Farming in Oregon's Winter Weather Not for the Faint of Heart

Ten days locked in ice. No water due to a break in a water main, with more than 100 animals, not to mention your livelihood, depending on it to keep them alive. Which means having to carry dozens of gallons of water by hand from the creek at the bottom of the property up a steep hill to the barn.

"Think about your farmers out in these situations and know that they're going through a lot," said Michael Guebert of Terra Farma in Corbett in a report on a local news channel. "It's really, really hard work during good conditions but under conditions like this it's really stressful and really exhausting."

Michael Guebert of Terra Farma in Corbett, Oregon.

Photos of hoop houses with their plastic coverings collapsed under the weight of ice and snow, fields of frozen vegetables, posts on social media about frozen irrigation lines and burst field pipes illustrated the hazards of farming in winter and the risks that farmers take this time of year.

"I've seen a lot of reports of collapsed greenhouses and barns from the weight of ice and snow, and also damage to structures, fences, and other infrastructure from falling power poles, {power] lines, trees and limbs," said Alice Morrison of Friends of Family Farmers, a statewide organization that advocates for small family farms.

Some field crops will survive the freeze, others, not so much.

In response to the damage caused by the extreme weather, Oregon Governor Tina Kotek declared a statewide emergency on January 18th, instructing agencies to begin working with counties to assess needs, as well as identifying federal resources that are unlocked by declaring a statewide emergency.

In answer to a query sent to the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) about disaster relief from storm-caused damage, Director of Communications Andrea Cantu-Schomus responded, "ODA is not aware of a state resource for farmers who have suffered damage in the ice storms as of today. Individual commodity groups are working on relief efforts" and, without naming the groups that might help, suggested contacting them directly.

Loss of income to farmers from damage to crops, buildings and irrigation could be devastating for some, not to mention the lost income from the many farmers' markets closed because of the freezing temperatures and ice. If they were able to get out at all, many farmers were unable to deliver to retail customers and restaurants because of road closures and dangerous conditions. Others had to hold off on harvesting or reschedule pick-ups with their CSA subscribers.

In some rural areas farmers were coping with ice buildup of six inches or more.

Josh Volk of Cully Neighborhood Farm wrote on its blog that when he puts together the winter CSA schedule he always thinks, “Well, if it freezes we’ll just delay a week since harvests are typically every other week anyway. It's still a bummer, though…I have my fingers crossed that some of the remaining heads [of radicchio] made it through that cold snap."

As they did when the COVID pandemic shut down many in-person farmers' markets, some farmers pivoted to holding local pop-ups with other farmers and producers to make up for lost income. It also gave customers an opportunity to stock up on fresh meat, veggies, locally roasted coffee and baked goods. Other farmers were offering discounts on home delivery of meat, bread, fish and pantry items.

Year-round farmers' markets will be reopening this weekend and farmers are looking forward to getting back to normal. If you can, make plans to get to your neighborhood market and wish your favorite farmers well. They've been through the wringer!

Get a statewide listing of year-round markets and a sneak peek at what you'll find when you get there.

Photos: Guebert and bucket frozen in ice from KPTV report. Frozen field crops from Stoneboat Farm's Instagram feed.

Guest Essay: Farmers Rally at Nation's Capitol for Climate Resilience

Michael Guebert (the tall guy on the left, above), who with his wife Linda owns Terra Farma, a multi-species sustainable farm in Corbett, Oregon, went to Washington, DC, last week to lobby Oregon's congressional delegation and participate in a rally called "Farmers for Climate Action: Rally for Resilience." Guebert is a full-time farmer, an elected member of the Board of Directors at the East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District (EMSWCD)a farm mentor for the Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) and an advocate for better state and national policies regarding agriculture. Here is his report:

Let’s start with a simple one-question quiz: Can you name the #1 export from American soil in terms of tons per acre? 

