Author: Sarah and Randy Walker
Publish Date: Spring 2010
Sarah and Randy Walker have not been farmers for very long. Four and a half years ago they purchased a farm on the flat fertile plain next to the Siletz River. Since then, they have not looked back. Sarah grew up in the inner-city of South St. Louis, and came to the farm under protest. Randy grew up in a family oyster-growing operation, where working on the oyster beds was a way of life as long as he can remember. It was his dream to be a self-sufficient small acreage farmer, much the same way his grandfather farmed in Canby, Oregon, shortly after the last century.
Sarah’s reluctance and Randy’s dream turned very quickly into a huge undertaking. Somewhere along the way a passion for the rural lifestyle took root. The Walkers in some ways are very typical of small farmers today. Randy works for OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, and is 61. His salary has helped support the farm until it got going. Sarah worked full time at a Newport lumber company, but recently has been laid off from work.The Walker’s feel strongly that sustainability has a social value and that the key to healthy living is a strong and healthy community. They are very busy members of the community. They are both volunteer firefighters and EMS First Responders at the Siletz Valley Rural Fire Department, where Sarah is also the Secretary/Treasurer of the Siletz Volunteer Firefighters Association. Randy is president of the Lincoln County Small Farmers Association (AKA Newport Farmers Market) and also sits on the board of Buy Local Lincoln County, a not-for-profit organization that has the purpose of promoting local spending for businesses in Lincoln County. They both actively support Bright Horizons Therapeutic Riding Center, and volunteer for the Siletz Valley Food Share Pantry. Their farm, Walker Farms of Siletz, was selected to be the 2009 Conservation Farm of the Year by the Lincoln County Soil and Water District.
Farming in circles. The Walkers view of farming is reminiscent of a hoop spinning fast. The idea is the spinning hoop repels as many inputs as possible coming in and the centrifugal force will send outputs to the community as healthy options that have minimal impact on the environment and provide people with wholesome food.
When the farm was purchased, the main source of income was an indoor arena and stables for the horses. The horse barn had only one customer when the Walkers purchased the farm. Currently all stalls are full - being on waiting list for almost a year is not uncommon. A few years ago, the Walkers partnered with Bright Horizons Therapeutic Riding Center to provide an opportunity for disabled and challenged people to have an opportunity to learn to ride horses and work on life skills. The center has been very successful and is an asset to the community.
Additionally, Bright Horizons provides Walker Farms with another benefit - horse manure. Walker Farms composts the manure and carbon from the bedding and excess hay and turns it into rich compost to help build the soil on the farm. In the summer manure is spread on the fields to provide the building blocks of life for the vegetation that supports the sheep and other ruminants. This manure has not always been a friend of the farm - when they first purchased the farm there was a huge pile of manure behind the barn that was a point source of excess nutrients going into the soil and ground water. Sarah and Randy partnered with NRCS to build facilities to change manure form a source of pollution to a benefit to the soil and keep the waters of the Siletz River from being fouled by runoff from the farm.
A signature crop of the farm is pasture raised chicken. The chicken is raised in the fields in portable pens. The pens are moved every night so as to not concentrate manure in one spot. As with all circles, there is a pattern to the way animals live on the farm. The Walkers use pasture rotation to ensure that fields are not run down too far by the ever-grazing sheep. They are moved from small field to small field, helping to maintain the balance of ecosystem on the farm. A good portion of the income from the farm comes from pasture raised lambs. Most of the lamb produced by Walker Farms is sold through direct sales of USDA butchered meat, either at the Newport Farmers Market, on farm sales, or through their new CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Last year, Randy and Sarah partnered with McK Ranch to supply a wide variety of meats and eggs to customers in western Oregon. This partnership is looking to be a growing part of the farm. Hogs and chicken eggs are also a source of income on the farm.
In the last two years, two small (18’ x 30’), and one large (30’ x 96’) high tunnel have been added to the farm. Fresh fruits, berries and vegetables are raised in the tunnels without herbicides, or pesticides. In addition to using compost, the Walkers mix their own blend of slow release fertilizer that is made from all natural products. It is the hope that this portion of the farm will continue to grow as Randy nears retirement.
Conservation is cornerstone of the farm. High-efficiency low-energy lighting is used throughout the farm. The Walkers are hoping to put in a water catchment system this year to supply water to crops in late August, September and October, traditionally the driest months of the year for this location.
Adorning the roof of the horse barn is 13.42 KW of photovoltaic panels that provide a good portion of the electrical power needed for the farm. In addition, wherever possible, solar fence chargers are installed to energize the seven-wire New Zealand style fencing that surrounds and divides most of the farm. The small home built trailer that is used for sales at farmers market is also solar powered. The trailer, which looks like something right out of the movie “Grapes of Wrath,” is a high tech unit. It has solar panels that harvest energy from the sun and store it in a battery. An inverter powers the computer, card reader and printer used for point of sale retail business. Direct 12-volt electricity is used to power two 12-volt DC compact fluorescent bulbs to provide lighting within the trailer. The Walkers readily admit the energy payback is likely the duration of the next ice age, but the point is to show customers that solar power will work in coastal Lincoln County.
The use of point of sale software and hardware connected to the rest of the world by wireless broadband has allowed the Walkers to increase their sales by offering customers the option of using a credit card when purchasing. Another perk of this system is the integration of point-of-sale software to the accounting software. This assists with the management of inventory and provides an in-the-moment look at account balances. This has relieved Sarah from many hours of tedious bookkeeping and allowed her to balance with the touch of a few keys. While this may seem a bit removed from small farming it is a huge tool for the Walkers and allows them to spend more time farming and less time in the office.
Lincoln County lags behind the rest of the state in direct farms sales, as it takes its place as dead last. The Walkers found some challenges with materials and supplies as they currently have to buy many of these items in the valley, an hour away. The Walkers do see a bright future for Lincoln County agriculture as some folks are beginning to think about farming in Lincoln County. At one time the county had vegetable, fruit, and berry processing plants, but for the most part, these facilities went away in the 1950s and 60s.
Knowing that processing has been successful in Lincoln county, Sarah and Randy are betting that value-added processing can be profitable again and are finishing up a facility that will meet these needs. The vision is to add value to fruits and vegetables grown on the farm and sell them as products that are commanding a higher price.
Farm education is a key component of what the farm does. Every spring, grade-school children come to the farm and tour the facility. Most years this includes a lap around the horse arena guided by volunteers from Bright horizons. The kids enjoy seeing the brooders, the laying hens and the chickens in the pasture. Hopefully, this gives them a broad view of where their food comes from and how a farm actually provides the food bought in the grocery store. The tour has been a huge hit in the past, and generally the teachers try to tie the farm visit into the school’s curriculum. This year signs have been added to the solar electric system geared at the second grade level, in hopes that the farm can instill a bit of interest in sustainability.
Walker Farms of Siletz is interested in being as transparent as possible and encourages folks to come out and take a look. The Walkers are happy to share any part of the farm that anyone would want to see, from petting the lambs, visiting the pigs, seeing how they manage the irrigation in the high tunnels, or witnessing the chicken production from brooder to butchering.