The Dundee Hills Food Forest was founded on a passion for growing healthy food and a vision to build on the study of others working towards a new paradigm in food production; the practice of permaculture based systems rather than the current standard monoculture model.
Simply, this means the practice of growing multiple species of plants that benefit each other in some way in a space together. There are several great examples of highly functioning permaculture systems in many different climates around the world. In the Pacific Northwest there are many months of cloud cover with ample amounts of rain for much of the year. Generally there are warm, drier days from mid June to mid October. The temperatures are moderate and rarely extreme. All this creates an opportunity for a great diversity of thriving plant life, including many types of food crops.
On our small plot, we are working to build an ecosystem that will be highly functional and eventually very self- sustaining. This ecosystem will include many different trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, herbs, bulbs and annuals. A large amount of these plants will be medicinal or food producing while others will have varying important functions in creating balance and health on the property. In addition to diverse plant life, healthy ecosystems have a good balance of insect and animal life meaning wildlife habitat, food and shelter will also be incorporated into the design.
With time, observation and patience we believe we will be able to produce a large amount of edible and useful crops on a small amount of land while simultaneously increasing the health of the land on which the crops are grown.
The Dundee Hills Food Forest sits on two and a half acres nestled into the Dundee Hills American Viticulture Area located about 27 miles SW of Portland, Oregon. The Dundee Hills are a small group of hills surrounded by the flat lands of the Willamette Valley. Officially the Dundee Hills AVA is 6,490 acres with about 2,000 acres planted in wine grapes. There are also several filbert (hazelnut) and fruit orchards dotting the slopes. The hills are most famous for their unique soil; a red clay-loam soil known as ‘Jory soil’ that was deposited in the area by ancient lava flows. The higher elevation allows for slightly warmer nighttime temperatures in addition to less frost and fog than the valley floor. All of these conditions create a one of a kind place to grow delicious wines.
For us, these conditions also create a special place to grow delicious food.
In late summer of 2012 the Dundee Hills Food Forest was founded on a beautiful piece of ground. The property gently slopes to the northeast, has wonderful sun exposure, is buffered by a large forested area and has a nice view of the Chehalem Mountains (another small AVA). This part of the hills was long planted as filbert orchards until 25-30 years ago when some of the land began to get divided into 2-10 acre parcels. The property where the food forest is now being planted was cleared and developed in the very early 1990’s and has effectively been mowed as pasture ever since. Several trees and shrubs were planted over the years before we acquired the property and some of these will be incorporated as long time staples in the food forest design. We have removed many other trees and shrubs due to disease, poor placement, bad structure or low function value.
In 2013, we spread some 20 tons of wheat straw over a large section of the property to begin to break down the pasture in place. We incorporated over 100 yards of plant debris compost to help build up organic matter in the soil. We built a 500’ long deer fence in one area to protect deer sensitive plants. We began to establish mixed wildflower beds to help attract beneficial insects. Construction began on a 10’ tall by 10’ wide redwood arbor that will eventually run over 170’ in length and be used to support table grapes, hops for ale brewing and a few other food crops that grow on vines.
Starting in early spring of 2014 we began planting new perennials, bulbs, herbs, shrubs and trees. We also grew several annual vegetables. As of 2016 we have added over 600 species to the property continually adding to the biodiveristy of the site.
WHAT IS A FOOD FOREST?
In nature, a healthy forest is the perfect ecological design. Nutrients and water are recycled, fertility is maintained naturally and health is abundant. Food forestry is an element of permaculture that focuses on creating a replication of a young forest. A food forest will contain large and small trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials and herbs, annuals, root crops and vines. The plants are grouped together to maximize positive interactions and minimize negative ones. Fertility comes from the natural recycling of nutrients as the food forest goes through its yearly cycles.
Food forests have a few key features including vertical layers of plants, diversity, varying light levels, soil surfaces covered in plant growth and very little annual cultivation. These features work together providing many benefits including the ability to sequester carbon dioxide, the ability to prevent run off by storing more water in the soil, wildlife habitat, resilience to climate changes and extremes, high efficiency with less maintenance, a diverse range of crops and they are aesthetically pleasing. Keep in mind that food forestry is different than “growing food in a natural forest”.
Forests are living ecosystems and food forests are also created as such. This means that there is natural mulch, fertilizer, decomposition, pest control and resilience all creating a food production system with high productivity of healthy, diverse, nutrient dense food.
Food forests, like other forests, are site and climate specific. Each site and climate will have different plants, designs and functions. The clouds, rainfall, dry summers and temperate temperatures make the Willamette Valley a unique and exciting place to build a food forest.
