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Cutoff fire loss follows Almeda destruction for organic farm

Courtesy photo Valhalla Organics honey farm before the Cutoff fire.
Courtesy photo Valhalla Organics honey farm after the Cutoff fire.

A couple’s Rogue Valley-spawned honey and goodies business suffered a second setback from fire when the Cutoff blaze near Bonanza destroyed all their facilities last week.

In September 2020, Valhalla Organics lost its mini-farm and the pair’s home when the Almeda fire hit Talent.

Ruby Reid and Chris Day had started the business in Talent in 2016 and added the Bonanza location in 2017. They produced certified organic honey and organic products including pickles and preserves. Several Rogue Valley locations sell the items, which are also available online.

“It’s shocking for both of us. He put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into turning that place into something,” said Reid. “It’s a hard loss. There’s nothing left but the concrete.”

A shed and two greenhouses were lost at the 5-acre farm. The couple had moved all of their bee and honey equipment to the site. Thirteen hives were destroyed, including some new ones with queens that Reid had just placed Tuesday before the Saturday fire.

In the face of a fire, the bees just hunker down, said Reid. Most queen bees don’t fly, and none of the babies do, while workers would remain with a queen.

“I wish they had flown away, but I know they didn’t,” said Reid.

“This season has been pretty tough for bees on the West Coast, but mine were bringing in nectar and really thriving,” said Reid. She thinks wildfires from last year may have affected honey production this year.

A pond on the property meant there were always flowering plants to provide nectar for the bees. The couple hadn’t installed a well on the site but hauled water to tanks that are now just two black puddles.

Raising bees in the Klamath Mountains is tough, said Reid. There’s a short summer season, and spring can often be cold and wet. In the fall, 50- to 60-degree temperatures lure bees from hives during the day, but there is little nectar to be found. At night temperatures drop below freezing.

To help the hives survive the winter, the couple left sugar in the hives as a reserve, but none was consumed last winter. Solar-powered electrical fences, to protect the hives from bears, were also lost in the fire.

A box of honey in combs remains from last year’s harvest. Reid always keeps some in the freezer so she can give it to hives that may need a boost to sustain themselves. It also helps get the bees inside a hive if there are indications that they may swarm.

As of Thursday, the fire had covered 1,288 acres and destroyed two houses and 22 structures. It was 41% contained. Most of the fire is on Bureau of Land Management acreage, said Reid, and neighbors had also lost structures. The farm was adjacent to over two million acres of BLM holdings.

Reid and Day had planned to used proceeds from this year’s production to move the operation to the East Coast. They are hoping to buy an established fruit orchard in southern Virginia, which would put them about a day’s drive from Reid’s family in Boston and Day’s family in Georgia.

The couple plan to make the move as soon as possible, but Reid will keep raising bees.

“That’s my passion. I’m not letting that go,” she said.

She’s a certified master beekeeper apprentice and is pursuing advanced standing.

On Sept. 8, 2020, the Almeda fire destroyed their home and nearly half-acre mini-farm in Talent. A large amount of honey already harvested and bottled was lost in the fire, but Reid got out safely with the couple’s three cats. After the fire they moved to Klamath Falls.

“We barely had time to rearrange our lives,” said Reid. From their new home the Bonanza site was about a 45-minute drive.

The couple met while hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2015. They settled in Talent, where they created the mini-farm, then purchased the land near Bonanza due to the high cost of agricultural land in the Rogue Valley. The area is off the grid and requires a four-wheel drive for winter access.

In 2019, Valhalla became the only certified naturally grown apiary on the West Coast after passing a rigorous examination.

Valhalla had joined the Ediblearth Farms Farmer’s Market Collective in Klamath Falls. Their products can be found locally at the Ashland Food Co-op, Medford Co-op, Market of Choice in Medford and The Oregon Cheese Cave in Phoenix.

Reid had served as secretary for Rogue Pollinators. The group is holding a benefit for Valhalla from noon to 5 p.m. Saturday, July 3, at the Cheese Cave, 310 N. Main St., Phoenix. Valhalla’s website (valhallaorganics.org) also has a link for donations, as well items that are still for sale.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony7 Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.