Driving up to Rainshadow Organics, we knew it was a busy day for the farm. Everyone was in the potato fields laying drip tape, and a tractor was tilling the ground for new crops. We pulled to the side of the road, hopped out, and started our tour. Originally belonging to her parents, the land was taken over by Sarah Lee Lawrence, formerly a restoration ecologist, and her husband. They are now taking on the demanding task of farming in this arid landscape. The snow-capped peaks in the distance of their field, though beautiful, are a constant reminder that central Oregon is one of the only places in the U.S. with 365 days of potential freeze; as a farmer, this is quite a challenge.
Despite these conditions, Sarah and her crew sell whole-sale to restaurants and grocery stores in Sisters and Bend, along with providing an 80 person CSA for 5 months of the year. During the winter, the farm provides a “whole-diet” CSA of milled flour from wheat grown on the property, meat, and winter vegetables. As if this doesn’t keep them busy enough, Rainshadow hosts 4 farm-to-table dinners on their picturesque pasture, and will host 6 weddings this summer, complete with perennial bouquets from their flower garden. Rainshadow manages their land with 1 employee, a paid intern, a very supportive father, and as many WWOOFers as the season provides. “Most of our WWOOFers climb,” Sarah says with a nod to the slackline tied between two spruce trees, “So we make sure the work is done by 1 so we can be on the rocks by 3 and climb ‘til dark.” We met the crew over a taco lunch provided by the fruits of their labor.
Sarah describes the farm as a permaculture model, having been completely converted in the last 5 years from her family’s traditional hay and cattle fields to organic row crops, turkeys, chickens, and pigs. She points out that efficiency of space is a key principle of permaculture, and one she believes in firmly. Growing up, she had seen the property through many seasons before she ever thought she would work it. As she was showing us her spatial design, she stressed the importance of spending a season on the property you’re farming before building any type of infrastructure, to see how all of its elements (the slope, winds, sun, soils) work together to create the environment you will be reaping from.
Along with the 25 acres of production land, she also maintains 57 acres of what she describes as “winter work” – restorative property that she is slowly transforming from invasive species to native pollinator habitat. Along with this forested area, she also has spent years transforming the perimeter of the property from weeds to beneficials. As an ecologist, she clearly views her farm as an element of the larger system, and takes her role as an agricultural conservationist seriously.
It’s evident in such a dry place that water is the most important commodity, and Sarah Lee has spent a lot of effort making the system as efficient as possible. Nestled as the bottom of a hill, the farm receives their water from Whychus highland stream. Sarah has spent the last few years writing grants to improve the ancient canal irrigation system into a pipeline system, which recently was funded. The system, which uses the pressure built up in the pipeline and inter-pipeline turbines, actually harvests enough power to provide electricity to the entire town of Sisters. The pipelines save 70% of water previously lost from evaporation from the exposed canals. It is truly a feat in design and innovation and a true example of moving towards sustainable farming. It is an inspiring example of what one person’s vision, effort, and willingness to tread through red tape can do.
Have a happy rest of your day, fellow travelers, and be sure to stop and smell the perennials.