Chris Casad stood in morning sunshine on a recent Tuesday, talking wheel lines and irrigation with two farmhands at the edge of the Casad Family Farm on the Agency Plains just north of the municipal airport.
Five beef cattle and a large pig idled in an enclosure nearby as birdsong mingled with Tom Petty, “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” emanating from a radio in the barn nearby.
Casad is chasing his own dream, making fresh, locally grown organic produce available and affordable to consumers and commercial customers alike on a broad scale.
“When you see Safeway now, or Fred Meyer, they have permanent organic sections now. That wasn’t there five years ago,” he said. “It’s convenience. That’s what we’re fighting.”
For about eight years, Casad ran Juniper Jungle Farm, 58 scattered acres centered on a 10-acre farmstead on Erickson Road, east of Bend. This year, he moved the operation to 90 acres his family purchased in Jefferson County, a mile west of U.S. Route 26 on NW Elm Lane.
He also teamed up with Sarahlee Lawrence, of Rainshadow Organics, an 80-acre farm 15 miles northeast of Sisters, to expand and diversify their operations. Lawrence has also built a commercial kitchen and storefront near the farm, where she expects to make a variety of value-added products out of surplus crops, like pickles, kale chips and sauerkraut.
They described their collaboration as an informal cooperative created to complement each others’ operations.
“I think it has mostly to do with trying to be more efficient with getting more food to Central Oregon,” Lawrence said. “We’ve been friends and peers for a long time but now we’re just kinda trying to work together.”
Both farms are familiar to regulars at the Bend summer farmers markets at NorthWest Crossing and on Brooks Street. And both provide weekly boxes of produce to subscribers of their community-supported agriculture services, or CSAs. Subscribers typically pick up their boxes at the farmers markets.
Bringing local produce to consumers’ shopping baskets and into the kitchens at local restaurants is a constant challenge for small farms in Central Oregon. A short growing season, limited crop variety and competition from corporate grocers that carry their own line of organic produce, as well as the notion that locally grown produce costs more, are typical hurdles. Especially for farmers like Casad and Lawrence, the cost of organic methods, such as weeding by hand and crop rotation, are typically higher, they said.
Nonetheless, interest in locally sourced foods in restaurants and in CSA subscriptions, is growing in Central Oregon. At Juniper Jungle, Casad said, he added subscriptions each year for four years, from 15 to 27 to 64. Two years ago, they topped out at 112, he said.
“One hundred twelve was way too many boxes for our farm at the time to manage,” Casad said. “And that’s why we did 40 last year. It was a lot better for us.”
Likewise, the number of small farms growing produce and raising animals for meat, eggs and dairy products also grew. A directory of Central Oregon farms growing food for local consumption, compiled by the High Desert Food & Farm Alliance, grew from 21 farmers and ranches listed in 2012 to 61 this year, wrote Jane Sabin-Davis, alliance board chairwoman, in an email.
Many of those farms are small but productive, she said.
“We don’t have many hobby farmers,” Sabin-Davis said. “Ninety percent are all people who want to make a living.”
Lawrence and Casad said they expect to expand the number of CSA subscriptions the two farms support.
Casad is suspending his own subscriptions this year, he said, while he brings the new farm up to speed and supplies Rainshadow, where patrons may sign up for weekly deliveries of produce. About half his acreage is leased for another year to a farmer who grows hay there, Casad said.
The move to Madras will change the way Casad farms, he said. He’ll try to grow more staples such as carrots, beets, onions, squash, broccoli, garlic and potatoes. Lawrence will continue producing herbs, greens, ginger, peanuts, cucumbers, peppers and other specialty crops.
“Hopefully, we have a pretty much frost-free summer being out here, and we’ll be 5 degrees warmer,” Casad said, “so that’s going to make a huge difference on our gardens and fields and inevitably where we can start thinking about trying other things.”
Casad also plans to ramp up production for commercial buyers, looking for economies of scale and to continue working through broker Liz Weigand of Agricultural Connections to market produce. Reliable, affordable transportation for his produce is a problem Casad said he needs to solve.
He also foresees trucking produce to farmers markets in Portland, where he can increase sales significantly.
Even though the number of CSA subscriptions and small farms appears to be growing, Casad said, overall the small-farm and CSA movement may be at a plateau. That’s why expansion into new markets and finding new opportunities to add value to produce is important, he said.
Nonetheless, Weigand said Agricultural Connections in the past year has doubled the wholesale side of the business, which significantly outweighs the consumer side.
“We work with about a dozen core commercial accounts buying produce multiple times a week,” she said.
“We found that a lot of the time, growth, at least for restaurants, depends on setting up a lot of contract arrangements ahead of time,” Weigand said. “Consistency helps me stay in business, and helps farms stay in business.”
Lawrence, at Rainshadow Organics, said the cooperative she and Casad have formed is a work in progress, a multi-pronged venture designed to grow and strengthen both their farm operations. Underneath it is the idea that consumers want fresh, nutritious food grown locally and organically. They sometimes need a nudge in that direction, she said.
“I guess it’s just a hope,” Lawrence said. “I feel like this is the best I can do. People say they would love to buy this stuff, but the proof is in the pudding. We’ll see if people come through.”
— Reporter: 541-617-7815, firstname.lastname@example.org