiar with is made from hard red wheat.

Bashaw land and seed-5I have to say, this was what I was looking forward to the most during my visit to Bowers Stagg’s farm: riding in a combine! I was super excited about it, but after taking a few turns in this thing, I can honestly say I have very little interest in doing this full-time. This might be one of the most boring jobs I can think of. This is 15-year-old AJ’s first summer working for Bowers Stagg, and he seems to like it, but I honestly cannot imagine driving a combine around for 14 hours a day. Yes, that’s right, 14 hours a day of sitting in that cab moving at the speed of molasses!! Important and necessary, yes, but not exactly thrilling. I understand why they hire teenagers to run the combine, but I was a little shocked to discover that a 15-year-old is allowed to work 14 hours a day. Bowers Stagg told me agricultural employment allows for exceptions enabling them to employ minors. They cannot work more than 14 hours a day or more than 72 hours per week. Because this is AJ’s first summer, he’s making minimum wage, but next summer if he comes back he’ll get a raise. He says he’s saving his money up to buy a truck he has his eye on. That’s certainly more dedication than I had at 15, I’m not sure I did anything for 14 hours a day except drive my parents crazy.

Bashaw land and seed-7As the combine fills up with harvested wheat, one of AJ’s co-workers drives this wagon up next to the combine and AJ off-loads about 12,000 pounds of wheat and keeps on driving. AJ will finish early today because harvest is almost over. One of the benefits of a hot, dry spring and summer is that the wheat harvest is early this year. Bowers Stagg told me this is the first time that she can ever remember being done with harvest so early.

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While the focus of my visit was wheat, as I mentioned, Bowers Stagg primarily grows grass seed. They were already finished harvesting grass seed when I visited – they finished that the second to last week in July even though they aren’t normally done until August 1st. As a result, Bowers Stagg said this is the first time in her life that she’ll be able to take a vacation in August. She said her dad is planning to go camping in August just so he can say he did it. Her family primarily grows  forage type grass seed – seed used in pastures to feed livestock. One of the reasons they grow so much grass seed is because the soil where they live isn’t suited for much else. It’s mostly clay and doesn’t drain well enough to grow other crops. Bowers Stagg said they’re always looking for other crops to rotate in, but there aren’t many options.

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One way farmers improve their soil quality, at least enough to grow crops like wheat, corn, and mint in climates that are overly wet in the winter and dry in the summer like where Bowers Stagg lives, is through something called tiling. Basically, they dig these huge trenches in the field and run perforated tubing underground. This helps water drain off the surface and out the tubes into ditches and streams. Seems brilliant, right? So why doesn’t Bowers Stagg do this on all her land so she can have more crop rotation options? “Well, as my mom says,” Bower-Stagg told me, “you’re pretty much buying your land again.” The cost of tiling is so high, it’s almost like you’ve paid twice for your land. Then, even if the soil is good enough to grow corn or mint, you’d need to install irrigation as well, which is also costly. One complication of lack of rotation crops is that pest control can be very difficult. If you keep the same crop on the field year after year, it gets difficult to get rid of the bugs and weeds who damage or compete with that crop. Bowers Stagg said they used to be able to burn their fields every few years to get rid of slugs and other pests, but that has since been banned. Now instead of burning the wheat stubble, they bale it up and send it to a mushroom farm to become a home for baby mushrooms. And, they end up using more pesticide to get rid of pests.

Bashaw land and seed-14After the wheat is harvested, it’s delivered to the grain elevator on the Willamette River in downtown Portland. The wheat is dumped from trucks into a pit in the ground and then literally elevated up to those tunnels in the sky of this picture. From there, the wheat is poured into ships on the river where it travels mostly to Asia. Tristan told me that 74 percent of agriculture in Oregon is exported, including the majority of their wheat where it is made into Asian noodles.

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Tristan has only been a farmer since he married Marie. He’s actually a paramedic and still does that part time. He says he likes farming better because while the hours aren’t great, he gets to work with really nice people, unlike his job as a paramedic where he often works with “unsavory” people (his words, not mine.) This is Tristan’s sixth load of wheat he’s delivered to the elevator this year. Thankfully when I got to tag along harvest was almost done and it was only a 20 minute process. Last time he delivered wheat he had to wait almost three hours in line behind other trucks. First Tristan uncovers the tarps from the top of the truck and then drives the truck onto a scale that weighs the truck full of wheat. It’s at this point that the wheat is also probed to determine protein and moisture content.

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Next Tristan opens the back of the truck and the wheat comes pouring out into the pit below. Tristan takes care to remove his sunglasses and and anything else important that he’s wearing because if it falls off, it’s gone.

Bashaw land and seed-12It takes less than five minutes for 60,000 pounds of wheat to pour out of two trailers. The wheat falls out so fast that there is a risk that the sides of the trailer might implode if it falls out too fast. It wouldn’t even be possible with the tarps on top.

Bashaw land and seed-15I noticed a bunch of geese hanging around the elevator and after Tristan is finished he tells me why. They eat the leftover grains on the ground. Before getting back into the truck, Tristan empties his pockets out onto the ground that got filled up with wheat when he opened the back of the truck and the wheat fell out all over him. And that’s the end of my wheat story!

