Diversification provides options for farmers


Last updated 7/18/2023 at 10:01am

Photo by Sue Stafford

A swallowtail butterfly samples the pollen at Pine Meadow Ranch.

Two buzz words increasingly used when talking about present-day farming and ranching operations are "agritourism" and "regenerative agriculture." Both are departures from traditional farming practices.

By diversifying their operations to offer opportunities for the public to experience what goes on at a working ranch or farm, farmers and ranchers can create additional income. Agritourism allows people to connect with the products, practices, and places that produce our food, commodities, and the way of life experienced in agricultural areas.

The types of agritourism activities allowed in exclusive farm use (EFU) zones for properties with an existing farm use in Oregon were established by statute (SB 960) by the state legislature in 2011. Individual counties adopt ordinances in compliance with the state criteria and may add local requirements.

Deschutes County incorporated the law into county code in 2012, which requires obtaining a limited use permit to conduct the agritourism activities. In Deschutes County, the term agritourism refers to a commercial enterprise at a working farm or ranch that is incidental (in addition to) and subordinate (secondary) to the existing farm use of the tract and promotes successful agriculture. The commercial enterprise generates supplemental income for the owner and must be related to and supportive of agriculture.

According to Oregon State University, today in Oregon just over one percent of the population lives on farms, and fewer than 20 percent of the population lives in rural areas. On-farm agritourism experiences help provide the remaining small farms with additional revenue streams while also educating visitors from urban areas about the importance of farming.

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Agritourism can take many forms, including farm stands and on-farm sales, u-pick and u-cut, farm-to-table meals, experiential educational classes or programs, farm tours, on-farm lodging, promotional activities such as pumpkin patches, hayrides, and corn mazes, and recreation such as horse riding, bird watching, fishing, and hunting.

Regenerative agriculture uses a variety of sustainable agricultural techniques in combination, such as organic soil regeneration and rehabilitation with composting (no chemicals), increasing biodiversity of crops (instead of monocropping), no-till and/or reduced-till practices for minimal soil disturbance and reduced carbon emission, water percolation and retention, mixed crop rotation, rotational grazing, and cover cropping. Put simply, regenerative agriculture is about building soil, habitat, and diversity.

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Here in Sisters Country, we have a growing number of farms and ranches that are engaging in both agritourism and regenerative agriculture, with activities geared to the unique context in which they operate.

Rainshadow Organics, located on Holmes Road 15 miles northeast of Sisters, is a 200-acre family-owned full-diet farm. They produce dozens of varieties of certified organic vegetables, herbs, berries, flowers, pork, chicken, eggs, turkey, beef, and grains, using regenerative farming practices.

They sell their products through CSA programs at their on-site farm store, at the Wednesday Bend Farmers' Market, and to local restaurants and grocery stores. Their farm table dinners feature all their farm-raised products. They are certified organic and use only sustainable practices, with no chemical pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides.

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Owner Sarahlee Lawrence said, "Diverse organic fields with long crop rotations and cover crops are foundational to building soil and sequestering carbon. Organic matter also has tremendous water-holding capacity, which allows us to reduce the water that we use to grow our food. We also support a complex ecosystem from wee soil microbes, insects, birds, and larger critters. This is a safe place for all things to live in balance."

She added, "We strongly believe in animal integration at our farm. The way our cattle, chickens, turkeys, and pigs use the land and provide nutrients in the form of manure is central to our sustainability."

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Pole Creek Ranch is an iconic 345-acre ranch on Highway 242 whose mission is "to create healthy land, healthy animals, and a healthy community. According to their website, "To responsibly manage our land, we use regenerative agricultural practices and rotational grazing to mimic the grazing patterns of wild herds, enriching the quality and biodiversity of our soil.... Our mission is to reconnect people with their food and the land that produces it... specializing in farm-direct delivery of our premium pasture-raised natural beef." The ranch raises premium red angus cattle and low-carb pasture blend hay and low-carb orchard grass, which they sell.

