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Success in the Soil on Garnetts Red Prairie Farm

2019 Sunset on Cereal Rye in East Field 2 cropped

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Nestled in the northern Willamette Valley in Sheridan, Oregon, sits Garnetts Red Prairie Farm.

Back in 2011, the Garnett family purchased the property and began leasing the land to poultry farmers, while owners Pryor and Kathryn Garnett continued to work full-time away from the farm.

In 2016, after nearly 30 years spent as a patent attorney for IBM, Pryor was ready for a change. When the family renting the Garnett’s land decided to move, the stars appeared to align. Someone needed to step in and operate the 92-acre property.  

With his family’s support, Pryor began alternating between managing IBM's patent portfolio and getting his hands deep in the dirt, becoming a first-generation farmer at the age of 57.
2016 Buckwheat in South Field

Stepping into new shoes

There was no slow, easy transition into his new farm operator role.

It was early September, about a month out from the impending Pacific Northwest rainy season, and piles of leftover manure from the previous operation sat 150-feet uphill from the property’s stream. Pryor realized the excess nutrients on that field had to be managed, and quickly.

“I knew I needed information. The two primary organizations I started with were NRCS and Oregon Tilth, both of which have extensive resources available to beginning farmers,” said Pryor. “I may be old and white haired, but I'm very much a beginning farmer.”

He reached out to his local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) field office in Polk County, and met with Tom Finegan, NRCS district conservationist at that time, and Sue Reams, NRCS soil conservationist, to help manage the leftover manure. Pryor worked with this NRCS team to develop an emergency plan that would protect his stream’s water quality and manage the excess poultry waste.

“Pryor came to us with immediate and long-term goals for Garnetts Red Prairie Farm,” said Sue Reams. “We helped him to quickly manage the excess nutrients on his property, and then were able to look at the more long-term goals.”

Garnett Barn

Investing in the soil

Since purchasing the land, the Garnett family had dreams of creating an organic operation that, in time, would be self-sustaining and both environmentally and ecologically beneficial.

Previous operations on the property had left the soil in need of some love. After working with NRCS to implement the emergency plan, Pryor applied for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Organic Initiative.

His first organic EQIP contract included practices such as a nutrient management plan, field border, minimum tillage, conservation crop rotation, cover crops and conservation cover – all of which help to stabilize and regenerate soil. Pryor also experimented with minimum tillage on the contour on his own at the same time.

“EQIP has provided targeted solutions to some of the Garnetts' resource concerns,” said Sue. “We’ve seen benefits in reducing soil erosion, increasing organic matter in the soil, providing for pollinators and other wildlife, and maintaining good water quality in the stream passing through the farm. In addition, Pryor knows the nutrients needed for his crop rotation and how he can provide those nutrients with cover crops.”

Pryor saw the most success with cover crops, which helped to eliminate soil erosion on the farm, increase the soil’s organic matter, control weeds, increase his grain crop yields, and improve the stream’s water quality.

After some experimentation, a cover crop mixture of winter peas and triticale proved the most successful. This combination produced significant biomass to later incorporate back into the ground for an organic matter boost, while providing some of the nitrogen needed for winter wheat, which is the farm's flagship crop.Winter Peas and Triticale in west field

“The beginning of converting to organic is a matter of investing in the soil,” explained Pryor.

Transitioning a farm from conventional to organic is no easy task. The process can take over 10 years, and soil health is a significant determining factor that can help or hinder the transition process.

To ease the land’s transition from its previous conventional state to organic, Pryor converted his fields in a patchwork by testing various conservation practices on one small section of field at a time. In the end, Pryor found that an organic grain crop grew most successfully alongside his mixture of cover crops.

The biggest challenge: weeds

To better align with their conservation goals, the Garnetts want to incorporate minimum tillage or no-till practices into their management plan. However, organic farming in the Willamette Valley can be a unique challenge. Oregon’s generally mild winter months often allow weeds to survive through the winter, and the wet, early spring jumpstarts additional weedy growth.

“Some say the climate in the Willamette Valley makes organic no-till impossible,” Pryor stated. “But when I hear the word 'impossible', I hear a challenge.”

The climate wasn’t the only obstacle to controlling weeds. Organic farming comes with a specific set of operation constraints. Chemicals such as herbicides and pesticides aren’t allowed, so pressure from weeds and pests is an on-going battle.

“I want to minimize how much I till, because every time I drag a disk over the soil I’m burning up organic matter. The problem is that tillage is one of the only tools in my toolbox for controlling weeds, because the farm is certified organic.”

Even with these challenges, Pryor remains committed to minimum tillage while experimenting with different approaches to control weeds - using dense cover crops that block sunlight from supporting weed growth. Only time will tell if no-till is a viable option for the land.

One day in the future, Pryor hopes to incorporate a roller-crimper attachment on his no-till drill. This tool would help him make just one pass through a field to kill the cover crop while simultaneously planting a spring crop, reducing the overall disturbance to his soil.

Hedgerow on Garnetts Red Prairie FarmHelping pollinators thrive

The Garnett family inherited two European honeybee colonies when they purchased the Red Prairie Farm.

In 2019, Pryor applied for a second EQIP contract to plant three quarter-mile long hedgerows to support these honeybees as well as native pollinators that frequent the farm.

With the help of hedgerows, cover crops and other flowering plants nearby, the farm gained two more honeybee colonies.

Native pollinators, such as mining bees, sweat bees and bumble bees, also find foraging and nesting resources in the hedgerows, the flowering cover crops and the oak woodland habitat.

In 2017, the Garnetts Red Prairie Farm was listed as an Oregon Bee Project Flagship Farm.

The beginning farmer learning curve

“I've had to learn how to be a farmer, and I've still got a good ways to go,” Pryor explained. He credits Sue Reams and NRCS staff for lessening the steep learning curve. NRCS was there from the start to help him with various common farming activities, to include measuring nutrients, conducting soil tests, and determining which practices might be useful to meet his management goals.

“Since I’m a beginning farmer, I make stuff up as I go.  I learn by making mistakes... and by that measure I should be a genius by now,” Pryor joked.

He encourages new and beginning farmers to get as much help and advice as possible.  Along with NRCS and Oregon Tilth, Pryor works with the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District, Oregon State University Extension Service, and the Organic Farmers Association.

In his spare time, Pryor sits as a director of the Polk Soil and Water Conservation District, chair of the national Organic Farmers Association's Policy Committee, a member of the Organic Trade Association's Farmers Advisory Committee, and the Polk County Farm Bureau.

Garnett Family

His advice for anyone curious about going organic:

 “Start small and plan for the long term. Convert small percentages of your acreage over time,” Pryor said. “Make your mistakes small, because there will be plenty of mistakes.”

Interested in farming or going organic? We can help. Learn more about USDA’s resources for beginning farmers and organic farming. For more information on available programs in your area, contact your local USDA service center.

 

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