But wait, there’s more!

mechanical harvest update-1

This is what it looks like to drive a blueberry harvesting machine! Don’t worry, it moves slowly.

blueberry harvester-1The harvester is driven over the rows of blueberries and as the bushes pass through the arms of the machine, the berries are shaken off the bush and caught in trays.

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Then they travel up above onto a conveyor belt where they are caught in containers.

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Then they are dumped into bigger totes and offloaded by a fork lift onto a refrigerated semi truck and taken to be processed into frozen blueberries. Watch the video below to see the whole process.

 

 

 

 

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Farming in Focus: June Blueberries

I have been up to my ears in blueberries lately. We have four well-established bushes in our yard that keep my family (and some friends) well stocked in blueberries for almost the entire summer. And, since Oregon produces nearly 40 million pounds of blueberries each  year, making our state the second largest producer of blueberries (after Michigan), I thought it was fitting to visit a real blueberry farm to see how it’s done on a MUCH larger scale than my backyard. So, a few weeks ago I drove down to Albany and visited Berries Northwest for June’s Farming in Focus. (I put off this post a few weeks in favor of the two-part sunscreen guest blogs.) I hope you enjoy and are inspired to go make a blueberry pie.

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Anne Krahmer is a 6th generation farmer and a 3rd generation blueberry farmer. Krahmer’s family grows blueberries on over 500 acres, 350 of which are in Albany, OR and the remainder are in Claskanie and St. Paul. Krahmer’s father started the operation in the 1990s and Krahmer grew up on the farm. She was hand picking berries at five years old and started on the berry picking machines at nine. Krahmer joined the business in 2009 after working in farm and ranch appraising in Salem for seven years. “I like this better,” she said. “It’s never the same and you never know what’s coming.” This year has been a difficult one because of the weather. I expected Krahmer’s operation to be booming because of the heat wave we’ve been having but she said it’s actually the opposite of that. The heat impacts the quality of the fruit; a lot of the bushes have been over-fruiting, meaning when it gets hot the plants puts lots of resources into making fruit, but then they don’t all ripen or the size of the fruit varies tremendously.

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About half of Krahmer’s production is picked by hand for the fresh market. Hand picking is the best way to guarantee the finest fruit, which is what is needed and expected for the fresh market, but with that comes the complications associated with managing migrant workers. Krahmer doesn’t know on any given day how many workers she’ll have show up to pick in the fields. “On Monday we had 50 people show up, the next day we had 38. By Wednesday it had dropped to 16. Thursday we were back up to 48, then 58 on Friday.” A lot of that is dictated by what else is in season – for example, when strawberries and blueberries are ripe at the same time, workers will abandon picking blueberries  in favor of strawberries. Strawberries pay more because those farmers don’t have the option of harvesting by machine, but blueberry farmers do. As the season wears on, grapes ripen in California and workers move on to that market. Krahmer said sometimes the workers’ cell phones will start ringing and they’ll walk off the field right in the middle of picking and head to another farm where they’re paying more that day. She said she tried a weekly attendance bonus, but it didn’t work because it ended up being more trouble than it was worth.

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Hand pickers are paid by how much they pick at $0.35 per pound. Most are making about $100 to $150 in a four- to six-hour work day. The average worker picks about 40 to 50 pounds an hour, but the top pickers can pick as much as 80 to 100 pounds per hour.  Let’s compare that to my family of four that can pick about five pounds in an hour. Granted, about half of what my kids pick goes into their mouths, but still. That is seriously fast. I asked Krahmer for tips and she told me wearing the bucket right on your waist and cupping your hands leads to more efficient picking.

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Almost all of Krahmer’s hand crew are migrant workers from Mexico, and very few of them speak English. The berry industry is facing a labor shortage that Krahmer says is changing the fresh market. A lot of that has to do with labor immigration politics. “These workers want to work here for eight months and then go home and see their families,” Kraher said. “Lots of these workers have families back home, but the border makes it hard to get back home.” Krahmer said part of the labor shortage is also because of an increase in the Mexican economy. If they can find jobs at home, there is no incentive to come to the US to harvest fruit.

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I asked Krahmer why they don’t employ more non-migrant workers; for example, I only saw one white person picking by hand in the field. “We hired 15 white workers this year,” Krahmer said. “She [the one I met] is the only one still here. People think picking blueberries is easy, but when they discover it’s hard work they don’t want to do it.” If a picker doesn’t pick enough to make minimum wage, Krahmer is required to pay them minimum wage anyway. Krahmer said if the minimum wage goes to $15 as a lot of people hope, she won’t be able to afford a hand crew and she probably would have a hard time even getting a crew. “Who would pick blueberries in the sun all day for $15 an hour when you could work in an air conditioned building and make the same?” Krahmer said. “Consumers want more and more fresh fruit and organic options, but they don’t always understand what that means in terms of increased labor.” She said if the minimum wage goes to $15 an hour, she’ll only be able to do about 30 percent or less fresh market instead of the 50 percent she does now. That has an impact on her bottom line as well as reduced availability because she makes about $1.85 per pound for the fresh market compared to $0.75 per pound for the frozen market.

