Farming for the Whole: Sakari Farms in Tumalo, Oregon
Lessons learned from an Indigenous agriculturalist, ecologist, educator, and community builder in the Oregon Desert
“Making a lot out of a little is a concept that has always been around me,” says Spring (Upingakraq) Alaska Schreiner. She cultivates this concept above and beyond at Sakari Farms, an oasis in the dry lands outside Bend, Oregon. Spring talks primarily about her whole plant theory, but spend a few hours walking her land, and you’ll see it goes much further than that—Spring has a whole farm, whole ecosystem, whole community philosophy in the way she does her work and lives her life. There’s a lot to glean from her examples of cover cropping in the high desert and saving seeds (and more), but at the core of it all is Spring’s ability to see, and tend to, the whole.
"Making a lot out of a little is a concept that has always been around me." -Spring Alaska Schreiner
Visiting Sakari Farms and meeting Spring is to experience the definition of vibrant—from the bright pop of oranges and blues of flowers in the drying shed, to the verdant patch of traditional sweetgrass growing with its own view of the Three Sisters volcanic peaks. Spring’s excitement is infectious as she shows you the calendula that’s as big as the palm of your hand and points out the Tribal squashes and new variety of beans she’s trying, a black garbanzo. Then there’s the new Tribal long table for hosting meals for local school kids and Tribal chefs alike. While sharing the ecology of the grasses on the hill above the farm or talking about the impacts of drought, she’ll always manage to slip in a dry joke. As Spring says, this is how Tribes work, off of humor and memory—"not things many of us have right now.”
Sakari (or sweet in the traditional Inupiaq language) got started as a quarter acre farm focused on native plants within Bend’s city limits. At the time, there was not a local supply for native plants for the work Spring managed with landowners and the local soil and water conservation district to restore their land. But she knew that the native plants could be used for so much more, “I felt like I was wasting the plant. I couldn’t do that anymore,” she says. From there Sakari Botanicals born. As of 2015, it’s grown into a farm on six acres in Tumalo. She now cultivates Tribal foods and seeds for Tribal members locally and across the nation. Again, she found a gap and filled it—there weren’t any Tribal foods available locally. She also makes value added products like teas, hot sauces, as well as bath and body products. They’re building a community kitchen in 2021 so they can make their products onsite and provide space for other Tribal Entrepreneurs.
Transforming Forgotten Farmland
Skyrocketing real estate prices in Bend and a landlord eager to sell meant it was time for Sakari to take the jump beyond an urban rental turned farm. Spring and her now husband Sam Schreiner were able to purchase the new acreage just a few miles away in the more affordable town of Tumalo. Spring says the land hadn’t been farmed in about a decade, and it showed. The sandy soils were compacted and bare in many places, and in others, choked by invasives. The first thing they did was get a USDA Farm Services Agency low interest loan for a tractor and irrigation pipe, and they broke ground. They brought in loads of soil amendments, started extensive weed management including hand pulling and minimal spraying (mostly around the buildings), and planted hundreds of pounds of cover crops. Spring transplanted hundreds of plants from her old property and Sam built a glass propagation house—they were off and running with a profit in year one.
Roots of Sakari Farm
Spring is part German and part Inupiaq. Her name, Upingakraq, means the “time when the ice breaks”. She is an enrolled member of the Chugach Alaska Corporation and the Valdez Native Tribe. Growing up in Alaska her family had huge gardens not because they provided traditional foods, but because they were food insecure. “We were poor, but rich in life,” says Spring. She was raised gathering traditional foods like berries, roots, fish, and meat and learning from her mother who was a trained chef. After getting degrees in psychology and natural resources in Alaska, Spring eventually moved to Bend. This background would prove to be a critical foundation for her work with the local soil and water conservation district, private landowners, and as a farmer in the deserts of Oregon.
