Feb 5, 2021
Dairy, row crops and produce a circle of sustainability at Oregon organic farm
Keeping its environmental impact as low as possible through sustainable practices is a key part of Threemile Canyon Farms’ recipe for success.
Founded in 1998, the north-central Oregon crop and dairy cattle operation began with sustainability as a principal part of its operations. From cow to crop harvesting, Threemile’s “closed-loop” production system produces food with little to no waste.
“We were early innovators in building a ‘closed loop’ system of sustainable farming, which is made possible by our decision to bring together crop farming and dairy production,” said Greg Harris, Threemile’s director of farming and agronomy. “These are highly complementary pursuits, particularly when it comes to recycling waste.”
Home on the river
Located south of the Columbia River banks, the Boardman, Oregon, farming operation produces a variety of organic and conventional produce for fresh and processing markets. Since 2002, Threemile has increased its certified organic acreage from 270 acres to nearly 9,000 acres. Threemile grows carrots, sweet corn, blueberries and sweet and Spanish yellow onions.
The farm’s heritage is potatoes. Threemile grows round white and russet potatoes for processing. R.D. Offutt Co., Threemile’s owner, also operates a potato processing plant for fries and chips. Additionally, Threemile grows a variety of grains, feed and cover crops, including organic corn and alfalfa for feed. Overall, crops are produced on more than half of Threemile’s 93,000 acres, which also include conservation and range land.
Threemile houses 70,000 jersey and jersey cross-bred cows, with half in active milking at what’s recognized as Oregon’s largest dairy farm. Threemile’s principal markets include retail and foodservice customers as well as farms that purchase the crops for animal feed.
A legacy to remember
Marty Myers, Threemile’s longtime general manager and co-owner, died Dec. 1. A fifth-generation Oregonian, Myers was 68. “Marty spent 22 years focused on lessening environmental impacts, setting the highest animal care standards, supporting the local community and economy, and ensuring his employees’ and their families’ well-being,” said Tara May, Offutt’s vice president of communications and external affairs.
A McMinnville, Oregon, native, Myers was Northwest business manager of Offutt, a Fargo, North Dakota-based sixth generation family-owned agriculture business. He started with Offutt in 1994 as a business development manager focused on Western U.S. agribusiness. Myers was responsible for managing all of Offutt’s farm and dairy operations in Oregon, Washington and Nevada. In late 1998, Offutt acquired Threemile by taking over its lease. Threemile’s first crop was harvested in 1999.
Myers, Potatoes USA’s most recent chairman of the board, was remembered as an innovative thinker and a steady and thoughtful agricultural leader. He was an inspiring and visionary member of the Oregon and Dairy Nutrition Council Board of Commissioners, one who possessed insight, thoughtfulness and willingness to work with all points of view.
“Marty Myers was a man ahead of his time,” said Kay Brown, Oregon’s governor. “His vision of sustainable farming revolutionized the field, and his selfless contributions to his state will be cherished for generations.”
Under Myers’ leadership, Threemile was heralded as a model for sustainable farming. In the early 2000s, Myers led efforts to expand into the dairy business. He understood the benefits a closed-loop system provides for responsible large-scale modern farming.
“Sustainability is always at the forefront of our farming practices, with continuous focus on our closed-loop system wherein the dairy and crops routinely sustain and improve one another,” said Harris. “Modeling creativity, innovation and efficiency, the team at Threemile constantly improves farm practices to safeguard food supply, support efforts to improve air and water quality, ensure animal wellness and contribute to the community.”
Enthusiastic embracers of technological advancements, precision agriculture helps Threemile increase efficiencies. “We are oftentimes early adopters of new technology that helps us manage our machine fleet and water resources more efficiently,” said Harris. “We have been a constant investor in innovative solutions that help reduce our carbon footprint.” Photosensor technologies help cultivate straighter rows, which helps Threemile increase precision in its tilling practices. That reduces the number of passes and fuel consumption.
