Copyright 2005 AXIS Performance Advisors
By Marsha Willard
Oregon and Washington are gaining an international reputation in sustainability. People are coming from all over the world to see real examples of sustainable business practices that are netting triple bottom line results. Most of the attention has been directed at our urban success stories; the growing number of LEED buildings, the City of Portland’s greenhouse gas initiative, state government purchasing practices, and high-profile businesses like Nike, Norm Thompson and Rejuvenation. But the action doesn’t only occur in the Willamette Valley. There are exciting and innovative things going on all over the state in some of our smallest and most remote towns. We urban dwellers are notorious for overlooking the contributions of our rural communities. We often patronize them by using our voting might to direct rural policies and sometimes even falsely demonizing rural communities by accusing them of mismanaging ournatural resources.
Fortunately for us all, there are a growing number of people in communities all over Oregon and Washington who understand the benefits of sustainable development. Their efforts not only help create more viable economies for themselves, but benefit metropolitan areas in ways we urban dwellers often don’t recognized. The fact is, while we may decry logging, we continue to bulldoze our own lands to raise stick frame houses by the thousands. Our street run-off and sewage despoil the beautiful, clean water that sources from our rural neighbors. And Eastern Oregon and Washington provide the fruits, grains and meat that satisfy our own voraciously growing appetites. In short, practically everything we use to nourish and house ourselves comes from rural places.
Working in partnership with Sustainable Northwest, AXIS hopes to bridge the urban/rural divide and help foster mutual appreciation and collaboration through our new Sustainability Seminars and Tours service. SST was formally launched this fall and will offer tailored presentations and guided site visits to businesses and organizations throughout the Northwest to enhance learning about sustainability and showcase Oregon and Washington industries. This newsletter features just a few of the rural organizations we will feature. [Editor’s note: 9-11 brought the end to easy travel to the US so this program never got off the ground.]
People in the Northwest are positively schizophrenic about our forests. On the one hand we want to protect them and ensure they will be around for centuries more, but we also want to use them to provide lumber and jobs for our growing economy. At least one tree farmer we met in Wallowa County demonstrates that both are possible. Leo Goebel has a long history with Oregon forests. He grew up helping his father log trees and also worked a couple of summers with the forest service before managing timber for his own and others’ timber lands. Leo’s 160acre tree farm had 1.9 million board feet of timber on it when he purchased the land with his partner Bob Jackson just over 30 years ago. By Leo’s calculations(and his records are impressively detailed), he has harvested about 2 million board feet over the years and still has that and more growing on the land today. In contrast with their corporate competitors, Leo and Bob manage the land through thinning and spacing, building the soil and creating habitat along the way. They fell the dead or dying trees taking care not to damage the soil in the process and leave most of the slash behind as soil amendment and habitat for mammals, birds and insects. Leo explained that by thinning and pruning his trees, he actually increases the amount of lumber they provide. He keeps his costs lower than traditional tree farms by letting nature do most of the work of replanting. While their approach is labor intensive, Leo and Bob have dramatically increased the productivity and diversity of the land and created a property that will be producing long into the future.
Leo’s land is adjacent to the National Forest but the contrast is dramatic. Leo’s tree farm is lush and beautiful, a place where you take a relaxing deep breath. Just a few yards into the National Forest,however, claustrophobic stands of small trees are choked together, a fire waiting to happen. The forest’s managers feel stymied in their attempt to manage the land fearing a backlash from environmentalists who are too used to seeing large, irresponsible timber companies rape the forest for a short-term gain. Now, the legacy of these actions leave the forests stalemated and at risk.
Wheat is one of the Northwest’s largest commodity products. Drive east of the Cascades and you will find thousands of acres of this golden grain. But while the fields may be beautiful, the practices associated with large-scale wheat farming are contributing to massive soil erosion and nutrient depletion. Fred Fleming and his partner Karl Kupers, members of the Shepherd’s Grain coop, take a radically different approach to wheat farming. Unlike the typical wheat farmer, they don’t plow their fields. Instead they “drill” new seeds into the stubble of the previous year’s crop. The advantages are many.First, the process leaves no bare earth where weeds can sprout. Since the soil is not disturbed and loosened, it is also less vulnerable to erosion during heavy rains. Most importantly, however, it feeds the soil by leaving the decaying stubble and encouraging microbial life. While many of their neighbors have lost as much as two feet of top soil over the last decade or two, no till farmers are literally “growing” valuable topsoil.
Their no-till farming has netted benefits in the marketplace as well. Their rich soil produces grain high in protein and flavor and offers a breadth of uses (unlike other flours that have specific baking applications). Shepherd’s Grain has made its way into local markets where consumers value local, safe, traceable food. By passing normal chains, Shepherd’s grain sells directly to food producers like Bon Appetit, Hot Lips Pizza and retail specialty bakeries. Fred Fleming considers the customers of Shepherd’s Grain to be doing more for the environment and society than any amount of protesting or hand wringing will every produce. As he puts it, “When you become this kind of food activist, you also become a disciple to save family farms.”´
No-till farming is one crop-specific strategy for sustainable harvesting. Other farming and ranching techniques abound on the Thundering Hooves farm outside of Walla Walla. After years of conventional farming dating back to his great grandfather, Joel Huesby discovered that dependence on chemical inputs was actually diminishing the land’s ability to produce. As he put it, his soil had become drug-addicted. “Without its next chemical hit, it will fail to produce. Just like with an addict, it’s progressive and it’s terminal.” Twelve years ago Joel began to wean his farm off its dependency. Now he achieves soil fertility through focused grazing of his livestock and rotating nitrogen-fixing legumes in his fields. He even
contracted with a local paper recycling plant to dump 36,000 tons of wet paper on his land. In addition to diverting 1400 truckloads of paper from the landfill, he got 215 acres worth of mulch that held the water on the land and produced fields of green grazing grasses. And the recycler paid him to dump the paper.
Joel has discovered time-saving ways to work. For example, instead of baling fields of alfalfa and hoisting tons of it into a barn, Joel cuts the field, waits till it wilts a bit, and then turns his cattle out into
the field. As Joel puts it, “God gave them four legs and a mouth; let them go harvest their own!” The cows are happy being out in the fresh air and they fertilize the field in the process.
Joel’s neighbors were initially skeptical; well, actually they thought he was nuts. But now they are watching him closely and asking questions. Last year he sold out of beef early unable to meet the growing
demand for vegetarian fed, organic meat.
These are but three examples of the exciting efforts afoot in our rural areas. They prove that we don’t need to lock up all our open spaces into preserves to have a healthy environment. With practices like these,we can work the land and still ensure a place for Nature at the table. It is in our interest as urban dwellers to support rural businesses like these for they are protecting the ecosystem services upon which we all depend.
If you want to learn more about these or other rural success stories, go to www.sustainablenorthwest.org.