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Krahmer’s operation uses a digital system to help workers keep track of how much they pick. Each worker wears a name tag with a bar code on it. After they dump their buckets on to the trays, the supervisor scans their barcode before weighing the berries. The system keeps a running total of how many pounds that worker picks each day and the worker gets a printout with their name, date and total pounds picked so far that day. Krahmer said the system is very good, but occasionally there are problems that she must sort out during the day. For example, once a worker checks in to one weigh station, they must continue to weigh at that station all day. If they go to another station, the system encounters problems.

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All of Krahmer’s fresh blueberries go to Driscoll’s, which has a reputation for safe fruit and high quality. In order to sell to Driscoll’s, Krahmer’s operation must be Global G.A.P. certified, the highest certification available. That certification covers all stages of production, from pre-harvest activities such as soil management and plant protection product application to post-harvest produce handling, packing and storing. For example, all the buckets must be washed daily with a chlorine and water solution, and the buckets must sit on what’s called a “baby tray” in the field to keep them off the ground. After the berries are picked, they travel in a refrigerated semi truck that Krahmer leases to travel to Watsonville, CA where Driscoll’s is based. There they’re washed and sorted.

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Krahmer gets an update from her field manager each day on the quality of the berries being picked. This is important because if there is too much red (not ripe enough) or the berries are too soft (overripe or too hot), Driscoll’s will reject the entire shipment. They’re also looking for damage from birds (shown on the left) or from pests and disease (shown on the right). Krahmer uses electronic bird squawkers to keep the birds away, and while she says they work very well, they’re not perfect. Krahmer also has to spray insecticide to prevent damage from the Spotted Wing Drosophila, a fruit fly that arrive in Oregon in 2009 and lays its eggs in the berries. Processors test the fruit for presence of SWD by soaking the berries in a salt water bath that causes the larvae to crawl out of the berries. Once SWD is detected in a grower’s berries, they’re essentially trash. Not even the juice market will take them.  In the spring, Krahmer sprays fungicide to prevent fungus that deforms the fruit. She says they’re very careful about what they spray because in April she hires between two and six bee hives per acre to pollinate the crop.  They also have instigated a new native pollinator project through Oregon State University on their farm this year that hopes to attract native bees. “We really watch what we spray,” Krahmer said. “We don’t want to kill the bees.” While it might seem like the vast majority of the work gets done during harvest, there is work year-round on Krahmer’s farm. After the harvest, they promote growth of the plants and starting in November they hand prune every single plant. That generally takes until February or March because at 1,200 plants per acre and over 500 acres, that’s a lot of pruning. They also do what they can to try to time harvest as early and as late as possible because that’s when the market is most lucrative. They do this by tenting some of the fields and selecting different varieties that ripen at different times.

blueberry harvest-10One of the coolest things I wanted to see on Krahmer’s farm was the mechanical harvest of blueberries. Unfortunately, all I got to see was the machine sitting in the field because by the time I got there they were finished picking. The crew started at 5 a.m. when the berries were cool and by the time I got there at 10 a.m. they were done. Krahmer told me as it gets hotter, they’re going to have to go to night shifts. I’m still hoping to get some images of mechanical harvest in the next few weeks, and if I do, I’ll be sure to post an update here (maybe even with a video!) so you can see it for yourself. Stay tuned!

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Farming in Focus: May – Green beans and more

I know, I know. I’m late on this post again. Think of it this way – my Farming in Focus post will just surprise you – you never know when it will show up! I have a really good reason for holding this post for almost a week, though. I was waiting for the pea harvest! The peas in my garden were getting pretty close to picking in May a few weeks ago, so I emailed a farmer friend who I know grows peas and said, “Hey, when do you guys harvest peas? I’d like to profile you for my May Farming in Focus!” Unfortunately, they weren’t harvesting peas, but they were getting ready to plan green beans, so I jumped at the opportunity to photograph some green beans going into the ground. I was all ahead of schedule with this post until I got an email just a few days before the end of the month that said, “We’re getting ready to harvest peas now!” So I decided to hold it to include some pea harvest photos (because… obviously that’s worth waiting for.) But then it rained, and rained, and rained some more. So we waited, and waited, and waited some more. Which is a good lesson about farming – you can’t control the weather. I took the pea harvest photos just yesterday. Hope you enjoy.

This month I visited Kirsch Family Farms in St. Paul, OR and met up with third generation farmer, Brenda Frketich.

Frketich-5Frketich and her family grow nine crops on a total of 1,000 acres. About 300 of those acres make up the home farm where Frketich’s parents live. Right down the road Frketich lives on 55 acres with her husband, Matt, and son, Hoot. Those nine crops include hazelnuts, ryegrass seed, tall fescue grass seed, green beans, peas, wheat, radish seeds, cabbage seeds and crimson clover seeds.

