Letter Re: Commercial Scale Organic Farming and Ranching

Hi Jim,
I wanted to let you know about an interesting visit I had last week.  Part of my job is to evaluate start-up companies for potential early-stage investments.    Ran across an interesting one last week.  Located in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, they have embarked on a totally sustainable commercial scale organic farming/ranching enterprise.  They have about 1,000 acres in Oregon and another 1,000 acres in California in the Central Valley.  Here’s their process to convert regular farmland to sustainable organic agriculture and ranching:

1.  First, they acquire standard farmland, usually tilled.
2.  They convert it to pasture ensuring that there is irrigation and planting it with a robust mixture of grasses, clover, grains, hairy vetch, and other sturdy broadleaf plants.  It takes 3 years to be certified as organic so from this point on, they do not apply pesticides [herbicides,] or non-organic approved fertilizers.
3.  They then run sheep on the pasture land, moving them from segment to segment every 3-5 days. They sell the lambs yearly and keep the breeding ewes for about 5-7 years when they are also sold. They also harvest hay to feed the ewes over the winter.  Volunteer weeds are favorites of the sheep and very little land maintenance is required beyond irrigation.
4.  Sheep are alternated with very large chicken tractors that move on winches about 1 foot/hour.  Eggs and meat are harvested.
5.  Cows are run on the land occasionally.
6.  After three years of this production, the pasture foliage has filled in and is very dense.  The biomass has also been completely re-established in the ground.  The ground has rebuilt its nitrogen content and is now ready for crops.
7.  After several additional years of production (optional), pigs are allowed on the pasture.  The pigs rip up the soil and add natural fertilizer.
8.  After a partial season of pig use, the land is tilled and organic crops are grown for two years.
9.  After cropping, the land is re-planted in pasture and the process repeats.

As you can see, this requires substantial farm land in order to rotate the different utilizations at the proper time.  What is interesting is the financial dynamics of this process.  Typical farmland produces about a 4% return on investment (ROI) annually.  Margins have decreased since ethanol production and other factors have driven up the cost of fertilizers, additives and animal feed.  With their process, they are getting 8% ROI and it is indefinitely sustainable.  Plus, the meat, eggs, and crops are all organic commanding premium prices for the farmers.  I should note that their business model is to be simply owners/managers of the land.  They lease out the land to other commercial enterprise who raise sheep, cows, chickens, pigs and crops and sell them into the organic marketplace.  They lease the land on the schedule noted above.

I thought that this may have some value to homesteaders and people setting up their retreat.  Perhaps this could work on a smaller scale; say five acres or so with small numbers of sheep, pigs and chickens.  You would need ongoing access to grass seed to re-seed pastures if you chose to grow crops. – Sid L.