Farming for a drier future
Water is abundant in Oregon, but for Don Schmidt Nursery in Boring, it's not nearly as much of a necessity as one would suspect.
Nursery co-owner Eric Schmidt practices dryland farming, as did three generations of family members for more than a century before him. This method entails cutting into the earth to release naturally stored moisture.
Dryland farming is not only more sustainable, nursery staff say, but it also yields high-quality plants.
"We're just old-fashioned," nursery production manager Alan Tabler says. "It's all a function of working with Mother Nature, not against her."
Tabler, who has worked with the nursery for 31 years, starting when Eric's father was owner, explains the dryland farming process as such:
Every spring, right before the plants begin to leaf out, they trim, and then trim again the following fall. Trimming encourages new growth.
Once this is done, every eight days or so, depending on the weather, the crew attaches a small disc to the back of a tractor and runs it between the rows of plants. The disc cuts through the soft ground soil and into the hard pan beneath, releasing the groundwater held below to the surface, where it can nourish the crops.
This method means they do not use irrigation.
By not irrigating, the plants not only grow when it's their season, but they suffer fewer diseases, insects, weeds and other issues that are usually derived from a specific water source.
"It's a hardier plant because it's growing when it's supposed to grow," Tabler says. "We're the steak versus the McDonald's."
The nursery doesn't use pesticides or herbicides. Urea-based fertilizer is the only "nongreen" element used in the business.
Weeds have a totally different connotation at Don Schmidt than the norm.
"We're green in a way that the plants aren't chemically dependent," Schmidt says. "You spend more in labor, but it's better sustainability-wise."
By this he's referring to the manual labor that goes into dryland farming. Though they have tractors, much of the work is done by hand with a hoe, manually weeding all 175 acres of farmed land.
Because of the lack of moisture, weeds are less abundant to begin with, and those that do grow are not sprayed, but rather churned back into the dirt to create green matter to enrich the soil.
"I'd rather see a field with some weeds than no weeds," Schmidt says. "You're trying to put more nutrients back into the ground."
He says other nurseries, which water like crazy throughout the hot summer, still end up with the same amount or fewer plants than places like Don Schmidt, because of the sun that likely scorches half of the yield.
It all goes back to planting and harvesting when the plants are naturally meant to be growing.
"It's all about maximizing the genetic potential of the plant," says Tabler, who originally went to school for forestry.
For this reason also, they feel they'd be better off than other nurseries if there were a water shortage.
"If other people have to resort to (dryland), they'll have a learning curve," Schmidt says. "But we will have done it."
Though the nursery industry is very competitive in Oregon, neither Tabler nor Schmidt would give up their dryland day jobs.
"I always wanted to do it growing up," Schmidt says. "I don't feel like I missed out by doing something else. There's something about seeing what you did in a day."
"The more you put into it, the more you get out of it," Tabler adds. "We're proud of what we do, and we love what we do. The nursery industry is not a good place to get rich, but it's a good lifestyle."