Frketich-7Until recently, Kirsch Family Farms only grew two crops: grass seed and hazelnuts. For years they did what a lot of farmers do – they regularly traded fields with neighboring farmers in order to rotate crops on the same land to preserve soil quality. But, as Frketich said, “Every farmer has their own way of farming,” and in order to maintain consistency in practice, they decided to learn how to grow their own rotation crops. Over recent years they’ve picked up seven additional crops that allow a rotation model they control. Frketich told me it’s definitely harder this way, and some of the rotation crops are riskier to grow, but it’s still better to not have all your eggs in one basket.

Frketich-6Frketich told me her favorite crop continues to be hazelnuts, even though for a long time her family wasn’t planting additional hazelnut trees because eastern filbert blight made it really difficult to grow them profitably. Eastern filbert blight is caused by a fungus that creates cankers and die back on branches and requires multiple fungicide applications to control. That changed when Oregon State University recently released a blight-resistant hazelnut tree. Now, as Frketich is doing,  many Oregon hazelnut growers are planting new orchards once again.

Frketich-8As I drove to meet Frketich, I kept seeing fields of crimson clover dotted with tiny seedlings, and I could not figure out what was going on. It turns out that in the first few years while the hazelnut trees are getting established, farmers can grow crops in the rows between the trees. This makes total sense – the trees are not big enough yet to form a canopy and block the sunlight to the ground, but they must be planted far enough apart to accommodate their future growth leaving a bunch of open ground. That seemed so clever to me until Frketich told me that it’s actually more of a constant trade-off. Sometimes you want to spray to control weeds in the crimson clover but you’re limited in what you can apply and the timing of that application because it might damage the hazelnut trees, and vise versa. For these trees in the picture above, this will be the last year they grow side-by-side with any other crops.

Frketich-2There are only three crops Frketich grows to actually eat, and green beans are one of them (peas and hazelnuts are the other two).  This year they are planting about 52 acres of green beans, split into two different plantings – one in May and one in June. Frketich told me this is basically to split the risk; the weather in Oregon is iffy this time of year and splitting the planting dates helps alleviate some of the risk associated with lack of control over the weather. They know the risk all too well. This year one of their pea fields got too much rain after planting and rotted in the ground. Fortunately, they were able to rent the land to a pumpkin grower, but that’s not always the case, and it’s a huge investment of time, labor and input cost to have that field not produce a crop. Before the green bean seeds even go into the ground, Frketich told me they’ve already been over this ground about 15 times. That includes passes to work the soil, and incorporate fertilizer, pre-emergent herbicides and moisture. I asked Frketich why they didn’t use a no-till approach with green beans and she told me no-till only works for some crops. Crops like green beans and cabbage need loose soil to establish a root structure, whereas crops like wheat don’t, but they do use a no-till approach when possible.

Frketich-1This is what a green bean seed looks like before it goes into the ground. Why is it pink? It  has a seed treatment on it that helps protect the seed as it germinates and emerges. The planter creates a furrow in the ground and drops ten seeds per foot and then covers the furrow back up as it passes by. The green beans will emerge in about seven days.

Frketich-11While green beans are getting planted on one part of the farm, Frketich’s husband Matt is applying a fungicide to their grass seed fields on another part of the farm to treat for rust. You can see why it’s called rust – it looks just like metal rusting on the blade of grass. The fungus restricts nutrients that the plant needs to develop seeds, which is exactly the kind of thing a grass seed farmer doesn’t want. Kirsch Family Farms grows turf grass seed (as opposed to forage grass seed for animals). Most of the seed they grow ends up in residential use and golf courses.

Frketich-10I had never been on a sprayer before, so I was pretty excited when Matt agreed to let me climb up on the truck and go for a few passes with him. I was particularly impressed with the technology the truck uses to apply the fungicide. The GPS guided sprayer is so precise that it knows exactly where it’s already been, so even if you drive over the same area you’ve already sprayed, the “auto boom” feature will turn the sprayer off so you can’t over-spray. So I said to Matt, “You mean you could just drive around willy nilly all over the field and it would turn on and off as necessary so you’d never apply twice in the same spot?!” “Well, yes, you could do that,” he said. His tone told me that was probably the stupidest idea he’d ever heard, but I thought it sounded pretty fun. The truck also has auto-steer which means he doesn’t even need to touch the steering wheel on fields that are more or less rectangular.

Frketich-3I grow cabbage in my own garden, and most people know what a cabbage plant looks like, but I’ve never seen cabbage flower and go to seed. If you’re growing the crop to eat the cabbage, you don’t want it to bolt (produce a flowering stem) because it impacts the flavor of the cabbage. But when you’re specifically growing the plant for the seeds, that’s exactly what you want. Frketich told me they even split the cabbage heads to induce bolting.

Frketich-4Another thing I didn’t know is that cabbage seed production requires a pollinator. Sitting on the corner of this field of cabbage were about 40 bee hives that Frketich rents for the duration of the bloom on their 26 acres of cabbage. It’s a symbiotic relationship, the bees need the pollen and nectar to produce honey for the beekeeper, and Frketich needs the bees to pollinate the cabbage flowers so they get a good seed crop.

