Farm: Sun Gold Farm
Sun Gold Farm owners Charlie and Vicki Hertel were born dairy farmers. They both grew up around conventional dairy operations and didn’t imagine doing anything else until environmental concerns about the location of their dairy along the banks of a creek forced them to sell their cattle and radically change the face of their family farm.
The directive turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as the Hertels made the shift away from conventional dairy, transformed their farming practices, and began selling their produce at farmer’s markets and starting a CSA that has grown from nine to five hundred members. We met up with Vicki at the PSU Farmers’ Market to learn more about her family’s story of transition and success.
How did you make the transition from being a conventional dairy farm to a natural farm?
One day the DEQ stopped by and told us that we couldn’t have our animals on the banks of Dairy Creek. They gave us the choice of moving the buildings to the highest part of the farm, sell all the cows, or be fined over twenty thousand dollars a month until one of those things happened. We couldn’t afford to move the buildings or to pay the fines, so we had no choice but to sell the cows. It about broke me. But now I look back and I’m glad it happened.
We had been taking excess fruits and vegetables from our family garden to the Hillsboro Farmer’s Market, so we decided to expand the farmer’s market business. Just as soon as we did that we figured out that we couldn’t farm in the conventional way. We couldn’t just spread commercial fertilizer or put Roundup and other sprays on the fields, because people don’t want to eat that. And now that we’re meeting the people and families at the markets who are eating our products, we want to clean up our act for them and for ourselves.
Really quickly we were happier people. Working in dairy was always very stressful, with the financial stress and the stress of 24-hour care of a hundred head of cattle. After we sold the cows, I think my husband gained 20 years – he was a whole new person.
What kinds of methods do you use on your farm?
We farm naturally. We don’t spray pesticides, and we rotate our crops to keep the soil healthy. Since our farm did dairy for several decades, the soil is very healthy with organic matter. We have had to figure out ways to control weeds and insects naturally – mulching, rototilling, hoeing, and just pulling. We used to get rid of the coyotes and chase the birds away, but now our farm has over 200 bird boxes and our coyotes had puppies last year, and they help with the rodent control. We let our bottomland around the creek grow back naturally, and more birds and beneficial insects come in to live. I’ll admit the first couple years were a complete disaster, because I think every bug in the county found out we weren’t spraying and came to live on Sun Gold Farm. But eventually the good fought out the bad and now we can say that our farm is as clean as nature can make it.
What do you think sets Sun Gold Farm apart from others?
We are among very few who were born farmers, went through the conventional, corporate-type farming, and then saw the light. Some of our neighbors still drive by and laugh when they see weeds in our field, and others have said they’d really like to do it but it’s too much work. We’ve had to turn to the farmer’s markets, and fortunately our family has made a success of it.
There are a lot of starter plants for sale at your farmer’s market booth. Do you do a lot of education around those plants?
This is a fun time of the year. We started selling plants when we grew too many for the farm. People were always asking where to get a certain plant, so we would say, why don’t we grow it for them. People like our booth not only for the hardiness of our plants but because one of our family members is always there to answer questions. Today I’ve been mostly there to answer questions from people about how to start things. And our plants are hardy because we don’t use any heat in our greenhouses; we don’t try to force the plants. All of our plants have been to 28 degrees. We don’t put any growth inhibitors on them or give them more food than they need to make them grow faster like a commercial operation would do. I’ve run our tomatoes over with a tractor and they popped back up and kept growing, so there’s proof!
Is there any good advice you’ve received that guides you in your practice?
We always had a huge family garden, but with gardening on a big scale to make a living, both Charlie and I looked back to our granddads. I was my granddad’s shadow, and he did all the garden work. I can still see him digging trenches and laying carrot seeds, and I remember things he’d tell me. Sometime I get really tired of pulling weeds and think that it would be a lot easier to spray them. But then I think back to my granddad in his seventies on his knees pulling weeds, and if he could do that, then I can too. We just think back to them and how proud they’d be of our farm now.
Photos courtesy of Sun Gold Farm.
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