Farming for Diversity a Step at a Time: My Brothers’ Farm - Creswell, Oregon
Lessons learned from a diversified orchard, ranch, and riparian forest
“How do we manage a 320-acre farm growing primarily annual ryegrass? How do we move towards healthier soil, a more diverse ecosystem and grow food?” These are the big questions that brothers Austin, Ben, and Taylor Larson asked themselves when they decided in 2011 to farm their family’s land.
"A field doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s important to understand where your farm is within the larger context. How do you fit in?” -Taylor Larson
Nestled in the Southern Willamette Valley along the verdant Coast Fork Willamette River, if you visit the aptly named My Brothers’ Farm today, you’ll find a farm in transition. They are transitioning from a monoculture ryegrass farm to a more complex and integrated operation—with a diversified orchard, ranch, and riparian forest. You’ll see pigs growing fat as they graze among the organic hazelnut orchards and oak woodlands. You’ll find a herd of over 50 bison doing the work of mowing, speeding up nutrient cycling, and helping flip the pastures from conventional ryegrass farming practices to perennial pastures. You’ll see neat rows of tree seedlings and native plants, from babies to several year-old trees—a glimpse of the work of many hands, from partners to school kids, who’ve contributed to restoring over 100 acres of riparian forest and woodland habitat.
Rooted in community
While the brothers have been the core of the day-to-day operations of the farm, with Austin and Ben full time on the farm, it’s been a community affair. Ben says, “much of our success stems from our relationships ‘outside’ the farm with non-profits, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), universities, watershed councils, trusted neighbors, and our core farm supporters that believe in our mission.”
Having a mission for the farm and shared plan front and center keeps the farm on track even with many people involved. As Taylor puts it, “a field doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s important to understand where your farm is within the larger context. How do you fit in?”
As an example, Ben talks about the importance of supporting their community and neighbors in times of crisis: “When wildfire looms on their doorstep and they must vacate, we have to help them do so. And, then help them recover from damage afterwards as well.”
And, on the farm itself, Taylor says, “We aren’t only growing food for people, it’s also our job to provide clean drinking water for downstream communities. It’s also our job to provide homes for fish and wildlife that have been here a lot longer than us.”
"We aren’t only growing food for people, it’s also our job to provide clean drinking water for downstream communities. It’s also our job to provide homes for fish and wildlife that have been here a lot longer than us.”
Adding diversity, one step at a time
When the brothers returned to their family land as adults in 2013, they were diving in as first-generation farmers. While they grew up there, the family’s land had been farmed by a grass-seed farmer who was still leasing part of the farm up until Fall 2021. They’ve deliberately grown their new version of the farm piece by piece—experimenting, learning, and adapting as they go.
They have transitioned small sections of the farm at a time out of the annual grass and out of the leasing agreement. Austin’s partner Becca, who manages the farm’s social media presence, provides a good example of the process: “We grazed for a year on a 40-acre paddock of ryegrass, and we’ll plant Sudan grass in the summer with a no-till drill. The hope is that the Sudan has a deep taproot which helps us break up hardpan.” The time spent grazing and growing interim crops like Sudan grass also helps with the weed pressure, because with the built-up ryegrass seed bank, it can take a few years to effectively transition the fields to new uses.
The farm’s guiding principles are to improve soil health, biodiversity, and the overall ecological function of the farm. This transition process is essential to developing orchards and pastures for their bison and hogs.
"Coming out of an annual tillage system for the grasses, we had very bacteria-dominated soils, and trees like more fungal-dominated soils. We’ve been building up nutrients by grazing bison and pigs on it.”
My Brothers’ Farm grows six main varieties of Oregon Tilth certified organic hazelnuts (Yamhill, Sacajawea, McDonald, Wepster, Casinna & Willamette) on 20 acres at the home orchard and on 30 acres of an older orchard leased down the road. The farm also grows 31 distinct apple varieties in an organic orchard—primarily cider varieties but a few eating apples as well. They are planning their first apple harvest this fall.
“On the orchard side of things, we’ve learned a lot—what trees like, what they don’t, and how to efficiently manage them,” says Ben.
Taylor brings it back to the soil improvements needed for orchards to thrive: “Coming out of an annual tillage system for the grasses, we had very bacteria-dominated soils, and trees like more fungal-dominated soils. We’ve been building up nutrients by grazing bison and pigs on it.”
Ben points out that in the areas where they’ve grazed for at least a year or two before planting woody species, those trees look great. Alternatively, in areas where they were eager to plant trees without grazing first, the trees weren’t as healthy.
They’re always looking ahead too, to watch for problems that could arise in the future of their orchards. For example, so far they’ve been able to impede filbert blight through attentive pruning of diseased wood each year and cultivating a diverse ecosystem of bacteria and fungi through cover crop and animal habitat.
Similarly, another goal is to create drought resistant orchards that don’t need to be watered once they are established. Ben’s been experimenting with mulching and limited watering. He builds a thick layer of mulch near the trunk to retain water throughout the summer. He warns against mulching right up to the trunkline, as that can create fungal problems. They water the seedlings as little as possible to encourage the roots to grow deep. Ben admits that “when you toe that line, you’re going to lose some trees to drought stress.”
The orchards are also home to innovative research projects with some of the farm’s partners. Collaborations with the University of Oregon and the Oregon Organic Hazelnut Cooperative have been designed to empower other farms to also manage their orchards with organic methods—which is still a rare choice for hazelnut management in the Willamette Valley.
