Ecologists and environmental economists have identified diversified local agriculture as a critical piece to cutting humanity’s carbon footprint and as a potential avenue for rebuilding ecosystems that have been damaged by anthropogenic activities. The high desert biosphere here in Central Oregon is perhaps fantastic for pursuing out outdoors passions, but it is a difficult environment to be a farmer. The high desert ecology is described as a zone 6a by the USDA, meaning that during an average year temperatures dip as low as -5 Fahrenheit, and is qualified as a semi-arid desert due to only 10-15 inches of annual rainfall. Due to variable monthly temperature, and long cold fall and spring conditions, the growing season here is very short. The annual growing season in the high desert ranges from 80-90 days; compare this to the long growing season of the productive zone 8 Willamette Valley, where farmers grow outdoors 150-180 days a year. Crops on this side of the valley also do not have the benefit of deep sedimentary soil from ancient glacial movement. Since this region was largely formed by ancient volcanic activity, most of the soil is a shallow development of residual ash. This ashy sediment is sandy, which leaches water like a sieve, and is remarkably low in organic matter and microbiological activity. The confluence of these environmental factors make for hard conditions to cultivate oft needy food crops.
It may seem like this is a rather negative way to look at the landscape here, its not, the high desert is beautiful in so many unique ways and is an important habitat for abundant wildlife. My goal, instead; is to lay out the canvas and paint a picture of just how much hard work and thought goes into growing local food in Deschutes county. But people do it, and do it well.
Sarahlee Lawrence from Rainshadow Organics has been doing it for a number of years up in Terrebonne, and put strident effort into extending her growing season beyond 90 days. They are now beginning to prepare for their spring season by transplanting tender seedlings into greenhouse rows, but this is not the beginning of a new year. The operation never stopped. This year they need to make room for the new seedlings because the ground is covered in an explosion leafy kale, collards, arugula and smatterings of asian greens. All of this produce was planted back in the fall for the Rainshadow winter CSA, and has been protected from the harsh elements all winter; that is no accident. Everything is designed to create a favorable microclimate that makes up for the environmental shortcomings. Lets begin with her crop selection, which includes winter hardy brassicas like kale and asian greens, whose plant physiology has adapted to tolerate frosts (and actually becomes sweeter). Next comes the ashy soil, which has been amended with rich a horse and chicken manure compost, and used to build a deep organic root bed. Then the cold, but variable ambiance, which is better controlled with a full coverage greenhouse dome to provide thermal insulation, solar radiation, wind protection and retain moisture. Those crops that tend to be a bit more sensitive are covered with a light cloth row cover, which acts as a bit of a redundancy to the greenhouse enclosure. Since Terrebonne is close to the leeward steps of the Cascades, their farm is frequently hammered by a barrage of howling wintry winds. In response, Sarahlee has positioned her greenhouses behind a hedgerow of thick juniper trees, which act as a windbreak to protect both crops and greenhouse plastic from driving gusts of the prevailing wind. And the work has paid off. The rows have stayed green and healthy all winter, and now, into the spring.
All of this design, and hard work throughout the extended season has allowed for green dinner plates at home or in restaurants downtown. That is why this week we are teaming up with Jackson’s Corner to highlight just where all of their food does come from. “Local” is an important term because we can duck under the plastic and see how things work, to know what it takes to grow food that might otherwise be taken for granted.
Written by: Peter Elmore