A Visit with Vitality Farms

I recently made a visit to Oregon and took the opportunity to tour some of the farm properties held by Farmland LP, an organic farmland fund in which we have a number of clients invested. Farmland LP acquires conventional farmland and converts it to certified organic, sustainable farmland, and its partner, Vitality Farms, manages the farming and livestock operations on their properties. Recently named one of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies by Fast Company, Farmland LP owns about 7000 acres of farmland in Northern California and Oregon.  Nearly 1500 of those acres are in Oregon just outside of Corvallis, an hour and a half from Portland. I drove out to spend the afternoon with Jason Bradford, Managing Partner at Farmland LP and Owner/Manager of Vitality Farms. It was the highlight of my trip! We toured multiple properties so I could see firsthand the wide variety of organic production currently underway after five years of infrastructure development and farming operations.

My tour started at A2R Farm, an early Farmland LP purchase sporting the most developed infrastructure.  Here, I got to meet part of Vitality Farms‘ flock of 970 very pregnant ewes, from which they’re expecting 1600 lambs will be born this spring. The sheep graze portions of the land intensively for one to three days, and then move to the next area of pasture in a system known as “rotation intensive grazing.”  Livestock grazing, when done sustainably, actually improves the quality of farmland by stimulating pasture growth and soil health while producing about 25% more meat per acre than conventional grazing methods, since the animals are always eating fresh, lush pasture. And, by overlapping the use of the land, Vitality Farms maximizes fertility and productivity. For example, several huge flocks of chickens were happily foraging in the spring sunshine right alongside the sheep. Their 6,000 laying hens live in custom-designed, mobile houses that are moved to fresh pasture every three to four days.  Every day of the year they feast on a diet of greens, bugs and worms in addition to certified organic feed. The high quality, pasture-raised eggs are sorted, cleaned, and packaged right on site and sold in markets throughout Corvallis, Eugene, Salem and Portland under both the Vitality Farms label and the Deck Family Farm label.

Sheep, cattle and chickens rotate through the pastures in cycles between the production of seed, grain, and vegetable crops.  All the crops are Certified Organic by Oregon Tilth. A very impressive seed mill housed at A2R is certified by Oregon State University and Oregon Tilth for organic seed cleaning. They use the facility for cleaning their own seed and grain crops, and provide other farmers custom cleaning and blending services as well.

At Fern Road Farm, pigs had been brought in to prepare the soil for organic vegetable production.  Having a soft spot for pigs,
I was particularly pleased to meet the friendly, gregarious animals managed by Vitality Farms’ tenant, Mosaic Farms, an award winning artisan pork producer. Natural tillers of the land, the pigs clear and prepare the land a year prior to the planting of organic vegetable crops.  They toss loose soil back and forth as they work, and when they’re done rooting, they’ve left the soil soft and added plenty of fertility for the next crop.

I loved seeing the wide variety of businesses and farming operations supported by Vitality Farms’ infrastructure. Some of Organic Valley’s ranchers—another business in which NI clients have invested over the years—graze their heifers as part of Vitality Farms’ managed grazing system. Last season they produced organic butternut squash for the Stahlbush label and this year they’ll include spinach. There are also local entrepreneurs on site, like Brad Burnheimer, whom I met processing pork into delicious smelling chorizo sausages for his company, Burnheimer Meat Company, and Shepard Smith, who brews organic compost products for farmers through his company, SoilSmith.

Of their multiple nearby properties, perhaps the most beautiful to me was Davis, a more recently purchased 475 acre parcel which has wetlands fed by Muddy Creek running through its middle.  Considered the finest example of remnant wetland prairie in Oregon, Vitality Farms’ managed livestock actually plays a crucial role in its restoration and preservation.  Working with US Fish and Wildlife and the Institute for Applied Ecology, Vitality Farms’ land management method on the bordering property is eliminating Reed Canary grass, an invasive species that chokes out the area’s native plants. It turns out that the Reed Canary grass disappears with regular grazing and animals’ presence benefit the endangered plant species that need disturbance in the soil to encourage their growth.

Vitality Farms’ genius is in orchestrating an overarching structure of diverse polyculture, incorporating multi-tenant producers who may specialize in one thing (so they do it very well) and are rotated around the land in a way that derives benefits from the previous tenant and provide valuable inputs for the next. This method of crop and livestock rotation, where the “output” of grazing livestock becomes “input” as fertilizer on land that will eventually turn into crops, is a more efficient method of farm management. And the multi-tenant approach addresses many critical problems within today’s prevailing agricultural system, including the high cost of land for the next generation of farmers, the unmet consumer demand for organic food, environmental degradation, expensive and energy intensive inputs, and declining animal welfare and human health. Though Farmland LP is currently only open to accredited investors, they do hope to establish their current fund, structured as a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), as a publicly traded offering within about five years in order to allow access for a much wider range of investors.

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Malaika Maphalala

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