Complex Systems Across 445 Acres
Ecology & Land Management
Willow-Witt Ranch includes 445 acres nestled in a valley at almost 5000’ elevation, in the southern Cascade Range and within the boundaries of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. The terrain at Willow-Witt Ranch supports ecologically complex systems, which are enhanced through responsible management practices.
About 137 million years ago, volcanic activity began to build the Cascade Range; lava, ash, and mudflows continued to accumulate for about 30 million years. This geologic activity built a range of shield volcanoes, including Grizzly Peak. Then, as volcanic activity subsided, weathering and erosion began, ultimately developing rich volcanic soils that continue to support an unusually diverse collection of plants and animals. Early in this post-volcanic time, a large land slide created the basin of the land with a freshwater lake forming a large on the property; over time, the lake filled in with depositions of eroded rocks and clay, eventually becoming the seasonal wetlands and subalpine meadows at the center of the ranch.
As weathering, erosion, and deposition took place, an ancient freshwater lake developed at the center of the ranch. Over time, this lake transitioned into a seasonal wetlands and subalpine meadow. However, 150 years of cattle grazing in this area resulted in severe degradation of the soil, extensive erosion, and a lowered water table.
As part of a restorative land management plan, Willow-Witt partnered with the USDA’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program to install a series of fences to protect the entire property from cattle and to protect 76 acres of wetland from all grazing animals. Willow-Witt also partnered with the Oregon State University Extension Service and local elementary schools to plant native willows along the gullies to slow the flow of water, hold the soil in place, and shade the streams. A pond, first developed in the 1970s, was redeveloped in the 1990s as water storage for fire suppression efforts. The ranch’s forest management plan also includes leaving dead snags standing nearby to the wetlands to provide additional habitat for wildlife.
The subalpine meadow now thrives with seeded grasses. Streams meander slowly across the wetlands rather than taking straight, fast routes and carrying soil along for the ride. Deeply eroded gullies are filling in and growing cat tails and rushes, and the water table has risen. Sandhill cranes and the threatened western pond turtle have found the continuous flow of fresh water and followed it to this haven on the valley’s floor.
In January 2009, the Southwest Oregon Resource Conservation and Development Council recognized the Ranch with a Watershed Friendly Steward Award.
Supported by rich volcanic soils, the conifer forests on the property originally included a diverse mix of tree species. However, logging operations removed Ponderosa pine, sugar pine, and Douglas fir for timber, leaving behind the less commercially sought-after white fir. Although white fir is a native species, when left in homogenous stands it becomes vulnerable to disease and pest infestations, resulting in overall poor forest health. For example, broom rust is a disease that only attacks white fir. When white fir is present in a diverse forest, the broom rust cannot spread quickly because so few of the trees can act as a host. But when white firs stand directly next to each other throughout the forest, the disease can spread very rapidly.
Since the 1990s, Willow-Witt has gradually thinned the monoculture white fir forest, replacing the single species with over 7,000 seedlings of Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, incense-cedar, and sugar pine to resemble the forest’s original diversity. The management plan also includes selectively harvesting sick and dying trees and improving fire resistance of the forest.
As a certified member of the American Tree Farm System, Willow-Witt’s management practices deliberately protect soil, water, and wildlife wellness. After thirty years of careful work, a diverse forest once again thrives at the ranch; northern harriers and great grey owls have returned to the restored forests.
In 2007, Willow-Witt was named the Jackson County Tree Farmers of the Year.
While the Ranch’s food production and management systems have used exclusively organic inputs for decades, the Ranch became Oregon Tilth Certified Organic in 2016. The Ranch’s food products are available onsite at the Farm Store and seasonally at the Tuesday Growers and Crafters Market in Ashland.
The Ranch’s flocks of laying hens snack on a diverse diet of bugs, grass, and organic soy- and corn-free feed, producing beautiful rainbow eggs high in Omega-3 fatty acids. When they reach the end of their egg-laying productivity, they are respectfully slaughtered and sold as stew hens, so that no part of their lives goes to waste. The Ranch’s organic broiler chickens also enjoy rotating through pasture. As all of these chickens move through the pastures, they perform pest control and leave behind fertilizer. In the wintertime, the laying hens receive organic grains and alfalfa as a supplemental feed, and continue to lay eggs without the need of supplemental artificial light.
The Ranch’s Alpine goats are hand-raised, and enjoy browsing on organic pastures and forests along with supplemental organic alfalfa and corn- and soy-free grain. The does are milked year-round, and the ranch offers a herdshare for local customers to have access to fresh, unprocessed, whole goat milk. Some of the Ranch’s goats are also used for back packing. The goats are agreeable companions on the trail, carry weights without difficulty and are sure-footed, sturdy, and easy to handle.
The Ranch also offers a diverse range of fresh vegetables grown onsite using sustainable practices.
The Ranch functions entirely off-grid: solar and a micro-hydro generator create all of the power used in the buildings. The grid service is 4 miles away and in 1986 would have cost $100,000.00 to tie in.