Profile: Bill Chambers
Bill Chambers, Willamette Valley, Oregon
When Bill Chambers began working to make his Stahlbush Island Farms more sustainable back in 1990, doubtful observers in Oregon's lush Willamette Valley expected a wreck. Their only question: Which of his varied fruit and vegetable crops would fail first? '
The pleasant surprise was that we haven't had any disasters,' says Chambers, a cattle rancher's son who chose to raise crops rather than cows in the valley's classic Mediterranean climate. 'There have been no crop failures - and a lot of folks thought we wouldn't have any crops to harvest.'
Stahlbush Island Farms, an 1,800-acre integrated farm-food processing plant in Corvallis, Ore., markets its frozen products to industrial food firms. It no longer uses herbicides, fungicides and insecticides in its sweet corn, squash, pumpkins and green beans. Compared to its conventional competitors, Stahlbush applies only 15 percent as much pesticide on its broccoli, strawberries and spinach.
Educated as an agricultural economist at Oregon State University, Chambers knows that staying profitable is key to sustaining the farm. 'But,' he says, 'profit maximization is not our sole objective. All economic decisions are not dollars and cents. We include non-cash factors in our decisions. We value how we do things as much as what we do: If our farm is healthier and if we're healthier, then we live longer and more fulfilled lives.'
The costs of using a pesticide should not be underestimated, Chambers says. They include potential damage to beneficial organisms, to the environment, to crops, to consumer trust and to worker health.
'Who likes to deal with a poison or a toxic product?' asks Chambers. 'I won't ask people to do things that I'm not willing to do myself.'
A main Stahlbush value is innovation - and innovate they do, by:
Growing no crop on the same ground two years in a row, and by completing their rotations in a minimum of seven years, they break disease and insect cycles, control weeds and improve overall soil health.
Planting cover crops each year after harvest and working them back into the soil before planting, they build organic matter, generate soil nitrogen, control weeds and prevent nitrogen leaching.
Substituting mechanization, computer technology and intensive management for pesticides, they deliver a higher-value product to their customers, usually at the same price.
Stahlbush's cost structure is not equal. 'We tend to have much higher labor costs than a conventional system, but I believe the sum of our costs is lower,' Chambers says. 'They're different kinds of costs: our system is management- and capital-intensive and most conventional systems are much more chemical-intensive.'
Not only do ecologically based operations have different costs, they also bring unusual payoffs. When Chambers first stopped treating garden symphylans with pesticides, he calculated that he could tolerate any resulting crop losses. The value of the small patches he was losing was less than the cost of the pesticide that would keep the root-chewers in check.
Instead, Chambers hit paydirt: 'I found that over time, the symphylan damage just disappeared.' The pests, he believes, 'have come into balance with an insect or disease or something else that preys on them.'
'What we've found is that the whole soil-insect-fungi-bacteria relationship is an interwoven web of predators and prey,' Chambers says. 'When you go in with a harsh pesticide, you disturb all of that.'
To keep soil microbes in balance and prevent some from reaching bullying levels, Chambers takes his fields out of irrigation every three or four years.
Chambers reflects on what he was once taught: that the soil is a 'mineral sponge' to be managed with an input-output model. For best results, yesterday's farmers were told to simply replace pound-for-pound the fertilizers their crops had used.
'In reality, the soil is an ecosystem and I'm just putting the dominant species into that ecosystem,' says Chambers. 'By managing it as an ecosystem, we're much more successful than looking at it as a mineral sponge.'