The remodeled main ranch house is now the Lodge at Pole Creek Ranch and is available to rent, as is the newly renovated Rancher's House. They can assist guests with ski and bike rentals, customize hiking or bike routes based on interest and ability, or suggest where to dine and drink. Or you can experience a little taste of ranch life. The ranch is also available for special events and weddings.

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Lazy Z Ranch is a "farm at the front yard of Sisters" and has been for decades, dating back to the late 1800s when it covered 1,400 acres. The ranch, now 84 acres, was purchased three years ago by John and Renee Herman with plans to practice regenerative agriculture as they create their Lazy Z Ranch Wines – mead made from the honey produced by bees in their 35-40 apiaries that pollinate their regenerative bee pastures.

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The pastures feature a multi-species ecosystem, with an emphasis on drought-resistance and pollinator habitat. Pasture-boarded horses and goats help in the regenerative process as does short-term, high-density grazing by cattle in the regenerative bee pastures to stimulate and sustain soil health. Work has begun on acreage for more pollinator favorites – berries, lavender, trees, flowers, and pumpkins.

Bottles of mead will be available for purchase on their website under Shop Ranch Wines as of July 19 (www.lazyzranch.com). Coming soon will be a farmhouse meadery tasting room that will promote pollinator education and conservation. There are plans to eventually host small special events and music.

The first two meads offered are their 100 percent regeneratively produced 2022 Estate traditional wildflower honey mead from Lazy Z Ranch's apiary and 2022 Lavender Blossom traditional mead from Central Oregon apiaries. Mead is available for pickup at the ranch or there is free local delivery to Sisters, Bend, or Redmond.

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Seed to Table is a four-acre farm plot that began 10 years ago on property belonging to the Tehan family of Sisters. Daughter Audrey had a dream to make access to fresh produce a possibility for all people. Their food system restores ecosystems while providing equitable access to fresh foods and opportunities for community members to engage positively with farm-fresh foods. They have produce shares available for purchase, providing 750 individuals per week with fresh and locally grown produce. They provide 75,000 pounds of fresh produce to the community each year. Over 1,500 school students have experienced farm-based fresh food education. They host farm-to-table dining events featuring products from the farm.

Faith, Hope & Charity Vineyards (named after the Three Sisters mountains), on Lower Valley Drive in Terrebonne, offers a summer concert series, wine release parties, farmers markets, winemaker dinners, praise and worship on Sunday mornings, and serves as a venue for special events and weddings. Their approval as a vineyard and winery provides them with wider latitude than some of the other agricultural properties. They cultivate at least 15 acres of grapes.

Pine Meadow Ranch is a kaleidoscope of plants, animals, insects, and art with gardens planted to resemble quilts, rows of vegetables, black angus cattle and sheep doing short-term, high-density grazing, a berry test garden, and a native plant pollinator garden. Many of the flowers in the gardens are used to dye fabrics.

Kathy Deggendorfer has created an artist residency program that is helping preserve this historic ranch, where they are using regenerative agriculture to restore the health of the soil and increase output.

Pam Wavrin, the director of ranch operations, said they use no pesticides, herbicides, or chemical fertilizers. Their focus for now is improving the health of the soil and water infiltration. Years of the land being overstocked with cattle that weren't rotated in their grazing has created troublesome soil compaction.

Building up the soil includes application of compost created using coffee grounds from Fika Sisters Coffeehouse, hops and grain mash from Three Creeks Brewing, loose hay from the ranch barns, unusable wool left after shearing the sheep, grass clippings, and garden refuse.

The philosophy of the ranch is to work with nature and not be extractive. They are experimenting with biochar, which is created by burning the slash from the fuels reduction work on the ranch.

Students of all ages visit the ranch to participate in activities as varied as seed saving and forest restoration. Visiting artists can participate in ranch activities and provide a variety of experiences for Sisters residents.

There is a lot of agricultural experimenting and testing taking place on the ranch. Wavrin said, "We share our failures and our successes with the local farmers. We are generating a closed-loop system, using what we have and putting back into the ranch."

Photo by Sue Stafford

Beehives at the Lazy Z Ranch have been painted by the high school art class.


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