Frketich-14This is a pea harvester! Kirsch Family Farms has a contract with Norpac Foods, so all of the peas they grow end up in bags of Flav-R-Pac frozen peas.  Norpac determines the variety of peas Frketich plants as well as the planting date so they can properly stagger all the harvesting contracts they have. When it’s time to harvest, Norpac sends out its team of harvesters  operating on a 24-hour schedule. The workers put in 12-hour shifts from 7:00 to 7:00. In fact, the harvesters arrived on Frketich’s fields at 3:00 a.m. so by the time I got there Friday morning at 10:00, they had already moved on to the neighbor’s field. But, no matter, we just drove over to the neighbor’s farm to watch these bad boys harvest at one acre of peas per hour! The team operates four harvesters for a combined rate of four acres per hour.

Frketich-15That’s right, I climbed up on a moving pea harvester to get this shot! I could actually hear the pea pods crunching as I stood up there. Inside the harvester is a giant drum that spins and throws the pea pods against a screen to break open the pods and filter out the peas, leaving all the pods and plant material behind. I couldn’t help but marvel at the efficiency of this beast – imagine having to pick and shell all those peas by  hand.

Frketich-13When the harvester is full of peas, it off-loads them into this “dump chief.” Then…

Frketich-16… the peas are dumped into a truck to be carried off to the cannery for cleaning and packing. That’s a lot of peas.

Frketich-12In the end, all that’s left behind on the field are the empty pea pods and plant material. Frketich has a nice trade set up with a cattle farmer – he comes and rakes up the leftover plant material and carries it off to feed his cattle. He gets the feed, and it cleans up the field for Frketich. She says she’s talked to other farmers who have tried not cleaning up the field, but the vines take so long to break down that you end up fighting them for a long time after the peas are gone.

I hope you learned something, because I sure did. And I had a blast climbing up on farm equipment! If you want to learn more about the trials and tribulations of Kirsch Family Farms – check out Frketich’s blog Nuttygrass.

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Farming In Focus: April – Dairy

This is my second Farming in Focus post as part of a new project where I visit at least one farm each month and do kind of a day-in-the-life of a farmer through photo essay. This month I focused on dairies – I visited three, in fact. I had an ulterior motive, though, because I’m simultaneously working on a story about milk labels (more on that later) so I wanted to sample a few different approaches to milk-production, if you will. I visited one dairy in Oregon and two dairies in Washington as part of a trip I took to Spokane for the AgChat Pacific Northwest Regional Agvocacy conference.  This is also why I’m a few days late with this post – I have too much on my plate!

First I visited Cloud Cap Farms, an organic dairy in Boring, Oregon. (It’s really not all that boring, though, it was really interesting.)CloudCap Farm-1Melissa Collman is a fourth generation dairy farmer. Her family’s  dairy has been in business since 1924 and chose to go organic in 2004 as a way to financially stabilize their business. Organic dairies get paid a contracted price for their milk, where most conventional dairies get paid a fluctuating price based on current market value. Part of being organic means they are unable to treat their cows with antibiotics. One way that they reduce the need for antibiotics is to “hutch” raise their calves (each calf in it’s own hutch with an outdoor paddock) instead of “mob” raise them (all together). This way if one calf gets sick, they don’t all get sick. After about 60-90 days, they are moved to a group environment. If a cow does get sick, they try to use alternatives to antibiotics, but in the event that a cow gets something like pneumonia that can only be treated with antibiotics, they either treat with antibiotics and sell the cow to a conventional dairy or, very rarely, euthanize the cow.

CloudCap Farm-2One difference Collman has noticed since they went organic is that they feed their cows less than they used to, and as a result the calves are smaller and require less assistance in birth and the cows have fewer Displaced Abomasum (DA) or twisted stomachs. As a downside to not feeding the cows so much, they produce less milk. Part of that difference is because the components of the feed is different – for example, they can’t feed cottonseed or beet pulp because they can’t source it organically, and even if they could it would be cost-prohibitive. They currently feed their cows a forage-based feed with about ten percent grain, whereas when they were conventional they feed them about 25 percent grain. While the contracted price they get for their milk stays the same, they do suffer fluctuations in feed costs.  “It’s been a rough few years for us, I’m not going to lie,” Collman said. “The cost of feed is going up and not going down – the drought in California is hurting farmers. I really feel for my conventional counterparts who don’t get that contracted milk price.”

CloudCap Farm-3Something that really surprised me as I was walking around all three dairies is the amount that cows poop. Seriously, non-stop pooping. They poop where they lay, eat, sleep. They poop when they get up, they poop while they’re laying down. It sounded like someone continually dumping bags of oranges on the ground (and I’m not even going to talk about the pee-faucet those cows turn on.) So, what to do with all that poop? Most dairies have a lagoon to which they move all the manure. On Collman’s dairy, they flush manure water down these chutes and out into the lagoon. They separate the “solids” into a compost that they use to fertilize their alfalfa fields and re-circulate the manure water to wash out the barn. Stinky, but efficient.

CloudCap Farm-4One requirement for organic dairies is the cows must be on pasture, but Collman’s dairy was pasture-based before they went organic, so that made it a little easier for them. “I still thought we were amazing farmers as conventional farmers,” said Collman. She noted that she doesn’t believe organic is just a marketing ploy, that they truly believe in what they do and this production method is a good fit for  her family. “But what’s best practice on our farm isn’t necessarily best practice on another farm,” she said.

