Independent innovation
On the banks of the Willamette River, this farmer and seedsman has turned his operation into one-man alternative agricultural experiment station.

By Dan Sullivan
January 27, 2005

It’s 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).

“My 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 of humankind.

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 it floods.”

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 in spring.”

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.