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Willow-Witt Farm: Powered by solar energy, passion for the land

Willow-Witt Ranch is a small organic farm on 440 acres in Oregon. Its emphasis is sustainable agriculture and conservation.

By Robin Dalmas, February 2017

Willow-Witt Ranch was a semi-finalist in Business Circle’s 2016 Real Stories Contest. This video was created by John Grimshaw.

Suzanne Willow and Lanita Witt went looking for a large patch of land in the 1980s so they could do small-scale farming. It had to be above 3,500 feet to avoid poison oak, and it had to be in the Ashland, Oregon school district for their daughter, who was 10 at the time.

“We were looking for 40 to 100 acres,” Willow said. “We found 440 instead.”

From the air, the acreage looks like a perfect Oregon postcard brimming with lush green meadows and thick forests of pine and fir. Snow-capped Mt. Shasta, over the border in California, towers in the distance. The closest town, Ashland, Oregon, hosts the Oregon Shakespeare Festival every year.

Because the land is at 5,000 feet, winter lasts about 6 months. “We found the land under 4 feet of snow and just thought it was the most exquisite place in the whole world.” In 1985, Willow and Witt bought the land and established Willow-Witt Ranch.

Today, Willow-Witt Ranch produces alpine goats for milk and backpacking, chickens for meat and eggs, and a variety of cold-hardy vegetables such as onions and garlic. They also raise Italian Maremma, a breed of livestock guard dog. The certified organic farm has kept operations small so it can practice sustainable agriculture.

The ranch also offers farm stays. The farmhouse studio sleeps six, the meadow house sleeps 10, rustic furnished wall tents sleep four, and a traditional campsite beckons for those who wish to pitch their own tent.

Visitors who come to stay are often quite surprised to learn the ranch’s little secret: It’s completely off the grid.

“People have no idea that we are off grid until we tell them. You would have no idea that your electricity was coming from the sun.”

The ranch has four solar voltaic systems powering everything from the barn to the guest accommodations. Solar energy powers the refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, and lighting. Propane gas powers the cooking ranges and creates heat for the clothes dryer. WildBlue® high speed satellite Internet powers the web surfing. At 5,000 feet, the sun shines often, but when it doesn’t, diesel generators kick in as a backup to the solar power.

But what about the toilets? “That’s a common question,” Willow said. “Toilets run on water and gravity; they don’t need electricity.” Waste goes into a septic system.

Despite its remote location, Willow-Witt Ranch leans on technology every day to keep operations running smoothly. Solar technology presents interesting challenges. “For the accommodations, we have a lot of laundry,” said Willow. “Every once in a while, we do have to run a generator for laundry, but we really batch it, and get on it pretty fast when the sun comes out so we don’t have to use the generator.”

The farm stay reservation system is all online. The ranch sells its meat, eggs, and milk on its e-commerce website as well as a small farm store in the barn, at the local growers market, and to Oregon restaurants. The staff uses an iPad with Square attached to sell items in the farm store, which not only includes meat and egg products, but organic graham crackers, chocolate, and marshmallows so kids can make s’mores. The iPad is also used to check in guests for the farm stays.

“Most people make hay when the sun shines. We do laundry when the sun shines."

A designated contractor posts to social media such as Facebook and Twitter. That person uses Dropbox to access the photos for social media. In the early years, Willow did all the bookkeeping on paper; she now uses QuickBooks.

Willow and Witt, who are married, both had traditional careers. Willow was a physician’s assistant and Witt was a physician. Now that they are “retired,” the ranch keeps them busy 24/7. “We stopped working in town and now we’re ‘only farmers.’ That’s our joke,” Willow said.

While the two continue to farm and host visitors, they have a greater mission. Their main emphasis is on conservation and restoration of a unique piece of property. When they first bought it, they inherited a historic ranch with rundown buildings from the 1920s, heavily eroded land that had been used for cattle farming for 150 years, and a forest that had been commercially logged. Willow and Witt have worked tirelessly to restore the buildings, fence the wetlands and meadows to protect them from grazing, and restore the forest ecosystem.

In the coming year, the farmers hope to start a nonprofit with the goal of conservation, restoration, and education. “Educating people about land, conservation, and where food comes from,” Willow said. “That’s what excites me.”

Ultimately, the goal is to tread lightly for future generations to enjoy.

“We’ve kept our farm endeavors small enough that we were not going to be impacting the land. If we left tomorrow, and all our animals left tomorrow, and our vegetables left tomorrow, the land would be just fine. There would be nothing to cure.”

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locally raised meat, eggs and dairy products
Willow-Witt Ranch is dedicated to the conservation and restoration of a unique ecosystem in the Southern Cascades, and the headwaters, wetlands, and forests that arise there. We provide education on the values of ecology and of the complex web of food and environment by operating a small certified organic farm and Farm Stay accommodations for a unique agritourism experience.
Oregon Tilth Certified Organic
Willow-Witt Ranch

658 Shale City Road
Ashland, OR 97520
(541) 890-1998
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