You might guess corn, soy, beef, wheat or a myriad of other products, but, in fact, the number one export from American soil is just that—topsoil. Across the nation, our farmland loses an average of over five tons of topsoil per acre every year, and with that, carbon that has been sequestered for generations is lost to the atmosphere and its potential to store carbon in the future could be permanently compromised. The impact from soil disturbance and erosion is a significantly under-reported driver of climate change, but also represents an opportunity. Our ecological systems are resilient, to a point, but the time to act is now, before we meet the proverbial point of no return.

Farmers from across the country rallied over climate issues.

So, in that spirit of resilience, on March 7th and 8th a broad coalition of farmers from across the country converged on Washington, DC, for the “Farmers for Climate Action: Rally for Resilience” and I was honored to be selected to attend. After last year’s Farm Aid concert, board members Willie Nelson, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, and Margo Price came up with an idea to recreate the famous tractorcade of 1979 when thousands of farmers from across the country drove their tractors to the nation's capital in the hopes of bringing change to agricultural policy. 

In 2023, clogging the streets with farm equipment would be impractical, so Farm Aid worked with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) to bring together all their affiliates and the farmers they work with for a rally and meetings with their senators and representatives. I applied for one of the handful of slots and found out last month that I was selected, and I was so excited for the opportunity, as well as my first-ever trip to Washington, DC.  

Can you name the #1 export from American soil in terms of tons per acre?

This year is particularly critical because the farm bill is reauthorized every five years. A new farm bill will be passed before the end of this year, so dozens of similar groups from around the country brought hundreds of farmers to lobby for a farm bill that would reallocate money that is currently going to destructive industrial agricultural practices to instead go to policies that prioritize family farms, climate-friendly practices, and producers that have been socially or economically excluded from previous farm bill benefits.  

In 1979 this tractor drove from Texas to DC to attend the rally.

The events began with a rally just east of the White House at Freedom Plaza where we listened to a speech by one of the organizers of that original tractorcade. (He even brought the tractor he drove here from Texas in 1979!) We also heard many touching stories of the struggles faced by so many in our farm community, like Marielena Vega, a farm worker in Idaho who described the plight of her family and community in the face of low pay, substandard living and working conditions, lack of health care and zero paid leave of any kind. Farm workers have almost always been excluded from policy considerations; it’s time for that to change. 

Interspersed with speeches and the moderation of Ray Jeffers, a Black farmer turned newly elected member of the North Carolina legislature, the rally was highlighted by a video link of Willie Nelson and an in-person performance from John Mellencamp. We then took to the streets and, with a police escort, marched the mile-plus to the capital, ending at the front steps of the Supreme Court.

Farm workers have almost always been excluded from policy considerations;
it’s time for that to change.

After training by NSAC on how to conduct our scheduled meetings with our congresspeople, we had the remainder of the evening to strategize and refine our message. While I was the only FACT representative from Oregon, I was able to meet up with two other Oregon farmers, Bashira Muhammad of Zoom Out! Mycology in Springfield and Willow from Valhalla Serenity Homestead near Klamath Falls. They were part of a small contingent from the Black farmers of Oregon (and Washington), but since they didn’t have a chance to get any meetings scheduled, I invited them to join me in my meetings in the offices of Jeff Merkley, Ron Wyden, and Earl Blumenauer.  

"Support farmers. Save farms, save communities, save families."

In each of the 30-minute meetings we introduced ourselves, reassuring them that we were actual farmers—they seemed to genuinely appreciate seeing actual constituents compared to the typical lobbyists they see day in and day out. We moved on to discuss the challenges farmers face from a changing climate, wildfires, competition from unsustainable industrial ag, and policies that leave out funding for smaller farms like ours.

They seemed especially concerned when I described how we had to give up selling raw milk at Terra Farma because drought, due in part to climate change, has caused the price we pay for hay to double in less than two years. Plus the fact that we had our liability insurance cancelled because we sold raw milk (which is completely legal for us to sell).

