Blue Fox Farm starts from the soil to assure success
“It’s all about the soil,” says Chris Jagger, co-owner of Blue Fox Farm, just outside the town of Applegate in the Applegate Valley in southern Oregon. “That’s everything to us. We’re soil farmers, and vegetables are the byproduct.”
Chris and his wife Melanie have a comprehensive soil fertility program that includes cover cropping, fallowing, green manures and crop rotation. They focus on the full spectrum of replenishing the soil, from beneficial microorganisms to trace minerals. Their crops are Certified Organic by Oregon Tilth and Certified Salmon Safe by the Salmon Safe Program.
In 2003, the Jaggers bought the 37-acre farm with Melanie’s sister, Valerie, and her husband, Dave Kennedy, as well as with Melanie’s parents, Dick and Bobby Kuegler. It’s surrounded by forested Bureau of Land Management land and is divided by Thompson Creek, a tributary of the Applegate River. Melanie and Chris began growing vegetables on a few acres, and Valerie and David began raising Icelandic sheep, Oberhasli dairy goats and ducks.
“The six of us have a family trust specifically for buying the property,” Jagger says. Melanie and Valerie’s parents put down the deposit, and the two couples pay the mortgage.
The couples bought another 15-acre parcel just a few miles away in 2007 and moved the produce-growing operation there. Only about 10 of the 15 acres are in production at one time. The other five are either fallow or in cover crops.
“We try not to go over 10 acres,” Jagger says. “When we’ve tried to push the limits, we pay the price of not having the land resting, with pest pressures and less crop vigor.”
They grow a large variety of vegetables for such a small farm. In one week they can have more than 20 different varieties for sale at the local farmers’ market, including basil, beets, green beans, cucumbers, lettuce, strawberries and tomatoes.
“It’s definitely tricky at times,” he says. “We use spreadsheets and mapping to keep track. Melanie has a very in-depth, diverse planting schedule. She’s kind of like a conductor, and the two of us coordinate where to plant.”
They also manage to sell produce 45 weeks out of the year, using succession planting, hoophouses and greenhouses to extend the season.
Most of the irrigation water comes from the Applegate River, which is consistent throughout the year, he says. They also have a pond on the farm. Overhead sprinklers irrigate 98 percent of their crops.
They have few insect and disease problems. “There’s nothing too intense,” Jagger says. “We’re somewhat secluded here.”
Crop rotation helps discourage pests from settling in. There’s some viral transmission from insects, but no blight. They use a product similar to Bt on the biggest pests: cabbage loopers, flea beetles and cucumber beetles, and a polyspun fabric as a physical barrier against insects that come underground.
“We seed the bed, cover it and hope insects aren’t in the soil,” he says.
Keeping the soil healthy is their number one priority. They use a pelletized fertilizer because it releases nutrients more slowly than powdered ones. It’s mostly made of waste from the fish and poultry industries, including chicken-based manure. They add liquid fish emulsion and for trace minerals, a glacial rock dust and azomite, which is mined in Utah.
“We really rely on that a lot for the initial nutrient boost in the spring,” Jagger says.
They also make and add their own compost because it’s hard to find affordable organic compost, but they don’t graze any of the livestock on the cropland. “We’ve steered further and further from that world,” he says. “We use the livestock manure basically to feed the cover crops.”
The couple is clear-eyed when it comes to financial management.
“We’re making sure what we’re doing is not only organically sustainable, but also economically sustainable,” he says. “We’re really budget-minded. We’re getting smarter about what we grow. We decided to stop growing sweet corn because it’s a huge nutrient sink, and we weren’t making money on it.
“We pay attention to everything. We have a good grasp on our bottom line, how much we’re grossing per square foot and what we can make off it. My assessment is that this younger generation is starting to get the idea of the business aspect of organic sustainability and what works in this market-driven economy.”
Both got a good education on running a successful farm when they interned on separate farms in Colorado. They began hiring their own interns a few years after they bought the farm. Their goal is to provide full immersion into the inner workings of the farm. It involves all aspects of farming, including greenhouse propagation, field preparation, planting, irrigation systems, weeding, harvesting, postharvest handling and marketing.
He says, “We have two or three interns a year for nine months, from April to the first of November. We really focus on making sure the people who come will stay for the whole nine months. If people have to jump in midseason, they burn out. It’s better to start slow and enjoy the cool-down period.”
They sell their produce to various area restaurants, three local farmers’ markets, and the Ashland Food Co-op, which is supportive of the local farm scene, he says. They also offer “Blue Fox Bucks” to their customers—an inspired marketing idea.
“We have some friends who are fellow farmers who mentioned that they have gift cards for other people to use at their stand at the farmers’ market,” Jagger says. “It was one of those late nights, and I started to wonder why we couldn’t offer them as a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] membership. People still have to commit to the farm, and we get up-front capital so we don’t have to play the loan game. The people who enjoy that system really hopped on board.”
Instead of selling CSA shares and delivering produce to customers in boxes throughout the season, they sell Blue Fox Bucks at the beginning of the season, and customers use them at the Blue Fox Farm market stands. This gives them the capital to buy seeds and soil amendments at the beginning of the season, when they need it, and saves the time and labor of packing individual CSA boxes. It also gives the customers more options of what and when to buy.
In 2007, the Jaggers participated with 10 other organic farmers in a research program with Oregon State University. The OSPUD program was funded by a Western SARE grant and linked growers with OSU faculty in an effort to improve potato production methods.
“Researchers investigated on-farm trials,” he says. They focused on nutrient management, the control of wireworm and flea beetles, and the control of late blight. They met over a two-year period, during which time OSU faculty conducted research on each of the farms.
Farmers and researchers also brainstormed in open sessions. “It was a very innovative way of partnering with farmers, a whole new way of collaborating. They were amazed at how much more accurate, clear and complete their information base was. I think we’re going to see that style of collaboration happening more and more.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Altadena, Calif.