For the most part, these Farm to Fork articles highlight a producer of the food that you put on your plate. Dragonfly Ranch, located in Azalea, can fill your whole plate, or help you produce your own food for your plate. Owners Joe and Lee Yetter and ranch managers Fern Feather and Paul Wulff offer the “whole meal deal.”
Turning off Cow Creek Road in South Douglas County, the first thing you see are happy chickens, busy in a hillside pasture. My assumption that they are happy is based on their surroundings: no mud, a palatial chicken house, acres to explore and scratch around in instead of a small yard — what chicken wouldn’t be happy here? To show their appreciation, they lay eggs in abundance. The chickens are primarily Lee’s project, and she sees to it that they live the good life. While Dragonfly Farm feeds organic feed, they are not certified organic due to the cost of attaining that status. Lee feeds sprouted barley to her poultry as a supplement to the pelleted food. She maintains a flock of about 100 laying hens, changing them out every couple years. In order to keep track of which hens need to be phased out, she buys a different colored breed every time. Although they have incubated and hatched their own chicks, they prefer to order them from large hatcheries and have them delivered with the morning mail. Doing so means that they get all females, instead of about half males. The eggs come in every color you could imagine and are sold at the farm as well as at the Umpqua Valley Farmers Market.
Chickens aren’t the only feathered creatures on Dragonfly Ranch. Pigeons fly in and out of a large flight cage attached to one of the barns. Various colors and sizes of birds happily come and go through the small door, cooing and chortling. Some of the birds are eaten as squab and some are sold or traded. Close by, another flight pen houses Coturnix quail. Normally shy and skittish, these quail paid us no attention as we watched them dusting in the sun and scratching in the floor of their pen. The intention is to convert to aviaries that are heavily planted with various grasses and plants that the birds will use as cover and also to eat, giving them more natural surroundings. Camouflaged birds rustling around in the dry bedding makes it seem like the bottom of the pen is actually moving. Some of the quail are for food, and quail eggs are available for sale.
In a smallish garden spot near all the bird activity, I was introduced to a plant that is striking in appearance and in taste: African collards. Now, my mother was never successful in incorporating collards, kale or mustard into my diet, but if she had served me these collards, things would have been different. African collards are a perennial, which means that you plant them once and they just keep growing and producing. Snow on the ground and low temperatures only make the leaves sweeter. Also, you won’t need to bend over to pick the leaves, since they keep growing up, reaching 6 feet easily. The plants do need some form of support, such as a fence or stakes. The leaves are striking in themselves, with their purplish undersides and soft green tops. But the flavor. I can’t think of many veggies that I would call sweet flavored, but these collards have a sweetish, refreshing flavor. I contentedly plucked raw leaves and stuffed them into my curious mouth. And I came home with a plant of my own. You can get yourself a plant or two from the Dragonfly Ranch booth at the Umpqua Valley Farmers Market. I asked for a recipe, and they grinned. Raw in salads or very lightly stir fried or steamed with minimal seasonings, they said. My kind of veggie — plain, simple and good.
Before continuing on my tour, we looked over the table of potted succulents. Popular and new to many folks, succulents grow slowly and are ideally suited for planting in “fairy gardens”, small focal points in yards or planters with tiny accoutrements such as houses, roads, streams and bridges. Several fairy gardens are on display in the greenhouse, although the succulents are hardy and can live outdoors. These are available in the farmers market booth. Young and old alike take great delight in creating these small realms and maintaining them, finding it very relaxing.
Most nooks and crannies between buildings and along fences are lined up with potted shrubs, ready to be spiffed up and taken to market. I am certain that these four people have never met a plant they didn’t love and couldn’t propagate, so if you ask, they probably have it growing. Many of the plants they’re growing successfully have a reputation of being difficult to grow in our climate, but with care, they are thriving. In the greenhouse, veggie starts are ready to go to the farmers market. Although it’s still too early to plant tomatoes, peppers, basil and other warm weather crops, Dragonfly has many different cool weather crops for you to take home and plant right now.
Across the driveway are the cattle, and what an interesting lot they are. Scottish Highlanders, shaggy beasts with impressive horns, graze among Dexters, a small breed of cattle that produce cuts of meat more suitable for today’s focus on smaller portions of red meat. For consumers looking for the leanest red meat possible, the Dexter-Highlander crossbreed fills the bill. Dragonfly Ranch is also home to a small, but growing flock of hair sheep, meaning sheep with hair instead of wool, so they don’t need to be sheared. Eventually, there will be lambs for sale for meat or pets. Although Dragonfly Ranch doesn’t sell beef by the package, they do have beef available ready to butcher. Because the beef is so lean, care must be taken in cooking. It lends itself especially well to low heat, slow cooking methods.
In the upper garden, which is inside a plot fenced to keep the resident elk out, there are fruit trees in more varieties than I can recall, blueberries of many kinds, gooseberries, goji berries, honeyberries — lots of berries. When asked, “Why so many varieties?” they answered in unison, “Diversity!” As far as selling produce, they want to give a taste of many things to introduce folks to new flavors, but by diversifying, they are almost assured that if the weather doesn’t allow for a robust crop of one thing, something else will find the weather more agreeable and produce abundantly. Their collective goal isn’t to bring huge quantities of anything to the farmers markets where they sell, but to bring small quantities of new tastes to customers.
Herbs are a passion for Fern and Paul. Every garden area is abundantly planted with herbs, both common and uncommon. Starts are taken and plants are available, along with pinches to taste before you buy. A three tiered planter that most of us would recognize as a strawberry planter in a former life is now an herb garden, lush with rosemary, many varieties of parsley, chives, thyme, colorful and varied sages, lemongrass and so much more. These guys are knowledgeable about their herbs and what they can do for your palate, but Lee is the “head cook” and enjoys being able to browse the gardens and decide what to serve for dinner based on what looks best in the garden on any given day. Many varieties of lettuce, kale, root veggies, onions, garlic, tomatoes, peppers and more will soon be gracing the gardens and the displays at the Umpqua Valley Farmers Market, giving you the opportunity to try some new varieties.
When asked what their plans are for the future, Fern and Paul have some definite ideas. A botanical garden that people could walk through to learn and to decompress for an hour or so is high on the list, as is growing more produce. They are in an ideal location for both, and I am excited to see what’s next for Dragonfly Ranch.