Then we moved on to our specific asks: The overarching priority from NSAC is the Agricultural Resilience Act, which focuses on farmer-led climate solutions, racial justice, and communities, not corporations. Two priorities from FACT were the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative, which would provide funding to support pasture-based systems like those we use at our farm, and the Strengthening Local Processing Act, to address the critical need for animal processing for independent small farms.

I planted the seed for support for a crazy idea that I have:
that Oregon should have its own farm bill.

I also added some of my personal priorities to support the work I do at EMSWCD, like increased funding for easements to protect farmland and dollars to support more urban agriculture. Finally, I planted the seed for support for a crazy idea that I have: that Oregon should have its own farm bill, and the federal farm bill should have funding for any state that wants to create something that is more specific to that state’s needs.  

Meeting and networking with other concerned farmers.

Fortunately, my job in these meetings was easy, as we are incredibly lucky to have the delegation we do here in Oregon; all three of them “get it” and, in fact, they brought up questions about some of the above-mentioned priorities even before I did. I left each of the meetings feeling very positive, though tempering my expectations because I know the reality of federal policy is that change is often incremental and slow. Some of the things we are asking for might not see progress until the next farm bill or two to be fully implemented—but if we don’t ask, the answer will always be no.  

I closed each of the meetings with a sentiment I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately: Farming is a public service. But, unlike many other public servants who have job security, a middle-class paycheck, health care, paid vacation and paid sick leave; farmers have none of these things. Additionally, they are burdened with locating and maintaining land that is increasingly out of financial reach for most new farmers. So, even though we are an essential part of every human’s existence, we are burdened with all the risk of providing that sustenance.  

Please join me in the effort to not only help climate-friendly agriculture survive, but to thrive. Not everyone is able to go to DC or the state capital to meet with their elected officials, but emails and phone calls are effective. More importantly, though, supporting farms that are employing these practices can do more than just keep a local business afloat. Their success will inspire others to follow in their footsteps, and building this movement from the ground up will undoubtedly affect future policy.

TAKE ACTION: The Agriculture Resilience Act offers a roadmap for supporting the transition to sustainable and climate-friendly food and agriculture systems, while setting amibitious yet realistic goals for agriculture to be part of the solution to the climate crisis. Take action today by asking your Members of Congress to cosponsor the bill!

UPDATE: Yesterday the president released his proposal for ag spending for fiscal year 24, and while it increases discretionary funding for the USDA and the Conservation Technical Assistance (CTA) program mentioned above, the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative that I wrote about in my story had its funding go from $14 million to zero. This underscores the need for lawmakers to hear from their constituents about the importance of this initiative and to push for a funding level of $50 million per year. Read the NSAC press release. And consider taking action today by asking your Members of Congress to cosponsor the bill.

All photos courtesy Michael Guebert.

Endorsement: Michael Guebert for Board of East Multnomah Soil & Water

Michael Guebert has not only run a regenerative farm, Terra Farma, in Corbett for 20 years, but he also spent his off-farm career as a geologist focusing on water quality. This is an important election for the future of the East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District and its amazing programs and I trust Mike to continue the great work he's done for the past 10 years on the board.

I have known Michael Guebert for more than a dozen years, and I can't think of anyone I'd trust more to do the right thing when it comes to our soil and water resources here in Multnomah County. Smart, passionate and committed, his integrity is unimpeachable, and his decade of service on the board of EMSWCD, both as a board member and current chairman, have made it a model of what's working in local land conservation.

"I'm immensely proud of the work the District has accomplished during my 10 years on the board," Guebert said, "From helping new farm businesses with our Headwaters Farm Incubator Program, funding land purchases to protect farmland, natural resource land, and parks throughout the district, and doing the hard work to recruit and retain a dedicated staff of employees."