 

Next I visited Stauffer Dairy, about an  hour north of Spokane, Washington.

Stauffer farm-1

Brandon and his wife Krista milk about 150 cows on their first-generation dairy they started in 2009. They also have three young kids who were dashing about the whole time I was there, climbing on fences, hanging on Krista and trying to coerce me into coming to see their baby chicks. They seemed immensely happy to be there and to show me their way of life. Part of that way of life is to rake out and level the stalls twice a day, as Brandon is doing here. All the stalls get new pine shavings weekly. The heifers were moved from outside to be checked by their veterinarian before being moved to summer pasture and in this photo are in a corner of the freestall barn that isn’t normally used for milk cows. Krista also pointed out that some of the stalls need to be repaired. “Cow size stalls  and young heifers do not mix well. As you can see they made a mess and it is a work out to clean up after them.” Summer pasturing provides a welcome break for that particular chore.

Stauffer farm-2

While the cows were in the parlor being milked, Brandon was cleaning out the barn. (I like to think of him as a manure management engineer.)He drove this tractor equipped with what looked to me like a reverse-snow plow and shoveled those massive amounts of manure I mentioned before into their lagoon. Unlike Collman, their dairy is not set up to flush the manure into the lagoon, so they must push it out manually. Yes, those wheels are covered in cow manure and yes,  he’s smiling about it. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that job. Props to him, though, he didn’t bat an eye. The tractor scrapes all the manure to a slot that then transfers it to the lagoon. All the Stuaffers’ manure is used as fertilizer for feed that is grown for their farm as well as a neighboring dairy farm.

Stauffer farm-3

After filling up with feed, Brandon feeds the heifers in a transition pin (a heifer is a young female cow that has not yet had a calf.) The heifers stay in this transition pen for a short period after they are weaned off milk to be monitored for health, and checked by the veterinarian to make sure all is well. Then they are vaccinated for bangs (Brucellosis, a reproductive disease) and moved to pasture.  Stauffer farm-4The Stauffers purchase all of their feed – they feed a combination of alfalfa hay and silage, mixed with grass, barley and corn. Hay is dried forage like grass or alfalfa where silage is fermented forage.  I mentioned to Krista that Cloud Cap Farms has experienced fewer assisted births and DAs since they went organic. I asked her if they felt like conventional dairies suffered more in that regard than organic dairies. She told me, “Each farm is different. On our farm, we rarely have a DA, maybe once a year. As far as pulling calves, it is not common practice on our farm.”stauffer-6The Stauffers have 25 calves on whole milk right now. The feed changes as they get older, but one thing that remains constant is that they are feed alfalfa hay and/or silage as well as barley for their grain.

 

The last farm I visited was Douglas Falls Creamery and Barton Hay in Colville, Washington.

Barton farm-1Angie Barton and her husband, Dennis, own Douglas Falls Creamery, a certified raw milk micro-dairy on 470 acres two hours north of Spokane. They can only farm 80 of those acres (the rest are mountainous) but they lease an additional 100 acres  for a total of 180 acres to grow alfalfa, alfalfa/grass hay and barley or oat hay for the local goat, horse and family cow market. Barton is an animal expert with 40 years of experience  – she started working with goats when she was five years old. On their farm they have horses, Jersey cows, Icelandic and Friesian sheep, Alpine goats, one donkey, one pony, one llama, guinea pigs, two pot-bellied pigs, Blue Slate turkeys, laying hens, banty chickens, ring-necked doves, Japanese quail, emus (seen in this image), geese, Muscovy ducks, guinea fowl, pigeons and two dogs. They also have Barton’s four children and her niece living with them on their farm.

Barton farm-2I’ll freely admit that I’m not a morning person (and my husband will back me up on this) but I got up at 5:30 a.m. to take pictures of Barton’s twin daughters, Ellie (seen here) and Claire doing the morning chores. I said to Claire, “You do this every single morning?” and she said, “Yes. And every evening.” I said, “How do you go on vacation?” and she said, “We haven’t gone on vacation all together since we got cows.” Twice a day from March through November Ellie hand milks six to eight goats. And it was 30 degrees out there!

Barton farm-3 Barton got certified to sell raw milk in September of 2012 and they sell approximately 75 gallons a month at $4 per half gallon, the rest they mix with grain to feed the chickens, ducks, turkeys, geese and about five butcher hogs per year. In order to sell raw milk, you must have a small herd – Claire milks between three and five cows twice a day. They fully recognize the risk associated with raw milk and Barton told me they only do it for the taste, she doesn’t believe there is a nutritional advantage. “Jerseys have higher butterfat which we skim off mostly, but the milk is sweeter,” she said. “I’m not sure if it is because of the Jersey breed or not being heated or what we feed them, but I always say it’s like a fresh peach off the tree compared to canned peaches. I continue to tell my customers that pasteurized milk is the safest and that we don’t drink it for any other reason than the taste and that we know we can do a safe job, but there is always that risk.”