Threemile’s hallmark closed-loop system starts with the cow. The cows produce milk for cheese and manure. Threemile injects organic nutrients produced by the cows back into the soil. The process minimizes fertilizer use and helps maintain healthy crops.
The manure fuels Threemile’s methane digester. The digester converts methane into renewable natural gas, which is injected into a natural gas pipeline and used as transportation fuel. Manufacturing energy from manure, the digester also allows the farm to maximize manure input. The digester’s residuals are used for cattle bedding, soil amendments and liquid fertilizer for organic row crops and cattle feed crops. The crops are used for feed, which closes the loop that begins and ends with the cows.
The digester sequesters the equivalent annual greenhouse gas emissions from 28,875 passenger vehicles (136,000 metric tons per year of CO2). The same carbon sequestering would require 160,061 acres of forest land. “The sum total of crop plantings and digester sequestration makes Threemile a significant contributor in helping Oregon move toward a lower carbon-emitting future,” said May.
Cover crops and cattle feed
Threemile’s cover crops, which include mustard, benefit the soil through integration back into the soil. The cover crops serve as natural biofumigants, suppressing weeds and protecting crops against disease. Cover crops also protect soil from wind and water erosion and increase organic matter. Like other farmers, Threemile rotates crops on a multi-year rotation schedule to help replenish the soil. Rotation also helps reduce pests and weeds associated with the crops.
One of the biggest challenges growing organically is not being allowed to use commercial herbicides for weed control. Harris and his coworkers have adopted natural solutions. Organic onions, for example, require more attention to make sure the crops stay free of weeds, which require more labor to manage. Alfalfa acts as a natural weed suppressant. Threemile plants several years of alfalfa on the same field it plans to grow onions and uses alfalfa to control weeds on other crops. Though organic alfalfa doesn’t yield much margin above conventional, it helps keep weeds out of the fields and provides other significant advantages, Harris noted.
Threemile feeds alfalfa and other crops for cattle feed. “Therein lies a central theme of Threemile Canyon: complementarity,” said Harris. “The crops we grow feed the cows, who in turn make manure that fertilizes the crops.”
Harris’ counsel for new organic farmers is to think long-term about crops that could quickly be rotated in if any unexpected circumstances arise. Inevitably, a pest will unexpectedly appear, necessitating a need to add another rotation crop.
“If you don’t have an alternative, then that could be a tough year,” Harris said.
Geographically, Threemile’s operations are in the north-central part of Oregon, considered Eastern Oregon. Climate is the region’s main agronomic advantage. “Low rainfall, relatively warm temperatures and a bit of wind all work in concert to keep blight away,” observed Harris. The region’s sandy soil creates favorable growing conditions for potatoes, as long as erosion is mitigated, which Threemile does through cover crops.
Threemile employs more than 300 full-time staff as well as 150 seasonal workers. Many of its farm managers were raised on small family farms and possess wide industry and regional knowledge. Multi-generational families’ children grew up around the farm, developed careers and remained as workers and managers. “We emphasize training and promoting from within, so employees who begin as laborers can become supervisors and managers,” May said. Thanks to Threemile’s internship program, 10 of its former interns are now working in full-time positions.
Threemile became actively involved in its community soon after starting. “Supporting the local community – both its businesses and people – is an important part of our definition of sustainable farming,” said May. “We hire locally, promote from within, purchase locally whenever possible, and support our employees’ community activities.” Threemile contributes to statewide efforts and organizations, including the Oregon Food Bank and Farmers Ending Hunger. Threemile donates 8,000 pounds of ground beef monthly the food bank distributes statewide to nonprofit organizations including Portland, Oregon’s Blanchet House of Hospitality, which provides meals and housing for the needy.
Demand for Threemile’s organic produce remains steady, with the farm experiencing a recent hike in calls for organic grain corn. As consumer purchases of organic milk and eggs expand, demand for the crops that feed those animals follows.
Threemile’s environmental commitment has not gone unnoticed. In April 2020, the operation received the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s Outstanding Dairy Sustainability Award. Threemile was one of three U.S. dairies – and the only West Coast dairy – to receive the recognition.