Not Simply Organic, Oregon Farm Finds Success in Embrace of Technology and Sustainable Principles
January 30, 2013 | Susan Botich
When Bill and Karla Chambers founded Stahlbush Island Farms in 1985, their goal was to not only grow certified organic produce but also to integrate sustainability into all aspects of their operation. In 1997, Stahlbush Island Farms was certified sustainable by Food Alliance (FA).
“Sustainability is a journey, not an end point,” says Stahlbush Island Farms marketing executive Emily J. Hall. “It’s about having an ongoing philosophy regarding how you operate as a company, and making the right choices every day.”
Why is it so important to not just be organic, but also sustainable?
“We think both are strong and relevant,” says Hall. “Certified organic is more about following strict government regulations that have to do with what you put in the soil such as your fertilizer, etc., and how you will keep your plants healthy. Certified sustainable is more comprehensive. The FA looks at water quality, soil, employee health, wildlife habitats, as well as keeping the plants healthy. They tell you exactly what you need to do. Every case is an individual one. You work very closely together to raise the bar for all your agricultural practices.”
Starting with 352 acres and now having 1500 acres of certified organic farmland, Stahlbush is always looking to expand as well as utilize the latest technologies. One technology product that they incorporated into their farming is a Global Positioning System (GPS) guided tractor method for cultivating and harvesting. Using this system to guide their tractors is much more accurate than traditional methods and that yields multiple benefits, according to Hall.
“Planting closer together, you have less weeds and higher yield, less impact on the soil, as well as fewer passes over the field which means you burn less fuel,” Hall explains. “And, because you have less compacting of the soil, you retain better soil quality – better soil means better product. It all boils down to the soil. When the soil is more healthy, there is more nutrition in the product so the product is better. Plus, you don’t have that human error and you can farm at night.”
Though the initial investment was a large one, it’s certainly worth it, says Hall.
“Like anything that’s high quality,” she says, “it hurts a little at first, when you buy it, but it pays off in the long run.”
Another technology Stahlbush employs that is at the forefront of sustainable farming practices in the United States is an on-site biogas facility which takes the waste material from crops—about 77 metric tons of waste each day—and reuses it to generate electricity, says Hall. The biogas plant produces 13,000 to 26,000 kWh a day. It powers the entire farm and still produces an excess of about twice as much as is needed.
“In addition to electricity, we get steam, hot air and hot water,” says Hall. “Plus the biogas plant provides wet and dry fertilizer as a by-product. As you can see, we’re really big on using everything we can to farm and live sustainably.”
Another innovation that Stahlbush uses is a completely biodegradable packaging for their flash-frozen produce. This was something that Karla Chambers initiated.
“We wanted our packaging to reflect our company,” Chambers says.
While regular packaging can take years to break down or not fully break down at all, Stahlbush came up with a new bag that is able to biodegrade in about six months, depending on the microbes in the landfill soil.
Stahlbush Island Farms employs 250 permanent employees plus substantial seasonal support. Located a few miles from downtown Corvallis, Oregon, it is home to a variety of wildlife and even supports a Heron and Egret rookery.