Barton farm-4

Barton says selling the milk provides them with enough to pay the costs of feed and a little extra, but they also have a hay business and Dennis has a seasonal full-time job. Dennis grew up on a dairy farm and has been in the haying business all his life. She says between all that, it’s enough to get by. “Although we don’t make our living entirely by farming, it just seems to be what we were meant to do and I can’t imagine living and raising a family any other way. I am so thankful that we have this opportunity.”

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Farming In Focus: March – Out Like A Lamb

This kicks off the very first post of my Farming In Focus project! My plan is to visit a different farm each month and do a sort of “day-in-the-life” of a farmer through photography. There are a number of reasons I’m doing this project  – primarily it’s to shine a light on what real life farming is like. I was recently at a training seminar put on by the Center for Food Integrity, and one nugget they shared that amazed me was that “most consumers are seven generations removed from agriculture.” That explains a lot about why consumers are sometimes confused about how their food is produced. How can we expect consumers to see through ridiculous marketing claims when in truth, they really don’t have any idea if chickens are raised using hormones or not? (If you read my series on egg labels, you already know that answer: all poultry is produced without hormones.)  So this project hopes to help, in some small way, bridge that gap.

Another reason I’m doing this project is because while I do have quite a bit of knowledge about the workings of agriculture, I haven’t spent that much time on a farm. In fact, I’ve never farmed a day in my whole life.  I visited a number of farms while working for Monsanto, but that consisted of mostly row crops. Here in Oregon, I have the benefit of being surrounded by great agricultural diversity, and this is my plan to get out there and learn more about what goes on in my own state. Hopefully  sharing what I learn with you will help us all learn a little more about agriculture.

Lastly, while I like to think of myself as an amazing writer (I’ll pause here for your applause), my degree is actually in photojournalism. Shocker, I know. I love doing documentary photography, and this will give me a chance to do it more.

I decided to focus on sheep for March, primarily because a friend of mine  posted on Facebook that she was shearing her sheep this month in preparation for lambing season.  Unfortunately, my friend lives eight hours away, so I started searching for someone closer! I ended up visiting two different sheep farms, one smallish and one more medium to large sized. Plus, it worked so well with the adage that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb!

The first farm I visited was SuDan Farm outside of Canby.

SuDan farm-1

Susie and Dan Wilson raise about 1300 grass-fed lambs per year, which Susie says is on the small end compared to some farms. They also raise about 30 pastured turkeys, 100 pastured chicken, pastured eggs, and produce many wool products which they direct-market. “We’re not organically certified,” Susie said.  “When people ask if we are I say no because we want to keep food affordable. If we had to get organically certified we’d make no money and we’d have to double or triple the price. When people ask that, though, they don’t care so much about that as they do animal welfare. If my animal needs a medication to help them, they’re going to get it.”

SuDan Farm-2

While Dan grew up in a farming family, Susie is a nurse practitioner by training but has always wanted to be a farmer. She started knitting when she was five and has been spinning since the 80’s. She started her own small-flock shearing business because she figured if she was going to be a sheep farmer she needed to know how to shear. She met Dan and has been farming with him for 15 years. She knows wool well and sells all her own fiber online and at  local farmers’ markets.

SuDan Farm-3

SuDan Farm had about 40 lambs when I visited this month. They keep about 40-50 each year for their own breeding stock, and the rest are sold either as breeding stock or sold for meat. SuDan Farm supplies wholesale lamb to 30-40 restaurants, including many well-known local restaurants like those at Timberline Lodge and OHSU. They also provide lamb to local food carts, wineries and caterers.

SuDan Farm-4

Susie has one lamb that she’s nursing along away from the mother until it’s big enough to re-join the rest on the pasture. Most ewes have single or twin lambs. When triplets are born, Susie takes one of the triplets away because ewes are not well-suited to raise triplets and often will abandon one. This way, all the triplet lambs survive.

SuDan farm-5

The day I visited was pretty much pouring rain. Aside from giving me (and a few other visitors) a tour, Susie was posting fleece on Facebook and sowing seeds in her greenhouse for their own vegetable garden.

SuDan Farm-6

Dan told me if it hadn’t been as wet as it was the day I visited he would have  been rototilling. As it was, he was repairing a trailer that they use to haul anything from compost to lambs.

SuDan Farm-7At 74, Dan told me he’s working pretty much every day. When they’re not delivering meat to restaurants they’re working the Portland Farmers Market every Saturday year-round at Portland State University and the Milwaukie Farmers Market every Sunday, May through October. The rest of the time, he’s working on the farm.  He told me a vacation day is when he doesn’t do anything in the hours between feeding the animals in the morning and feeding them at night.

 

The next farm I visited was Crescent Lake Farms on Sauvie Island.

Trupp farm-1

The first thing Lynn Trupp does each morning is fire off a shotgun shot to scare off the thousands of geese who are eating the pasture meant for the sheep.  I was trying to get a picture of him firing off the gun, but even though I was expecting it, the shot made me jump so much I missed my chance. Instead I looked off to the field and literally saw the horizon lifting up with geese. Lynn said in addition to eating the grass, the geese also eat the first crop of alfalfa. He later showed me his neighbors wheat field that had should have been twice as tall had the geese not eaten it down to the ground a few weeks ago.  They’ve tried everything to keep the geese away, but nothing works very well. “Sometimes I scare them off for the day, but sometimes they just move over a bit or come right back.”

