$n$ Switch to organic yields trials, rewards for farm

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The Williams' Hudson Bay Farm -- the Hudson Bay Trading Company's farm during the mid-1800s -- has recently gone organic.

Approximately six years ago, along with our wives, Penny Hawkins and Melinda Eden, we made the decision to convert our farm to organic production. At that time oil prices were high and seemed to be on a path of constant increase.

Since many conventional farm chemicals are petroleum-based, we began to question how sustainable conventional farming would be if these products continued to increase in price or became less available.

Would it make more long-term economic and environmental sense to grow crops for the organic market using the manure generated by the heifers we also raise?

Organic certification requires that no conventional fertilizer or herbicide be applied to the land for a period of three consecutive years prior to certification. We refer to this three-year conversion period as "financial hell" and the "worst of both worlds" because of reduced crop yields and increased production costs without any corresponding organic price premium. Looking back, the conversion to organic was far more costly than we anticipated.

Now that the farm has become organically certified, we have made progress in establishing long-term relationships with a number of organic customers, including Bob's Red Mill, to whom we sell organic grains, both corn and high-protein spring wheat.

A few of our colleagues have been somewhat surprised at the quality and yields we have been able to achieve through our organic practices. As the organic market continues to mature and become ever more competitive, we believe that product quality will be even more important. The key is to do all you can to make this year's crop better than the last and to listen closely to customer preferences. In addition, high yields must be consistently achieved to maintain the farm's economic sustainability.

Despite some initial success, we realize that environmental and economic sustainability require a long-term commitment and that many challenges remain. We recognize the continual need to increase the organic matter, fertility and health of the soil by using economically and environmentally sustainable means. We plan to improve and expand our manure composting and field application methods. We also plan to increase the use of cover crops and crop rotation to enhance soil fertility and soil health.

Weed control is a perennial challenge to organic farms, as organic production is not sustainable over the long term unless weeds can be controlled. Strategies such as high seeding rates have helped control weeds in certain crops. It is our hope that enhanced soil health and fertility associated with increased crop rotation and the use of cover crops will also aid weed control.

We believe that crop diversity is vital to an organic farm's economic health. An organic farmer must develop the capacity to grow a wide diversity of crops rather than specialize in one or two high-volume crops. This requires not only more equipment but also a greater tolerance for periodic crop failure.

Regarding sustainable energy, we are planning to install two 10-kilowatt solar arrays and complete an Oregon State University energy efficiency audit this year.

In recent years, we have increased the efficiency of our water use by installing new irrigation mainlines designed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service in Pendleton. We are planning to expand our use of drip irrigation and water monitoring systems.

In addition, we are doing all that we can to increase organic matter in our soils by consistent long-term application of composted animal waste, cover crops and other organic methods. The added organic matter increases the soil's water-holding capacity, improving irrigation efficiency and crop production.

Most importantly, we realize that no farm is an island, and that sustainability of the water resource must involve the entire Walla Walla Valley.

Ray Williams is a long-time board member of the Walla Walla Basin Watershed Council and the Hudson Bay District Improvement Company, and also serves as a member of the Oregon Water Resources Commission. Ray's wife, Melinda Eden, has served as one of two Oregon representatives on the four-state Northwest Power Planning and Conservation Council. Tom Williams is a member of the Blue Mountain Land Trust and former mayor of Walla Walla, and is active in sustainability projects.

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