If you're like us, the election for the local county soil and water board isn't a sexy contest, but in this case it's worth finding out about, and could mean the dismantling of a vital local resource if Guebert's opponent—someone with no governmental experience or specific policy goals in his voters' pamphlet statement—should win. (Read both statements here. Scroll to page M-33.)

"All of [our work over the last ten years] could be at risk as it appears that groups that are not necessarily aligned with district values are putting up candidates that could change the nature of the district forever," Guebert warned. "And if my opponent wins, that faction may have a majority."

I can't urge you strongly enough to take a moment when voting to make your choice for Michael Guebert for the board of East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District in this election.

Read more about Terra Farma, Michael Guebert and his wife, Linda (top photo).

Growing a Farm: Terra Farma Expands with Meat CSA

It might come as a surprise to some of the customers of Michael and Linda Guebert, who raise and sell pastured meat on their 10-acre farm in the Corbett area east of Portland, that when they bought the land in 2001 they were vegetarians looking to grow just enough produce for their own use.

In the spring of 2020 they're taking Terra Farma to the next level, starting a CSA subscription service for the pasture-raised pork, beef and chicken they raise, and adding goat and lamb to subscriptions next year. 

As they tell it, it all started when a friend gave them a few chickens, and as the flock expanded beyond what they could use themselves, they began selling eggs to friends and co-workers. Some of the roosters were causing problems, so a friend slaughtered the cranky birds and left one in their freezer. When Linda finally got around to cooking it, that delicious, pasture-raised rooster ended up being a life-changing meal, inspiring the couple to pursue a different model of eating and farming.

Goats were added, initially raised for their meat, but after milking a couple of their does, the Gueberts decided to focus on dairy, finding a ready market for their raw goat milk. With that, it was a hop, skip and jump to a multi-species, rotational grazing operation with pigs, other poultry like guinea fowl and turkeys, as well as rabbits, dairy cows and now beef cattle.

They also found this regenerative style of farming was a good fit with their own values, both in terms of being able to give their animals the best lives possible, as well as being environmentally sustainable in promoting healthy pastures and soil that more readily retains moisture and sequesters carbon. 

Why add a CSA on top of their existing farm business? Mike said it's primarily because of customers' comments about the difficulties they encountered trying to find meat that they believed was healthier for themselves—the phrase "you are what you eat eats" coined by author Michael Pollan springs to mind—and also about wanting products that were better and more sustainable for the planet.

There's also, of course, the financial aspect. The farm currently has a steady income from the milk and meat they raise, with a loyal client base built up over many years. Customers come out to the farm in Corbett to pick up orders, and the online ordering and billing system the Gueberts implemented has streamlined transactions. Linda was able to leave her job to work on the farm full time in 2011, but like many farm couples, Mike still has a full-time job off the farm that helps pay the mortgage.

The addition of the CSA subscriptions will require capital investments. Slaughter and processing of the pigs and cows at a USDA facility costs more than on-farm slaughter, and they'll need to purchase freezers to store the meat. But USDA slaughter gives the Gueberts the ability to sell meat by the piece rather than only being able to sell whole or half—or in the case of beef, quarters and eighths—under custom-exempt rules, and it will enable them to offer more choices to customers who may not be able to store or use larger quantities of meat.

The plan for the meat CSA, still undergoing some fine-tuning, is to offer quarterly subscriptions in the $325 price range for a 10- to 12-pound monthly box of a variety of cuts and kinds of meat (i.e. pork, beef or chicken). Customers won't get the same box every month, ensuring that selection is varied and the whole animals will be used.

Mike and Linda's aim is to have a sustainable business, of course, but more important to the couple, as Mike said, is to build a community of like-minded people through sharing recipes and creating strong bonds around a love of good food.

"We want to help transform the way people think about meat and clear up myths about meat's effect on the environment," Mike said. "We hope to enable customers to build a direct, meaningful relationship with their farmers; we want people to think of our farm as their farm."