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Eastern Oregon farms boost organic acreage

PENDLETON — Eric Nelson knew it wouldn't be easy when he decided to go organic on his family's 900-acre wheat farm north of Pendleton.

Nelson, a fourth-generation farmer, talked it over with his father — former state Sen. David Nelson — who wondered how they would control weeds without herbicide, or how they'd afford organic fertilizer and still turn a profit. But Nelson had faith it would work, and in 2008 Nelson Grade Organics harvested its first organic crop.

"I'm very comfortable with what we have done, what we're doing and where we're going," Nelson said. "For me, I see no need to go back."

Overall, the number of organic farms has declined in Oregon between 2007 and 2012, yet total organic acres nearly quadrupled over that time, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Organic sales also rose from $88 million to $194 million in Oregon, making up 4 percent of all farms sales statewide. Nationally, the organic food industry made $39 billion in 2015 — an 11 percent increase over the previous year.

Despite the demand, becoming an organic farm takes serious time and money. Fields cannot be sprayed with any prohibited chemicals for at least three years before they are certified organic. Without certification, products won't fetch the same kind of premium price at the market, which can be as much as double or more depending on the commodity.

Nelson said he had help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture getting started, but even that didn't help pay all the bills. Organic fertilizer costs up to twice as much as the conventional stuff, and managing weeds can become a real issue without being able to use Roundup.

In order to make it over the hump, Nelson said he had to get creative with his cropping systems. He uses spring grains such as mustard and barley to break up soil-borne diseases and replenish nutrients underground.

"We basically have to create our own nitrogen," he said.

Wheat is still the big money-maker on the farm, but Nelson recently started selling organic mustard seed to Barhyte Specialty Foods in Pendleton as an additional source of revenue.

Chris Schreiner, executive director of Oregon Tilth, said the growing demand for organic products is being driven in part by a renewed interest in food and earth-friendly practices.

From a grower standpoint, Schreiner said there is a tremendous opportunity for going organic, but recognizes it doesn't come without risk.

"Their challenge is figuring out a new management system and accessing those new markets," Schreiner said. "We're committed to supporting them and helping them seize that opportunity in the marketplace."

One of Eastern Oregon's largest irrigated organic growers, Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman, now has 7,800 acres in certified organic vegetables. General Manager Marty Myers said they hope to grow that total to 12,000 acres over the next two years.

Threemile Canyon Farms grows organic sweet peas, sweet corn, onions, carrots, potatoes and edamame, which are mostly sent to the farm's own frozen foods plant in Pasco. Frozen products are sold primarily to Costco under the brand name Organic by Nature.

The farm also developed its first organic dairy earlier this year just east of Hermiston, with about 1,300 cows. Part of the requirement for an organic dairy is to let cows graze in pasture for at least 120 days out of the year.

On a much smaller scale, Gus Wahner grows organic produce on about one-third of an acre in Stanfield, including tomatoes, basil, cucumber and garlic.

Wahner has been farming on and off for 30 years at his home, which he's named Way of Life Farms. Though not certified organic, he said the land hasn't been sprayed since 1970. He raises produce from the greenhouse to the hoop house, and made $15,000 in profit last year.

Wahner, who serves on the Umatilla County Soil & Water Conservation District, is a longtime advocate of organic farming. He uses an aerobic system to brew his own compost "tea," which he sprays along with a mix of fish, kelp, molasses and sea minerals to create healthy, organic soils.

"When people talk about organic, it needs to be biological," he said. "The whole essence of organic is improvement in the soil."