Farming for the Future

Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
Father and daughter dairy farmers Steve and Sara Pierson

Renewable energy and sustainable farming practices help small farms stay ahead of the competition.

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I found myself surrounded by a dozen colossal heifers attempting to eat my messenger bag.

0621 cowsIT4A6533Dairy cows at Sar-Ben Farms in St. Paul, Oregon   Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

I had ventured into the 300-cow herd at Sar-Ben Farms in St. Paul, in Marion County, to see the regenerative farming process up close.

Lured into the lush pasture by Steve Pierson, who runs Sar-Ben Farms in St. Paul with his family, I was learning how creating biodiversity in grazing land using a mix of native grass species improves the cows’ health, helps the soil to retain water and sequesters more carbon.

0621 curiouscalfIT4A6024Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

Steve’s daughter Sara is in charge of rearing the animals as calves, and her process ensures the cows are relaxed, curious and well socialized. A fifth-generation dairy farmer, Sara was crowned Dairy Princess by the Oregon Dairy Princess-Ambassador Program in 2016.

In 2018 she graduated from Oregon State University with a degree in agricultural business. After trying out other jobs, she returned home to work on the family farm.

The Piersons’ cow-rearing practices, as well as their energy-efficient carousel milking system and solar panels that generate 30% of the farm’s electricity, are part of the farm’s eco-friendly philosophy. It is a story that has become common among independently owned farms in Oregon.

Environmentally friendly farming practices make for more resilient crops and healthier herds, which are not dependent on hormones and pesticides. In addition to mitigating climate change, carbon-reducing practices help small farms compete with large-scale operations and big agribusiness.

0621 SolarPanelsIT4A6128Steve Pierson, owner of Sar-Ben Farms, stands in front of solar panels installed at his St Paul farm.   Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

While they may not be able to compete with factory farms on price, customers have become more willing to spend more on environmentally friendly brands. Sustainable farming practices also use less water, a quality that will make them more competitive as farms adjust to the coming realities of climate change.

For Steve Pierson and his wife, Susan, sustainability was a matter of survival.

The couple met while Steve was working as a farmhand at Sar-Ben, which was then owned by her parents. The couple planned to take over the farm when Susan’s parents retired, but the cull rate for the herd was 33%, meaning every year one-third of the herd was sent to the slaughterhouse.

Sar-Ben’s cull rate was better than most confinement diaries — which keep cows permanently indoors — in the late ’90s, but with the mounting financial pressures small farms faced from big agribusiness, the Piersons knew they had to do things differently.

“Everyone was struggling then. We realized we could never afford to buy her parents out unless something changed,” says Pierson.

Steve had studied the benefits of regenerative farming at the University of Florida and took up the practice in hopes of improving the herd. Regenerative farming means cultivating farmland in a way that rebuilds organic matter in the soil and restores the area’s natural biodiversity.

After moving cows into pasture to graze instead of confining them inside sheds, the herd’s longevity improved, and the financial outlook brightened.

Steve’s experience of saving the family farm led him to become an evangelist for sustainable farming practices. In 2005 Sar-Ben joined the Organic Valley cooperative, a national, farmer-owned cooperative that advocates for holistic and sustainable farming practices.

He was eager to show me his rotary milking system, which was installed in 2019. The carousel system saves energy by speeding up the milking process, reducing an eight- to nine-hour process to around two and a half. The farm uses a K-Line irrigation system, which delivers water in tubes rather than with a sprinkler, cutting down water use.

0621 equipIT4A5984Rotary milking system at Sar-Ben Farms    Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

It also uses LED lighting and a refrigeration heat-recovery system. But the largest and most noticeable pieces of green tech are the three 10-kilowatt solar panels, which produce one-third of the farm’s energy. Pierson also built a 260-kilowatt array on his hay farm in Prineville, which accounts for 95% of the farm’s electricity needs.

“The more you do, the more opportunities crop up. It’s a never-ending cycle of improvement,” says Pierson. “Everything I’m doing right now is setting the farm up for when my kids take over. It’s nice to see the next generation doing things better than you did.”

In 2019, as a member of the Organic Valley cooperative board, Pierson visited Washington, D.C., to petition Congress and the USDA to adopt higher standards for what is considered organic livestock.

This year Pierson was elected board president. One of the challenges he faces is the prevalence of what has become known in the sustainable-farming business as greenwashing. In an attempt to mimic eco-farming trends, larger companies will often label products with buzzwords like “all natural” to confuse customers.