Building Climate Resilience in Diversity, Seed Saving, & Infrastructure
Researchers are only recently beginning to uncover what Indigenous agriculturalists have understood for millennia, diversification on farms enables ecological sustainability and social equity. But it’s also challenging to grow and sell a diversity of crops. Spring has managed to find a place of balance in a more diverse farm. While she grows a lot of different foods, she’ll focus on one variety with a higher value. This also fits well into her focus on seed saving. She’s created both a Pacific Northwest Tribal seed bank and the Central Oregon Seed Exchange to support local and Tribal agriculture. Having more local seed sources and particularly stewards of Tribal foods is critical to climate resilience.
There’s also a diverse mix of blooming cover crops and sunflowers surrounding the perimeter of the front growing area at Sakari. These blooms stop noxious weeds, provide habitat as well as a food source for pollinators and birds alike. They also provide a distracting buffer and food source for hungry wildlife—they’ll munch on the cover crops before the other harvestable crops. The sunflowers also provide a wind block for the harsh Central Oregon winds which have become more of a mainstay than a seasonal affair. At harvest time, the petals and leaves of the sunflowers will go into Tribal value-added foods and products made by both Spring and Tribal chef partners—this is peak whole plant theory. Spring will sow plants like tobacco within a field that are both important for pest management and for harvest. In her large greenhouses, rows of peppers, beans and squash are crowned with insect repellant plantings like marigolds
Infrastructure like these three new 100-foot greenhouses are key to Spring’s ever-evolving resilience—the growing season in Central Oregon’s desert landscape is short, with frequent threat of freezing temperatures as late as July and consistently cold summer nights. The greenhouses provide important shelter from extreme weather conditions.
More than just a farm
Perhaps most importantly to Spring, Sakari Farms isn’t just a farm, it is a safe learning space. She has Tribal youth out to the farm and employs Black, Indigenous, and other Farmers of Color. She says, “It doesn’t feel like work, sharing traditional knowledge everyday with my Peruvian and Navajo co-workers.” She also has the Bend La Pine school district kids out to plant and learn about farming.
There’s not much of an off season for Spring—she makes and sells value added products direct to consumers all year. She also keeps up a steady stream of teaching on Indigenous agriculture and ecology to regional producers and Tribal farmers throughout the nation.
“It doesn’t feel like work, sharing traditional knowledge everyday with my Peruvian and Navajo co-workers.”
Navigating Limiting Factors: Water Scarcity & Climate Chaos
For Spring, preparing for the realities of climate change is a day-to-day endeavor. In one of our first conversations, she made it clear that what we’re dealing with is climate chaos. She’s removed large Junipers to conserve water. She’s reduced fuel loads on the farm through prescribed burns. Four acres of her land are un-farmable on a rocky hillside with no water right—so instead, she’s cultivating native grasses that provide good filtration on the hillside.
As we finish this article in July of 2021, Spring is facing the realities of severe drought in Central Oregon and an early wildfire season with ashes falling on her dried-out pasture. As she said on Instagram “We are on a week on week off [irrigation cycle] this is not going to work when we are watering twice a day with the increased heat this past month. . .I am posting to create awareness to plan ahead, start saving water, weed your place, create defensible space.” She’s started working with her local Natural Resource Conservation Service staff to plan for the future, but for now, she’s looking at long, hot summer days.
And, as she told us, “Farmers need to talk more about climate change, what we’re going to do about it. How can we prepare ahead for the season to come? We can suggest ideas to help each other.”
“Farmers need to talk more about climate change, what we’re going to do about it. How can we prepare ahead for the season to come? We can suggest ideas to help each other.”
Thank you to Spring for your partnership. You can find her products online at: Sakari Botanicals or donate to support her work via Venmo: @Sakarifarms.
These additional articles provided great background:
“Nourishing communities during the pandemic” by Jessica Douglas via Indian Country Today
Sakari Farms via Native American Travel
Sakari Farms Reconnections via Intertribal Agricultural Council
Authored by Ashley Rood
Photo Credit: All photos taken at Sakari Farm by Jaime Thrower/Studio XIII Photography