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Growing food on a mountain

Near the Greensprings summit, in the shadow of Hobart Bluff, an experiment called TerraVita Springs is taking shape. The evidence is everywhere: a geodesic greenhouse, fresh wood chips covering a series of footpaths; a terraced slope with artfully arranged rocks and medicinal plants; criss-crossing stacks of oak logs inoculated with mushroom spores. And around it, one ambitious deer fence, all 4,700 feet of it tied together with cedar posts harvested from the land itself.

"I've never been given a flat piece of land with amazing soil," says Jeff Higley. "Every spot has its issues."

But Higley sees his issues, such as a 90-day growing season, several feet of snow in the winter, and the considerable distance from markets, as opportunities. He and his wife, Elise, bought the 166-acre property with business partner Regina Manian just over a year ago and have spent the last 12 months laying the groundwork for an ambitious vision that combines permaculture, sustainable farming, wild-crafting, herbal medicine and education.

"We're trying to develop this alternative business model with lots of different income streams that tie into each other," says Jeff. "You can't make money just by selling cabbages anymore."

These streams may include organic honey, cultivated mushrooms and herbal tinctures. Getting them to flow will take lots of labor, lots of research and, most of all, lots of experimenting. And it has to look good.

"We want it to be show-stopping," says Jeff. "We want to catch people off guard and inspire them."

The Higleys would ultimately like to host 10 medium-sized events a year at TerraVita, on topics ranging from nature awareness to green building. Elise organized their inaugural event, an herbal symposium, earlier this summer, bringing in instructors such as Jon Carlson of the Vitalist School of Herbology in Ashland. About 50 people attended the weekend of lectures, workshops and community-building.

"Education is what we're passionate about, which is why we're doing this up here as opposed to growing food in the valley," says Jeff. "We need to figure out how to do it with marginal land and a challenging climate."

"There's an entire generation of farmers that's about to retire," agrees Manian. "We need to start attracting and educating young people."

Two of those young people are Robin Leung and Andrew Rainey, TerraVita's first Rogue Farm Corps interns. The pair spent the summer transplanting seedlings, building chicken coops, inoculating mushroom logs and moving earth.

"They had a lot more physical labor, but they also got to see the transformation from something raw and wild," says Jeff.

"We watched everything start from the ground up, which is really helpful for me since I'm starting from the ground up too," says Leung, who plans to return to Corvallis and start an urban homestead on his parents' property. He and Rainey stayed in the remodeled Hobart House, an all-purpose building that includes housing, a library and large teaching and processing kitchen for herbs and medicinals. If they come back to visit in spring, they'll be able to check on one of Jeff's wilder experiments: an earthen-wall, solar-shower facility and greenhouse on the south side of the building. Pumps will recycle water from showers to a drip system that will irrigate plants sprouting directly from the wall; excess graywater will be sent out to the herb garden just beyond Hobart House.

Manian is "really excited" about the earthen wall. He says it illustrates a permaculture concept called the "stacking function," wherein a single element — in this case, water — serves multiple functions.

"We're trying to fail here," says Jeff, adding that if the wall rots, they will simply tear it down and rebuild it. "We're trying to push what people say can and should be done," such as a fruit orchard at 4,800 feet.

Jeff is currently nursing 1,500 fruit-tree seedlings, including 100 apple and 25 cherry varieties. He bought the seedlings from Nick Botner, who has collected more than 4,000 varieties of apples in his orchard near Yoncalla.

"We went after late-flowering, early-fruiting varieties," says Jeff. "Out of those, maybe a handful will be successful."

But they won't plant all of their trees on-site; in fact, one of the Higleys' goals is to supply the Greensprings community with orchard trees and vegetable starts specifically adapted for the short growing season and soils.

The Higleys and Manian met in Laguna Beach, Calif., where Elise worked as a private school administrator; she is also a trained herbalist. Jeff's background ranges from teaching to makeup artistry to lifeguarding; he's also run a music school and managed a private resort in Fiji.

Manian met the Higleys while she was a student in Jeff's permaculture class. They had known each other for less than six months when the trio started looking at property in Northern California. On a whim they took a detour to Southern Oregon; the next day they found themselves making an on-the-spot offer on the Greensprings property.

"We fell in love with the land instantly," says Manian, who brings skills in design and natural building to the table. She had never stepped foot in Oregon before the spontaneous trip and looks forward to being at TerraVita full-time; in the meantime she contributes research and administration from her home in Laguna Beach.

"I'm a believer in technology," she says, adding that the project's success will depend on marrying cutting-edge technologies with old knowledge that's steeped in a balance with nature.

TerraVita's main production field is a perfect example. A small trial garden included several varieties of tomatoes, eggplant, basil and huckleberries; a cover crop protects the rest of the half-acre section. In a few weeks the technology will arrive: two greenhouses — on rails. The mobile structures will allow them to rotate crops and extend the growing season, snow and all.

"You can't go back in time," says Manian. "We're trying to ask, what's the best way to go forward?"

Juliet Grable is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at julietgrable@yahoo.com.

Intern Andrew Rainy works inside the geodesic greenhouse at TerraVita Springs. Julia Moore photo - Julia Moore