Agribusinesses have always held influence over Congress and the USDA through campaign donations. But other accrediting organizations are rising to fill in the gap.

One such certifying organization is Certified Naturally Grown. Operating a peer-review system, the certification requires two inspections at different times of year. In addition to using approved methods of fertilizing and pest management, the inspections test for soil nutrition and the use of cover crops, planted after harvest, to prevent soil erosion.

“We are a grassroots operation that goes above and beyond certified organic in many ways,” says Melissa Streng, owner of Sun Love Farm in Oregon City. “It means our practices make the soil happier. The label helps us tell that story to our customers.”

According to a 2020 study by Oregon State University, the primary driver of farmers adopting regenerative and carbon-neutral practices is profitability. By lowering the electricity bill and reducing dependence on pesticides and fertilizers, even farmers without climate change concerns are adopting carbon-mitigation techniques.

One reason that sustainability has become more profitable is because the cost of big-ticket renewable energy items like solar panels has declined.

“We started looking at solar panels 10 years ago. My thought process was I wanted to reduce our electrical costs and I wanted to do it in a way that was responsible. But it was just too expensive,” says Melissa Collman, who runs Cloud Cap Farm with her family in Boring. “Then we were approached by a company about setting up solar on the farm.”

The agreement was that the farm would rent the land underneath the solar panels to the energy company for 15 years, after which the farm would be able to purchase the 400-kilowatt array at a reduced price. Once owned, the array will generate enough electricity to completely power the farm and the owners will still be able to sell power back to the grid.

Collman was initially hesitant about installing solar panels on grazing land. But new research suggests that solar panels actually improve grazing when they are properly spaced.

The idea of combining grazing land with solar panels, known as agrivoltaics, might seem counterintuitive. Plants underneath solar panels have less access to sunlight.

But a study released this year by Oregon State University finds farms that combine solar panels and grazing land see a 30% increase in net economic value. Not only is the land used more efficiently, plants that are underneath solar panels fare better during hot spring and summer months. Grazing animals use the panels as shade and consume less water than those spending all day in the sun.

Isolated arrays and research installations have already been put in place in Arizona, Japan and France. But the Oregon State University study was the first to incorporate animal grazing into the equation. The research comes as welcome news for smaller farms seeking to use limited space more effectively.

With the help of the USDA Renewable Energy System Grant, Live Local Organic, an indoor farm in Milwaukie, was able to install an LED lighting system, which lowered energy consumption by 60%.

“Without the Renewable Energy System Grant, we may not have been able to make this investment,” says Joel Kelly, chief operating officer of Live Local Organic. “The Energy Trust of Oregon has also been extremely helpful in our energy-efficiency goals by providing resources and connections, which allowed us to be fully prepared for applications and documentation.”

Similar to environmental sustainability, indoor farming is a trend that is likely to become more prevalent as weather conditions change.

“This is the hottest spring on record,’’ says Pierson. “You can debate the causes of climate change all you want, but there’s no doubt that it’s happening. Water is a resource that is becoming more and more scarce.”

Even though ecological farming practices are good business, public initiatives aimed at mitigating climate change have been an indispensable part of farms becoming more sustainable. In addition to the USDA Renewable Energy System Grant, the Energy Trust of Oregon offers financial incentives to purchase, install and construct renewable-energy systems or energy-efficiency improvements, which Sar-Ben Farms used to help finance its own solar operation.

From now until he retires, Pierson’s goal is to “future-proof” his farm for the next generation. The next hill to climb will be reducing methane and generating 100% of the farm’s electricity from renewable sources. The more that small farms adopt sustainable practices, the better they will compete with big agribusiness, and the more rural economies will benefit.

0621 sarbenIT4A6609Father and daughter dairy farmers Steve and Sara Pierson

For that to happen, more small, independent farms will have to come on board.

In April this year, the Organic Valley cooperative launched a loan fund for members seeking to install solar arrays and energy-efficient technology. The $1 million fund, created in partnership with the Clean Energy Credit Union, will help the co-op meet its goal of tripling the number of farmers using renewable energy by 2024.

“We have to create more opportunities. When you have factory farms getting bigger and bigger, and producing lower- and lower-quality food, farming in an ecological manner supports family farms and rural communities,” says Pierson.

“We have to think about the lifestyle we want to have in the future.”

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