Ben has been integrating vegetable gardens and cover crops into the orchards as well. Outside the orchards, a 24 by 100-foot greenhouse will be home to extended season crops of tomatoes, winter greens and less hardy vegetables. They’ve also found success with a popular pumpkin patch, aka Fall Fest, an on-farm event they’ll continue.
Bison: a low-input grazer
On the livestock side of the farm’s integrations, My Brothers’ Farm has grown a herd of bison. They started with twelve bison in 2014 and have now grown the herd to just over 50 head, with plans to reach 100 in this decade if the land base proves it can support the hungry grazers.
Becca explains how the bison help the team achieve their goals of designing a low-input farm: “Bison know when it’s time to move; they’re resilient to heat and cold; they don’t need shelter; they break through ice for water; they make better use of dry forage in the summer; and they don’t need help giving birth.” While cows tend to spread out across their pasture, Becca says the bison will stick together and graze as a group. This allows the farm to target specific areas more easily as it focuses on improving soil quality. Also, the farmers say that the bison’s cloven hoofs help aerate the soil rather than compact it.
They are transitioning to diverse perennial prairie pastures using no-till, no-spray, and no fertilizers—beyond organic requirements. The perennials have deeper roots that are more drought resistant, provide more access to nutrients, and sequester more carbon; plus, the farm won’t have to till and plant every year. The bison are primarily fed from these pastures, as well as receiving essential minerals and supplements.
Bison also offer the farm a great market advantage. As Taylor explains, “No one was doing it, so there is less competition in a thriving local food and farm scene … Having something different made it easier to get into farmer markets. It opens doors for you to sell things that may already be at market.” Also, the farmers share bison’s health advantages with customers, noting that bison is a lean red meat, high in protein, iron and essential amino acids.
Silvopasture for healthy animals, pest, and disease management
My Brothers’ Farm also raises pigs, which they graze in the forests, orchards, and pastures. Using an electric fence, the pigs are moved every few days. They assist in pest control, add nutrients to the soil, and help shape the land.
When they arrive on the farm as piglets in the spring, they’re started on the pastures. In the fall, the pigs are finished on fallen acorns from the forest and hazelnut seconds left over from harvest. These fallen treats are also hosts to the filbertworm, Oregon’s major hazelnut pest. The farm has partnered with the University of Oregon to better understand the relationship between grazing and filbertworm populations with favorable results: “the grazed paddocks diverged from the control with near-zero filbertworms emerging in 2020.“
After the pigs are harvested, a portion of the meat goes to Taylor’s Sausage in Cave Junction, OR to be turned into specialty cured and smoked products. They also sell pork shares and cuts directly to customers and at farmers markets.
My Brothers’ Farm successes
As on many small and medium-sized farms, assessing My Brothers’ Farm’s success and profitability is complicated. Ben says that many of their successes so far have been based on sweat equity, access to land, startup capital, grants, and thrifty investments.
However, he sees positive signs for ongoing viability in their finances: “We’ve been able to turn a small profit on the farm’s business while paying ourselves a bit the last two years.” He points out that this calculation doesn’t include access to the land, which is still owned by their parents, but it does include most of the equipment and infrastructure the farm has acquired over the years—including fencing for about 180 acres of pastures, underground water, five tractors, orchard establishment on nearly 30 acres of orchards, a walk-in freezer, and more. “On the whole—not including labor and land—we’ve recovered back nearly as much money as we originally put into it since we started in 2013.”
But for everyone invested in My Brothers’ Farm and its vision, success goes beyond numbers in the books. And, it’s important to look at it in different time scales.
“It’s a successful day if we get some projects moving forward and we all enjoy each other’s company,” says Taylor. “It’s successful at the end of three years if the soil is in better shape, our farm business is on solid footing, and the water’s cleaner when it leaves our farm than when it entered it … when there’s more abundant and healthy life than when we started.”
Map by Liam Bateman Design
General lessons learned from the farm team
For farmers that can set aside a little bit of land to experiment with their production system, that experimentation process can be very fruitful.
Try and test your market, and test your production strategies. Start small, diversify skills and products, and learn from your mistakes. Scale up the things that you really enjoy.
My Brothers’ Farm has had the most success with soil health in their pastures using animal input, pasture rotation, proper rest and no-till drill planting.
Processing presents the biggest challenge:
It’s one thing to produce something but another thing to package it and to have a market for it. For example, at My Brothers’ Farm they book a year in advance for slaughter dates at a USDA facility. The farm needs the USDA-certification to sell by the cut to some customers, grocery stores and restaurants, but planning that far out can be hard.
Be aware that sometimes problems at processors can create problems for farmers relying on them too. Recently, their hazelnut roaster/packer lost its organic certification, putting off hazelnut sales for several months.
Making room for change:
Even if you do plan, you have to be ready for things to change and not work how you planned them. Everything will always seem to change.
Part of farming is planning for natural disasters now–especially when you’re dealing with animals. For the brothers, that means knowing where they can find high ground and having a wildfire plan.
Resources that have been helpful
NW Bison Association and Western Bison Association helps the farm build community with other bison farmers. Oregon Organic Hazelnut Cooperative is another key network for the farm to connect with like minded growers.
Other partners: Coast Fork Watershed Council, University of Oregon, Oregon State University (including an innovative Big Leaf maple syrup project), Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, Natural Resource Conservation Services, Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, Farm Service Agency
YouTube, always YouTube. The brothers recommend Dr. Christine Brown’s soil health videos in particular.
Authored by Ashley Rood
Edited by Katie Kulla
Photo Credit: All photos taken at My Brothers' Farm by Jaime Thrower/Studio XIII Photography