Trupp Farm-2

Lynn’s wife Mary is the fourth generation on this farm, and Lynn himself grew up a sheep rancher near Eugene.  In addition to roughly 750 sheep, they also have a couple hundred cattle, as well as some chickens, emus, rabbits and any number of other projects their daughter, a veterinary technician, keeps for fun. This year they have 300 mother ewes, each giving birth to one to three lambs. The rams are kept elsewhere. After scaring off the geese, Lynn gets to work feeding the animals.

Trupp Farm-3

Unlike SuDan Farm, Lynn and his wife don’t direct market any of their lamb, all of it goes to a slaughter house. He said in the past they’ve tried to sell it themselves but he got tired of folks trying to haggle him on the price and trying to slaughter the lambs on his property. All the wool they shear goes to Pendleton Woolen Mills in Portland.

Trupp Farm-4

Just like Susie, Lynn takes away the triplets from the mother ewes to make sure they all survive. He had about a dozen triplets he was feeding a milk replacement similar to formula. Some of the lambs needed to be bottle fed, while some of them could drink their own milk. As soon as they’re big enough, they’ll join the other lambs in the communal pen.

Trupp farm-5

In addition to it being the end of lambing season, it’s also calving season. Lynn usually leaves all the calves with the cows, but this one needed special help – it’s never been able to stand up. Lynn thinks perhaps it got stepped on during the birthing process and has a broken back. “I’m probably wasting my time,” Lynn said,  “but you never know.  I’ll make a harness and get her up and moving around. Sometimes these things heal themselves.” If not, the calf will have to be euthanized.

Trupp Farm-6

After feeding the triplet lambs milk, he feeds the older lambs spent brewers grain that he gets for free from a local brewery. Well, not exactly for free – he has to pick up the six to seven tons every week, which isn’t a trivial cost in transportation. He considers it well worth it, though, as it makes a great feed product for the lambs.

Trupp Farm-7

The heaviest part of lambing season is over – there are only about 45 pregnant ewes left that will mostly produce only a single lamb each because the majority of them are first-time mothers; they were only born a year ago themselves. Lynn feeds them  alfalfa that he grows himself. I asked him if the pregnant ewes eat the most, but he told me they don’t eat nearly as much as the nursing mother ewes.

Trupp Farm-8

While I was following Lynn around, he discovered a brand-new pair of lambs born less than two hours before I got there; they were still wet. After the lambs are born, Lynn moves them and the mother into what’s called a jug pen to make sure everyone is doing well and nursing. Ideally, they stay in the jug pen for two to three days, but Lynn said when they’re in the thickest part of lambing season, sometimes they only get to stay in the jug pen for a few hours before they’re moved out to make room for a newer set. Lynn has about 40 jug pens that need fresh food and water two or three times per day. The gestation period for a sheep is five months. A ewe’s milk is very high in fat and lambs gain almost a pound a day.

Trupp farm-9

Three hundred mother ewes means at least three hundred, maybe six hundred lambs. Each one of them must be given vaccines, and have their tails docked. The males also must be castrated. Lynn does all the work himself, sometimes with the help of his daughter as seen here. He can do it alone if need be with the aid of a special harness.  Starting in April they treat the lambs to get rid of worms every thirty days and run the whole flock through a foot bath to prevent foot rot about every three weeks.

Trupp farm-10

Every day Lynn drives the perimeter of his pasture on an ATV to both deliver food for his guard dogs and to check for lambs that have been killed by coyotes.  That white bucket contained more dog food than I have ever seen given to a dog, but as soon as we drove through that fence, a huge white dog came running from about half a mile away. I love dogs, but he did not look friendly. “If he’s friendly, he won’t be good at his job,” Lynn said.  Lynn’s dogs spend their life on the pasture guarding the sheep from coyotes, which explains why they need so much food. Lynn’s family owns 230 acres for those dogs to patrol. Trupp farm-11Thankfully, we didn’t find any dead lambs that day, and Lynn said so far this has been a pretty good year – he’s only lost a few lambs to coyotes. A few years ago, he lost about 70 lambs to coyotes.  In our drive around the perimeter, we saw places where the coyotes were digging under the fence and evading Lynn’s traps. I asked Lynn if he was concerned about the recent wolf sighting on Mt. Hood, and he said, “Yes, I’m very concerned. It’s only a matter of time before they’ll be here.”  After driving out on the pasture, Lynn took me in  his truck to check on the cattle that he keeps on rental pasture in the Sauvie Island Wildlife Area owned by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Lynn drives out to check on the cattle at least once or twice a day to look for cows that are having trouble calving and also just to have a presence since the area is open to the public. In the past, Lynn said he’s had trouble with people slaughtering his cows, so the more he’s present, the less likely it is that will happen. “If I’m honest with you,” he said, “there’s always something that I should be doing. I don’t always get to it all, but there’s always something that needs to be done.”

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