From Organics to Fermented Food, Whistling Duck Farm Is a Southern Oregon Pioneer, Part 1

Reader Contribution by John Clark Vincent

Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement spotlights 18 Oregon farms and farm supporters who are committed to a return to ecologically sound agricultural practices. This group reflects the diversity of people, both young and old, who are reshaping our state’s food system and reclaiming our right to eat well. In their stories you will hear how they came to be where they are, learn something about the challenges they face, and share their happiness at the successes they’ve enjoyed thus far. The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future.

Mary and Vince Alionis have been working together at digging in the dirt since the day they first met, which happened when they were working on a community garden project for the Green Party down in Dallas, Texas. I don’t know what happened with that community garden, but the relationship Vince and Mary shared blossomed, and they began to look for a place to begin putting down roots.

After Dallas, they moved to California to help intensive gardening guru John Jeavons with a building project. Unfortunately, the funding for that project fell apart, so they began to look around for other opportunities. According to Vince, they met a lot of interesting people in California, but it just didn’t feel like the right place for them, so they looked north and liked what they found in Oregon. More specifically, they liked the remote and rugged feel of southern Oregon along the Rogue River. So in 1991 they made the move to a nine acre plot in Shady Cove, Oregon, a doorway to Crater Lake country.

“We landed on nine acres of an old walnut orchard with a farm house and two wells, and that’s where we got started,” said Vince. “We immediately got a rototiller and worked up a little three-quarter acre spot and started doing any growers markets we could find. We gave ourselves two years to figure out what we were going to do longer term.”

Two years later they were living and farming on forty acres farther up into the mountains on Elk Creek. “Cold country” is what Mary called it. They loved the ten years they spent there building their farm business. “That was a beautiful place,” continued Vince, “a creek, a spring… a lions and bears kind of place, you know. Not necessarily a good production space, but an awesome homestead space.”

There were challenges, though, like the shorter growing season found at higher altitudes. And the distance and difficulty of getting to markets. But it was the combination of a forest fire and the birth of their daughter that prompted these hardy farmers to seek a safer and more productive location somewhere in the valley. Which brought them to their current location on twenty-two acres of prime farmland beside Highway 238 in the Applegate Valley, where they’ve lived, farmed, and raised their daughter, Zosha, and son, Kazi.

Farming on highly productive soil in the valley was quite different from farming on marginal soil on the upper Rogue. So when Mary and Vince continued to apply the same methodologies they had developed to accommodate previous challenges, they were faced with more produce than they knew what to do with because everything grew so well. The abundance enabled them to quickly expand their markets, as well as helping to pioneer better farming techniques in their part of the state.

“Coming from the colder climate, we had been forced to develop techniques that simply weren’t being applied down here in the valley,” explained Mary. “There was no one doing greenhouse culture or intensive succession plantings. And only a couple of farms were beginning to stretch the season. These were all well established methodologies, but it was just that people weren’t doing it here because they didn’t have to. Plus I suppose it’s like anything else… people don’t do it until they see it happen, and being on the highway, we’re very visible. So we feel like we were able to bring some positive influences to growers down here.”

Vince laughed as he continued the story… “Of course we flipped out all the locals when we showed up because we immediately started putting up greenhouses and preparing the soil and selling product. When we landed here, there was no house. We were living in a yurt up in Williams. But we got here in December and had a crop out of the ground by April.”

“But we understand that the real pioneers were the people up in the Willamette Valley doing things like this in the mid to late 80s,” Mary acknowledged. “We actually gleaned some of our information from them, and of course anyplace else we could find it. It wasn’t easy to get information back then. There wasn’t any internet.”

Both Vince and Mary believe that successful farming requires compulsive entrepreneurship. The way they developed Whistling Duck shows that. They also believe that nobody survives as an entrepreneur unless they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, and that you can tell pretty quickly who’s going to make it and who’s not based on their willingness to do that. But as I listen to them tell their story, it sounds like information and flexibility might be just as important as hard work. The ability to get the information, figure out how to apply it to your own operation, and adapt your plans and processes based on what you learn and what you encounter.

They both like to use the term “game changer” when they talk about new discoveries or new ideas. Like how their discovery of the Allis Chalmers G cultivating tractor was a game changer that enabled them to farm more efficiently on larger acreage. Their refrigerated truck was a game changer because it served as a walk-in cooler when nobody around them had walk-in coolers. “That truck gave us a real qualitative edge,” said Vince. “We were always keen about getting product out early, getting it in water to get the field heat out, and then getting it cold. That extends shelf life, which means our customers were getting a better quality product.”

And though they didn’t use the term, Vince being diagnosed with cancer several years after their move to the valley also was a game changer. It meant that he would be doing less, Mary would be doing more, and their need for good quality, reliable workers would increase. It also meant that their long-term plans for the farm would need to be adjusted to remove some of the stress.

They’ve been lucky with their crew. “We have about ten people right now, and three or four are year-round employees,” said Mary. “That doesn’t mean they’re full-time during the winter months… more like twenty to thirty hours on average, but they are year-round and they’ve been here for quite a few years now. If we lost our key people, I’m not sure what we’d do. But for now, we’re good.”

To help expand their year-round workload and keep workers busy, Whistling Duck added seed garlic to its product list. They grow approximately twenty varieties of garlic, which requires monitoring and care throughout the winter. Vince commented that seed garlic is their export crop, meaning that the majority of it leaves their valley and new money comes into their valley, which is critically important to the local economy. In fact, organic seed production is becoming a key economic driver in the Applegate and Rogue Valleys, especially since both Josephine and Jackson counties voted to ban GMO crops, which can destroy organic seed operations.

Click here to read Part 2

Order your copy ofPlanting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement.

(Top) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Mary and Vince Alionis have built Whistling Duck Farm into a successful organic farming business.

(Bottom) Photo Courtesy of Whistling Duck Farm: The new on-farm store is a key part of Mary and Vince’s long-term business strategy.

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