EMMA ROUTLEY/THE CHRONICLE
There is something exciting in the way of organic agriculture happening a few miles east of Creswell. Out in the Cloverdale area resides My Brothers’ Farm, founded in 2013, and the modern version of the “Back to the Land” movement. It is also an ongoing experiment in sustainable, regenerative agriculture.
It is the story of not losing the family, but founding one. Farm-to-table short loop, local food security, healthy rivers, free-range animals, family teamwork, partnering with universities and local nonprofits, taking leadership in local farming groups – it’s all part of what makes My Brothers’ Farm so unique.
An operation this vast – and ideas this big – can hardly be contained here. It is just a snapshot, and what follows might be a mile wide, but is only inches deep.
First, a little history.
The seeds for My Brothers’ Farm were planted by dad, John Larson. His parents had bought an investment property near Cloverdale and there was a rental house on the property. The bulk of the 320 acres were being cultivated by a grass-seed farmer who still leases part of the acerage to this day.
EMMA ROUTLEY/THE CHRONICLE
John and wife Debbie were renting a home in Eugene, and weren’t delighted with the idea of raising their young family in the city. John was born-and-bred in the Willamette Valley and has both deep roots and extended family here.
So John came up with an unorthodox idea: He asked the people renting the house on his parents’ land if they would “swap” houses with him. To his surprise the tenets agreed and the Larsons moved on to the land, and raised their three boys on the very grounds they are now, as a family, farming.
John and Debbie eventually bought the property from his parents. The boys went to school in Pleasant Hill and one by one left to pursue college and their own way in the world.
Even while apart, family members had an ongoing conversation about the land.
They were always centered around the idea of this first-generation family farm being a return-to-the-land movement – something to create and sustain a family farm, rather than burning one.
The challenges for small farms over the past several decades have been clear. The discussions, however, persisted. Taylor, the eldest son, was working with the Peace Corps as an agroforestry extension officer in Zambia when the whole family came for a visit. While in Zambia – a landlocked country in central south Africa – the family talked at length about starting a farm on the land the boys had grown up on.
When Taylor returned stateside, his brother Austin called and asked, “So are we going to do this?”
It was the spark that set the dream ablaze. My Brothers’ Farm got its start, a joint effort of the three brothers, Taylor, Austin, and Ben, mom Linda, and now retired dad John. Maia, wife of Taylor, and Becca, partner of Austin, have joined the effort giving the team a bit more depth. Most of the team members have off-farm work as well, utilizing their different skill sets which allows for lots of flexibility working the farm. It also generates a continuing discussion on how best to do things.
John said he never dreamed all of his sons would come back and take on farming the land. And for more reasons than the idea all were out pursuing their own paths in the world. Small farms have been facing economic challenges for decades.
EMMA ROUTLEY/ THE CHRONICLE The station is used to vaccinate, immunize and wean bison calves. My Brothers' Farm was able to buy it from a bison farm that was going out of business.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture research in 2018 stated that family farms remain a key part of U.S. agriculture, making up 98% of all farms and providing 88% of production. Most farms are small family farms, and they operate almost half of U.S. farmland, while generating 21% of production. While fewer in number, midsize and large-scale family farms account for about 66% of production.
It makes this story all the more incredible.
The sense of family is immediate upon arrival to the farm. Visitors likely would encounter an enthusiastic pack of farm dogs. They dutifully notified the farm staff that strangers are present, rather convincingly, but with tails wagging. Are these “working dogs?” Ben Larson let us know. “Not really, but they are definitely members of the farm team.” In fact, they have their own bios on the company website.
One of the things that differentiates My Brothers’ Farm is its diverse leadership team. The array of viewpoints make the farm operation as organic as its products.
So is its commitment to try and make the operation sustainable, or to say it another way – “regenerative agriculture.”
Instead of fighting the land and its natural ecosystem, MBF is building up soil health, regenerating natural habitat, and doing everything as organically as possible. At the same time they are also growing natural, healthy, food. Importantly, they are getting that food to consumers as directly as possible.
Piece-by-piece the family has been taking areas that were formally planted for rye grass seed production and converting them into rich pastureland. They now have a herd of 45 bison who graze in the paddocks and rotate between them as forage gets low. Restoring the pasture has involved adding organic nutrients, reseeding with a diverse mix of deep-rooted grasses, legumes and forbs. The Bison can subsist almost entirely on the forage and convert that fodder into meat that is nutritious and healthy.
They have one of the only bison herds in Oregon, with 45 head. Eventually, they hope to have 100 head.
The farmers have established two orchards. One is an apple orchard with 16 varieties of cider and four eating varieties of apples. The other is 20 acres of filberts/hazelnuts. MBF also leases another 30 acres of hazelnuts near the farm.
(Author’s aside: I understand the ongoing debate on what to call this delicious nut, so I will use filbert and hazelnut interchangeably.)
