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Mid-Willamette Valley Food Trail
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Mid-Willamette Valley Food Trail

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Tourism organizations such as the Albany Visitors Association and Visit Corvallis are always on the lookout for ideas to bring more folks to the region.

In 2018 the groups collaborated on a brochure that would focus on the agritourism businesses in Linn and Benton counties.

With assistance from Travel Oregon and other grants, the Mid-Willamette Valley Food Trail was ready for prime time by March of last year.

U.S. health officials are weighing next steps as they investigate a handful of unusual blood clots in people who received Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine, a one-dose shot that many countries were eagerly awaiting to help speed virus protection.

Unfortunately, by March of last year the state tourism industry was crashing and burning amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“In March you were told to stay home and not to travel,” said Christina Rehklau, executive director of Visit Corvallis. “Not a great time to have a brochure that has days and hours of businesses in it.”

The food trail launched on a limited basis in 2020, a time in which the agencies of Rehklau and Rebecca Bond, her counterpart in Albany, both took big hits because fewer people were staying in the hotels whose lodging tax payments provide the bulk of their income.

They are hoping for a bigger harvest in 2021.

“We’re thrilled to have a vaccine,” Rehklau said. “Our hope is for the last half of 2021 to end on a high note.”

Rehklau and Bond both feel that the cross-county idea remains sound.

“Visitors don’t often recognize county boundaries, farmers are considered local from either side of the river and this program is a good example,” Bond said. “The food trail allows an opportunity for visitors to experience our local flavor from farm to table. It provides farms and producers another direct sales option to help grow their business and create more demand for their products. We hope this program helps our partners to become more sustainable and find more success long term.”

Businesses can join for just $25, and one piece of good news was that Bond and Rehklau had completed all of their on-site outreach and recruitment before the COVID lockdown.

“Establishing partnerships among strangers would be much more difficult if we had not been able to first meet in person,” Bond said.

The brochure started with about 50 businesses in these categories: craft beverages, farms and ranches, lodging, eateries, bakeries and cafes, artisan products and experiences.

The brochures will be reprinted in June. There are a handful of newcomers as well as  handful that closed their doors, victims of the COVID-fueled economic downturn. An online passport will debut in June, Rehklau said, allowing visitors to win prizes for checking in with food trail businesses.

The agencies are doing outreach in Portland, Seattle, Medford and Sacramento in an effort to attract out-of-town visitors to provide the “heads in beds” that can help keep local economies humming.

“COVID kept this project from having the launch it should have had and that we hope to give it this year,” Rehklau said.

Last week we took a tour of two food trail participants, Iron Water Ranch in Albany and Lilliputopia in Monroe. Here is our report.

Iron Water Ranch

The sheep ranch is just five miles from downtown Albany, but the ambience on Riverside Drive is exponentially further from the urban experience.

Well-tended fields. Flowers everywhere. Widely separated farms and ranches. A route increasingly popular with cyclists as well as motorists looking for a scenic meander between Albany and Corvallis.

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Kirsten Holbo, one of the founders of the ranch, notes that Bond, of the Albany Visitors Association, is a neighbor, and she points across a field to a gray barn that is part of the Bond property. It looks at least a couple of miles away.

“How far away from the ranch can you be and still be considered a neighbor?” she was asked.

“Anywhere on Riverside counts,” Holbo said.

The ranch has existed since the 1970s and has been known as Iron Water since the 1980s. It exists on both sides of Riverside, with the barns on the south side and a huge pasture to the north and west. The pasture is a fiercely lush green, with hundreds of animals, about 500 sheep and 200 ewes, according to shepherd Zane Van Horsen, roaming about under the watchful eyes of a vigilant guard dog.

The family controls approximately 140 acres in the vicinity, although the regular renting and leasing of parcels makes that total fluctuate from time to time.

And it’s a breeding, fiber and wool operation. There are no meat options here. Holbo and Von Horsen offer a fact-filled tour. We see 3- to 5-day-old lambs struggling to stay upright, a dizzying array of breeds (they started with Romney and have branched out markedly) and all manner of ways to work with the fiber.

Balls of yarn, huge bags of loose wool in a variety of colors, gifts made out of wool — including dryer balls and a wonge, a biodegradable wool sponge.

The folks at Iron Water Ranch also love to share their appreciation for sheep. They hold monthly events, with intentionally punny names such as Lambentine’s Day in February, March M-a-a-a-dness and April Floof’s Day.

“It’s a happy way to get families involved, and an opportunity to be educational,” Holbo said.

Educational. Such as the time Van Horsen was shearing at the Linn County Fair and a visitor asked her: “Is that a real sheep?”

Iron Water also offers classes on spinning, drying and “making things out of wool,” although Holbo said so many people have taken up knitting and crocheting because of the pandemic that they are almost out of yarn.

Lilliputopia

About five blocks up from Highway 99W, at the western edge of the Monroe city limits, lies this eco-farm, a relative newcomer to the mid-valley.

It was named for the village in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” and was founded by Eliza Mason, who holds a doctorate in microbiology from the University of North Carolina and is an advocate of dry farming.

She took possession of the 4-acre property four years ago; this is her third year of growing for market and her second year of operating a farm store that features locally grown produce, herbs, art and gifts.

“We’re still pretty new and trying to establish ourselves,” said Mason, who chose Monroe because it was halfway between Corvallis and Eugene. “I’ve always had the interest in starting a farm.”

Proximity to Corvallis was a must because of the cooperative work Mason does with Oregon State University’s Extension Service.

Mason has 3.5 acres in crops with a half-acre devoted to her house and the store. She describes the store as “unplanned.”

“We started a tiny farmers’ market, but we had to cancel because of COVID. The store was a response to that. It’s a way to get the community together. There are so many artists and growers here. It’s a cool hub to share art and get everyone together.”

Dry farming means what it says: little or no irrigation. Mason recently received a grant that will allow her to set up a rooftop catchment system, but there are no wells or irrigation systems on the farm.

“There are lots of pluses and some drawbacks. There’s no leaking irrigation systems and no paying for water,” Mason said. “Things look different from irrigated gardens, but dry farming also keeps the weeds down. We’re learning what will thrive. Some of the experiments fail. But it’s amazing how many tomatoes you can grow without water.”

Mason looks up the hillside where more than 50 fruit trees have been planted, a mix of plums, apples, kiwi berries, grapes, persimmons, mulberries and figs.

“Maybe we can do a U-pick when the orchard is mature. I love the educational aspect, showing people what we do and how we do it. Someday, this is going to look beautiful.”

Contact reporter James Day at jim.day@lee.net or 541-812-6116. Follow at Twitter.com/jameshday or gazettetimes.com/blogs/jim-day.

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