Our experience growing a personal vegetable garden in a 400 square foot backyard in the Portland suburbs taught us that growing food without synthetic chemical sprays or fertilizers is not only possible but in fact, quite easy. There are two secrets to success: soil health and plant diversity.
Healthy plants begin with healthy soil. Soil is where the plant gets the nutrients and elements it needs to build healthy cells. Most soils in human developed areas are destroyed on some level. This means they have been altered from their natural state and now exist in some other form - this is the case with the property our farm is located on. For the past 20+ years our soil has mostly been kept as a pasture where the roots do not reach more than a couple feet down into the ground. In a valley that gets 40+ inches of rain a year, this lack of root systems in the ground contributes to many of the decomposing surface nutrients leaching through the soil profile out of reach to the plants. The soil in the Willamette Valley is classically low on some basic plant building blocks such as calcium.
To build up healthy garden soil with all the essential building blocks for healthy plants, we have begun the process of “re-mineralizing” our soil. This involves soil testing and subsequent additions of certain organic amendments such as lime, kelp and glacial rock dust. These amendments all contain elements and nutrients that our longtime pasture soil is lacking.
Healthy soil also contains a small amount of organic matter and this is where compost comes in. We use plant debris based compost to add organic matter around freshly planted plants and to build up annual vegetable beds. We also use cardboard and organic wheat straw to smother pasture grasses and weeds all of which slowly break down and add organic matter to the soil. This process is called sheet mulching. This organic matter is broken down and mixed throughout the soil by the larger soil life, especially the earthworms. An acre of good garden soil can contain between 2 and 3 million earthworms – enough to move 18 tons of soil a year in search of food. With this in mind, we try and focus on feeding the earthworms so that they do the tilling for us.
An often overlooked part of healthy soil is having a balanced “soil-food web”. The soil food web includes all the soil life from microscopic bacteria and fungi to the larger beetles and worms. All this varied life performs functions in the soil that directly benefit plants. There are many ways to grow food where the soil food web is protected. On the farm we practice an almost entirely no till method as tilling shreds the soil food web. We also use what is known as ‘actively aerated compost tea’ as a foliar spray and soil drench. Basically, we use selected compost, wood chips and rock dust submerged in water and gently aerated with oxygen to separate bacteria and fungal hyphae from the particles allowing them to free float in the water. Adding this bacteria/fungi rich compost tea to soil or leaves greatly increases the diversity of life on the leaves of plants and in the soil.
Plant diversity is another main focus in creating a healthy, chemical free farm. We will continually be adding new species to the property in an effort to increase the amount of beneficial insects and other wildlife. A good balance of insects and wildlife will help maintain a low number of garden “pests”. We are continually adding native plant species wherever we can, as they are the best plants to use to attract insects. Insects evolve with plants and so native plants are great for building insect diversity. When we arrived here in 2012, there were 7 species of native plants growing on the property, today we have over 100 native species planted.
Another focus is to establish a diverse bird population both on our property and in the surrounding area. Birds do a number of beneficial things including eating tons of insects and adding wonderful nutrients to the soil. We have twelve permanent bird feeders scattered throughout the property and three others that move around depending on where we want more birds. The permanent feeders are kept full year round with three types of food: black oil sunflower seed, thistle seed and locally made suet cakes. We have added twelve bird boxes of different sizes to attract varied species. Our newest additions are larger boxes for owls as they are excellent rodent hunters. We also have planted certain berry producing shrubs specifically for the birds such as Viburnum and native twinberry.
In addition, we work hard to consider and be aware of the environmental impact of our day-to-day operations.
IS THE FOOD CERTIFIED ORGANIC?
When answering this question we prefer folks to forget the green oval for a moment and consider the phrasing “beyond organic”. Meaning our property is not just an “organic” farm; it is an ecosystem. In a healthy ecosystem, “pests” and disease outbreaks are kept in check with diversity. Health is maintained by a constant circling of nutrients made possible by diverse, perennial plants. A diverse mix of bacteria, fungi, insects, birds and small animals maintains balance. These ideas go beyond the requirements of basic green oval organic agriculture.
Though we cannot control what is in the air or in the rainfall, the design of the Dundee Hills Food Forest is incompatible with the use of any synthetic chemical fertilizer, pesticide, herbicide or fungicide. We do not add any amendments to our soil that have not been approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI). Our compost tea ingredients are also OMRI listed. We do not use any pesticide sprays on food crops, even if they are OMRI listed.
However, organic certification can be an expensive and time-consuming process for small farmers. Often, the cost of organic certification is passed on to the customers creating a system where the healthiest food is out of reach for many people. These concerns, among others, have brought us to the decision not seek organic certification at this time.
We hope that through educating and being transparent about our farming practices those who buy food from the food forest can feel secure that they are purchasing and eating some of the healthiest food grown anywhere.