EMMA ROUTLEY/THE CHRONICLE The squirrels and wildlife are often the first ones to help themselves to hazelnuts - they leave the empty ones on the ground.
MBF uses pigs in the pasture and other places on the farm. Instead of being penned up they can move about the pasture and get to lay in dirt, living the dream of a free pig.
In a cooperative experiment with the University of Oregon, MBF is helping conduct a study on breaking the lifecycle of the dreaded filbert worm. This pest bores into young hazelnuts and ruins them. Worm-infected nuts fall to the ground early and the larvae inside can develop into an adult. By running the pigs through the hazelnut orchards they act like vacuum cleaners to suck up the still tasty but infected nuts.
Jays, squirrels, and deer also like to take a crack at hazelnuts and a few of the nuts go to the friends in the neighborhood.
The pigs also get to graze on acorns of the surrounding oak hamlets. This is a good example of regenerative agriculture.
EMMA ROUTLEY/THE CHRONICLE Their trailer makes My Brothers' Farm easy to find at the market.
The native oak habitat in Oregon is about 5% of its original range. The filbert moth, originally and still does feast on acorns too. So to raise filberts next to oak trees is inviting trouble. By getting the pigs to eat up the acorns is another way to help break the cycle. Feasting on acorns and filberts gives the pork a rich taste before the pigs are harvested.
All of MBF hazelnuts are organically grown (only about 1% of Oregon’s filbert harvest is organic). Most conventional hazelnut growers spray with insecticides for the filbert worm and use herbicides to keep the ground around the trees bare to facilitate nut harvest.
Filbert harvest is another area of cooperative research that MBF has participated in. The standard sweep harvest of fallen nuts requires a clean, level orchard floor. That is often where herbicides come in. MBF has been working some research on shake harvesting through a Western SARE Farmer/Rancher Grant. Using an expanding net-and-catch bucket, trees are encircled and gently shaken. This allows natural floor under the trees.
There were some findings that might limit this approach to hazelnut harvest. One is the nuts usually ripen during a two-week window. Shake harvest is labor- and machine-intensive and has to be done one tree at a time. Plus a sudden wind can take the job off one’s hands and land most of the nuts on the ground where they would have to be swept.
There is promising new technology may provide a way forward for having a healthy orchard floor and an easy harvest too. Recent collaboration with a local artist and manufacturer led to a compostable brown paper packing for their organic filberts.
Taylor is a farm team member who leads the connectivity with local farm organizations and conservation groups. He is president of the Oregon Organic Hazelnut Cooperative and is working as a staff member with the Coast Fork Willamette Watershed Council (CFWWC).
EMMA ROUTLEY/THE CHRONICLE Ben holding Hazel to keep her from falling in the river (again).
A partnership between the farm and CFWWC is helping with river health. MBF is strategically located between two state greenway parks on the Coast Fork Willamette river. Along the half-mile river frontage containing the farm, this partnership using state and local grants has planted nearly 50,000 native trees and shrubs to start to rebuild the natural riparian habitat. Traditional farming practice has been to plow right up to the edge of the river or allow livestock to graze it. This leads to sedimentation, raising water temperature and losing water absorption, and loss of wildlife habitat. By connecting the two greenway pieces with native plantings, including the farm portion, will create 295 acres of floodplain forest.
Another area of research is through Oregon State University to explore using sap from the native Big Leaf Maple. While having only about half the sugar content of the sugar maple, it does produce a tasty syrup or a pleasant maple water drink. By linking a tap system and a gravity-collection system of tubes there may be a sweet future in the Willamette Valley.
True to their plan of figuring it out along the way, some ideas from the MBF team never took root, so to speak. The plan to grow organic hops didn’t pan out because the damp climate spoils the flowers with mold and cost of production compared to market return.
There are, of course, other ideas in the works.
As the apple orchards mature there are plans to turn a portion of the harvest into hard cider. A 24-foot by 100-foot greenhouse is being laid out and winter crops of tomatoes, winter greens and less hardy vegetables will be grown in-ground in the space. One popular harvest has been the pumpkin patch and that will continue.
During a walking tour of the farm with brother Ben and the friendly farm dogs, I asked him about the farm’s vision. He unhesitatingly replied: “We are out here trying to grow food.” Simple and sincere.
EMMA ROUTLEY/THE CHRONICLE Entrance to My Brothers' Farm.
Their goal is our gain.
The Coronavirus has dealt a few curveballs to the farm. The meat-processing industry severely interfered with processing their pork this year. Since they are a small operation they are not that attractive to the processors and have to take the slots they can get. The virus has also put some of their usual farmers markets and sales events on hold. They are looking ahead when things can be safely reopened.
MBF is selling food at the Lane County Farmers Winter Market on Saturdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., which is at 8th & Oak in Eugene. You can also make an appointment for farm pickup or arrange a pickup at their Springfield drop site.
With an eye to the future, a respect for the land they tend, and a burning desire to grow food for the people who live around them, My Brothers’ Farm is a family that is farming as a way of life.