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Chickadee Farms owner Sebastian Aguilar talks with Dakota Cassilly about the challenges of growing Ailsa Craig English heirloom sweet onions.

Smoke doesn't deter folks from up close look at farms

TALENT — Farmers and gardeners may never have heard of Sebastian Aguilar, his wife Kelly Gelino or Chickadee Farm.

Yet, without the work that goes on in the 12-acre plot, and similar operations, next year’s crops might not get planted.

Aguilar and his wife have leased the erstwhile pear orchard off Foss Road from Harry & David’s Bear Creek Orchards for the past six years, contracting with seed companies each January for delivery in November and December.

They’ve been organic farmers for 21 years in northern New Mexico, the Puget Sound area and most recently in the Rogue Valley. They rotate 70 crops from corn and radishes to bok choy and tomatoes.

On Sunday Chickadee was one of 25 stops of the inaugural Rogue Valley Farm Tour in Jackson and Josephine counties. The event was put together by Ashland and Medford food co-ops and was divided into three zones: Rogue Valley North, Rogue Valley South, and Applegate Valley.

“As a vegetable grower we always did farm tours and always enjoyed it, loved sharing the garden with people,” Aguilar said. “Since I’ve become a wholesale seed grower, I only get a visit from the seed company. No one knows what we do, I don’t talk to anybody and nobody gets to eat our food. So this is a good way to connect with the community.”

Even though much of the region was shrouded in thick smoke, a steady trickle of visitors dropped by the farm.

The Northwest and Northern California are generally considered top seed-growing environments, Aguilar said. Rain falls regularly in most parts of the country during the summer, and Monsoon rains hit the usually arid Southwest.

“We have a dry summer,” he said. “For tomatoes and melons it doesn’t matter, because they are wet seeds, already inside the fruit. Things like corn or mustard greens, anything where the seed is in a dry pod, it can’t rain on it while it’s getting ready to be harvested.”

Chickadee is among about 50 Oregon producers, selling to seven seed companies. Marketing seed is easier than selling produce to individuals or stores, but crops are in the ground longer, adding to the risk.

“Even once we harvest the seed and ship it to the company, it goes through testing for germination, quality and disease. Every once in a while we’ll do all the work and it doesn’t pass.”

Ashlanders Elaine Yates and Michael Costello took the Sunday tour to learn more about growing food.

“I get as much organic produce and foods as I can,” Yates said. “Just the satisfaction of growing something and eating it right then is fun. I love everything about organic gardening, so it’s really important to support those who are growing those vegetables and the seeds.”

Dakota and Anna Cassilly, who live on Anderson Creek Road, planned to visit multiple organic vegetable locations.

“We have a very large garden, and there’ nothing like seeing gardens in person to pick up tips from how other people do it,” Anna Cassilly said. “We’re always refining our water system to make it more efficient and effective.”

Orchid Mandala is a retired farmer who lives in Talent. He has grown farm crops all his life and said it’s important for people to learn more about the source of their food.

“I’m a plant freak,” Mandala said. “I like to see other people’s gardens, learn from what they are doing and what they are growing, what strains they’re growing, what kind of tomatoes do best for you and what kind of peppers do best for you.”

Peppers are generally covered because bees and other insects tend to cross pollinate the fruit.

“Unless you want to breed something new,” Aguilar said.

The Ailsa Craig English heirloom sweet onions packed tightly in their patch are biennials, which means it takes two years to produce seeds for clients.

“We have to grow onions in year one, store them all winter, replant them in the spring,” he said. Then it goes to flower, and we save the onion.”

Just one variety of onion fits into the equation Aguilar said.

“They’re insect pollinated,” he said. “We can’t have another onion seed field within at least a mile.”

In the days when Aguilar and Gelino raised crops for market, they saw a decline in the quality of onion seed. When they became seed farmers, there was avenue for improving the product. Chickadee’s first onions seeds came from New England retailer Johnny’s Selected Seeds.

“We took it on as a breeding project, because it was one of our favorites,” Aguilar said. “We watched the quality go down over a decade, which meant whoever was growing the seed wasn’t doing a great job roguing and stewarding the variety. We thought since it’s such a good variety it would work for us to re-improve it. That we could improve our market for the seed.”

It doesn’t happen overnight, or even within a year. What you get in the garden is always a cross between the genetics and the environment — weather, soil and so on, he said.

“You can only make incremental improvements, basically every two years you can improve it 5 to 10 percent,” Aguilar said. “So it’s a long term project. We keep working on the genetics, so the shape is right, the color is right, it has good storage qualities, it’s pest and disease resistant, it tastes good — all those types of things, so it becomes as consistent as possible over time.”

The 1,000 square feet of Italian red polenta corn will produce between 100 and 200 pounds of corn for seed that will be packaged.

Yield is rarely a sure thing.

“With a tomato sometime I can get seven pounds of seed out of 100 feet, sometime I get one pound, depending on the variety,” Aguilar said. “Romas have so much less seed then cherry tomatoes.”

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or gstiles@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

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