tough to pin a label on Peter Kenagy. “Seedsman”
(he produces native seed endemic to his region, mostly sold
to government agencies for wetland and prairie restoration).
“Researcher” (A few years back Oregon State University
ag experts caught wind of his innovative use of strip tillage,
experimental cover crops, and riparian buffer zones, and now
Kenagy is a recognized and active leader in the world of conservation
farming). “Environmentalist” (Kenagy views his Albany,
Ore. farm as an entire ecosystem, working hard to mitigate the
impacts of farming).
seed-saving operation is primarily geared toward the production
of native seed—Pacific Northwest natives,” he
tells us as he extends a handful of phaecelia—an experimental
cover crop he’s been working with—for inspection.
The City of Portland has been a huge customer for the native
grasses, he says, though budget cuts have tapered that business
off for now.
Kenagy, winner of SARE’s 2004 Patrick Madden Award for
Sustainable Agriculture, says customers for the seed he produces
for Pacific Northwest Natives (also in Albany) include just
about anyone doing riparian work and revegetation. “Most
tends to be governmental or quasi-governmental agencies, for
the big buyers,” he says. “It’s a really fickle
market. You never know how much you’re going to sell;
it’s really hard to predict…It’s really specialty
stuff; there’s not a big market for it.
So why bother?
Because the endeavor passes the litmus test Kenagy runs just
about all of his projects through: Its fun, challenging, interesting,
and it helps the natural ecosystem deal with the footprint
Working with about 130 riparian and 320 tillable acres bordered
by the Willamette river, Kenagy is independent and pragmatic
in his thinking and his farming. While many of the farmers
he rubs elbows with are strictly organic, Kenagy will use
conventional herbicide sprays when be believes them to be
the most effective tool for the job at hand. His mainstays
are sweet corn and green beans grown for the farmer-owned
Norpac food processing cooperative (he’s on the company’s
stewardship committee), along with the native grass seed,
some vegetable seed, and small grains. “We use to raise
squash, too, but it was too abusive on the ground and I was
hauling 30 tons an acre. It gets expensive, and we weren’t
getting a good return.”
Soft-spoken, Kenagy speaks his mind as perhaps only a farmer
can. Walking down from the big red barn that houses his seed-harvesting
equipment to the lowland fields where he grows his vegetables
for the co-op, Kenagy stops to look out on a field of phaecelia—a
lush-green, fall-planted, fern-like cover crop he’s
been experimenting with—curiously planted with a wide
band of oats running through.
“Do you know what it is?” he asks mischievously.
“Oats,” we guess. But that’s not the ‘big
picture’. “It’s a big circle with a “W”
[inside] with a slash to it,” he tells us on this typical
dreary Oregon morning two weeks after the presidential election
has upset his field of dreams. (“I finally did get comment
about it from one of the neighbors who flies,” Kenagy
offers in a follow-up conversation. “He wondered what
it was; he didn’t quite make the connection.”)
“The ground down on the bottom floods every year,”
Kenagy tells us as we slog on in the direction of the river.
To the left, just downhill from a flock of ducks that don’t
seem to mind the incessant rain, a newly planted field of
phaecelia is interplanted with radishes, simply because Kenagy
had a 10-year-old surplus of the latter on hand, he explains.
“It’s the best way to get rid of the seeds, and
it gives me something to munch on when I’m down here,”
he explains. “The ducks will dig the radishes out when
Regarding the phaecilia, “a native of California,”
he says: “Bees love it. It’s really easy to establish
in our falls, and it’s an easy cover crop to deal with
The buffer zone between the cultivated fields and the Willamette
River resembles a regal park setting or genteel Southern neighborhood,
with rows of poplar and native conifers and hardwoods both
soaking up nutrients from the farm and providing Kenagy with
an additional revenue stream.
“I’d like to cut, but the market’s too
poor right now to cut,” Kenagy offers, adding that,
once upon a time, there was even a market for the hybrid cottonwood
that figures prominently in his buffer zone (it was used for
plywood core). Kenegy owns a small mill and, with the hardwood
he selectively harvests, produces high-quality furniture stock.
Kenagy’s father’s family bought the first section
of Kenagy Family Farms, “50 acres next to this one,”
in 1936, adding another adjacent parcel here and there as
the years went by and as the land became available. Peter
Kenagy has been farming here since 1979. The last parcel we
acquired was in 1985. “The transformation from farming
predominantly rented ground to farming predominantly owned
ground was finished in ’85,” he explains.
Kenagy—who recently received Norpac’s Grower
of the Year award in the company’s new ‘sustainability’
category—says he likes the certainty of growing vegetables
for the food processing co-op. “They tell us what variety
to plant and when to harvest.”
Once the bills are paid, though, this farmer’s true
passion lies in the experiment.
Kenagy is still trying to figure out the best way to deal
with the invasive canary grass and Himalayan blackberry that
plague his farm, he continues to play with techniques that
encourage wildlife—such as planting bugger strips of
sorghum, Sudan grass, and sunflower—and he’s always
got a keen eye out for something new.
“I noticed some interesting grass one year back in
the timber,” he recalls. “I took it out, had it
I.D.’d and found out what it was.” It turned out
to be blue wild rye (Elymus glaucus).
Kenagy made a hand collection and planted a quarter acre,
sold that production off and planted another 4 acres. “I
knew there was a demand for the seed but I overran how much
of a demand there was and produced substantially more than
I needed. I don’t regret doing it; that seed will store
quite awhile. I expect I will eventually be able to move it.”
Of course, for Kenagy, the profit margin doesn’t always
lie in dollars and cents.
“It was a fun little deal to work on because it’s
interesting and challenging,” he says.
Dan Sullivan is senior editor at The New Farm.