Rainshadow Organics: Abundant Organic Farming—in the Desert

26 Nov, 2012

It’s not the harsh, arid kind of desert found in Northern Africa, but rather the cold high desert of eastern Oregon. Still, this is not the sort of place to cultivate a wide variety of crops; what is mostly grown here is grass for grazing cattle, alfalfa and hay. It is a challenging environment—there is less rainfall than other areas of the state and a freeze nearly every night of the year. But not only has Sarahlee Lawrence managed to best these challenges on her Rainshadow Organics farm, she has done so completely organically and created a thriving business in the process.

“We’ve experienced incredible abundance,” Lawrence told Organic Connections. “This is especially true because everybody said that we couldn’t grow food where we are located. We have zero frost-free days—historically in the last 100 years every single day of the year has frozen at least once. Even on a good year our last frosts are in mid-June, and it starts to freeze again mid-August. So it’s pretty cold and challenging.”

Creating Diversity

The range of crops Lawrence produces is quite varied. “Rainshadow Organics is 130 organic acres,” Lawrence continued. “We grow grain both for our animals and for human consumption. We mill fresh flour weekly. We have about 8 acres of row crops, and roughly 50 different kinds of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers. We also have 10 greenhouses and a big root cellar.”

Business has thrived. “It’s grown 100 percent each year,” Lawrence said. “We have a CSA for 85 families, and this is the first year we are doing a year-round CSA; plus we go to three farmers’ markets, and we work with about half a dozen restaurants and two grocery stores.”

Coming Home

Lawrence grew up on the land she is now farming but, as many children do, left to pursue school and other adventures. “I was born and raised on my family farm,” Lawrence said. “I’m 30 years old and have a master’s degree in environmental science. I spent most of my time in and out of college as a river guide all over the American West, in Central and South America and in East Africa.”

Three years ago, however, Lawrence’s parents asked that she return home. As it happened, that request coincided with a pivotal time in Lawrence’s consciousness. “I came to farming at a time when my family was really needing help,” Lawrence said. “It was also at a time when I was reading Michael Pollan and starting to have a better understanding of the food issues and what we’re faced with right now: how to create good, clean, fair, local food for as many people as possible.

“When I was growing up here, we raised Texas Longhorn cattle and hay conventionally. It was definitely a family farm—it wasn’t a big agribusiness type of thing—but it wasn’t organic. So when my parents needed me to move home, I didn’t want to continue just raising hay and beef. I really wanted to change that and produce more human food, and definitely organically.

“My family farm had a little two-acre plot that had never been farmed—it had some grass and that was it. So it was able to be organic immediately and that’s what I started with. Then over the last three years we have transitioned the whole place to organic.”

Learning to Grow

There is much to learn about sustainable farming, and Lawrence has been quick to employ as many methods of information gathering as possible. “My ecology background was very helpful, just for having a sense of the needs of living things,” she explained. “But my mom is a master gardener, so I lean on her heavily for ideas and advice. My dad is a great farmer as well. I have a smart phone and Google a lot of stuff. And I try things—I just give it a try.”

An example of what she has had to educate herself on is the handling of pests—an issue that conventional farmers combat with thousands of dollars’ worth of chemicals. “We use worm-casting tea, applied foliarly [directly to the leaves], which has been a great deterrent,” said Lawrence. “Also growing things in a permaculture fashion with plenty of mulch, working on my living soil with all my beneficial microbes and insects, and planting a lot of flowers, using biodynamic methods, and planting with the biodynamic calendar—all of these play a role. Overall it’s done through having the healthiest system possible.

“I can’t say it’s all mastered, although it definitely works out pretty well considering I produce so much food with very little experience.”

Reaching Out

In addition to creating a business, Lawrence has worked hard to make her healthy food available to those who need it most. For the first two years, her food fed the patients in two local hospitals. “I really wanted to supply the hospitals because I believe that sick people should have the best possible food,” Lawrence said. “I felt good about facilitating that. It was very exciting. Going into my second year I had a contract with both these hospitals, and I took them a lot of food.”

Severe budget cuts have temporarily suspended the hospitals’ ability to purchase and prepare fresh organic food—but Lawrence has found other ways to aid those in her community that need her. “We’re doing work-share CSA memberships for people who can work for their food and thus not have to pay for it,” she said. “And we are subsidized through the Central Oregon Intergovernmental Council so that we can provide CSAs to people who are on food stamps. We supply fabulous inexpensive food for those people as well.”

Continuing to Meet Challenges and Expand

“Our focus is really on food access and food security for our area, which is challenging here, like I said, because of the climate,” Lawrence concluded. “We’re continuing to learn how to grow, how to extend our seasons. That consists of, one, growing more year round, and otherwise doing more food preservation both in the root cellar and in frozen, dried and canned goods.

“We’re closing our loop all the time too, applying more sustainable methods and using less fuels and renewable fuels. I run my delivery truck on waste vegetable oil. We’re building a big facility that’s going to be for our milling and poultry processing and will also include a commercial kitchen; it will all be solar powered.

“We are constantly moving toward efficiency with our water, building our soil and building our community. We are working for a really positive impact on the world instead of a negative one—instead of every bite you take traveling an average of 1,500 miles and having huge implications all over the globe with genetic modification, chemicals, fossil fuels, and poor living and labor situations for farmers. Every single bite you take has an effect on the planet; we want the bites that we take and the bites that we provide to be having a positive effect in our world.”

For more information, please visit www.rainshadoworganics.com.

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