Settled by Euro-Americans as a cattle ranch in the 1860’s, today’s Willow-Witt Ranch is a thriving farm with a commitment to land preservation and to sustainable farm and forest management.
This 445-acre ranch is nestled in a valley at almost 5,000′ elevation in the Cascades. In geologic time the Cascade Range was built up as a series of shield volcanoes, including the large “Grizzly Mountain;” as the volcanic activity concluded, weathering and landslides ensued. One result was an ancient fresh-water lake, now the seasonal wetlands and subalpine meadows at the center of the ranch. The rich volcanic soils grew thick conifer forests and a wonderful diversity of plants and animals; Native Americans from the Takelma, Shasta and Athabaskan groups used these lakes and marshes for summer hunting-gathering as early as 10,000 to 8,000 years ago. Permanent villages on the valley floor were a warmer winter home.
Bill Ferreira and Shale City
Emigrants from the Applegate Trail arriving in the present-day state of Oregon began driving cattle to these high mountain meadows for summer pasture in the early 1860’s. An 1881 US government survey notes fences already in place on the ranch. Names of the original families to live here are not clear; the first two houses and a barn are only ruins, though a pond and original wagon road are still evident.
In the 1920’s the current ranch house and barn were built by Bill Ferreira with wood recycled from the demise of Shale City, a company town a mile away organized around a retort to extract oil from shale, an effort beset by scandal, embezzlement, deconstruction and an ultimate meltdown at the grand opening. Mr. Ferreira was an Italian Swiss dairy farmer, brought to America by Domingo Perozzi, owner of the Ashland Creamery, to increase the production of cream and milk in the valley. His idea, “We’ll get some good stable Swiss in here and they’ll live on the place for next to nothing and they’ll cultivate this into a beautiful, fine place. And they did.” (So. Or. Hist. Soc. interview with Lucile Perozzi.)
Where are the cows?
After Mr. Ferreira’s death in the 1960’s, the land was returned to seasonal grazing, but the old fences were failing and the wetlands eventually became overrun by “trespass” cows in large numbers; the meadows and water quality were badly degraded. A new perimeter fence built in 2005 accomplished the complete exclusion of cows from the property for the first time in nearly 150 years. Today 76 acres of wetlands and meadows are fenced to exclude all grazing and are being restored to encourage native plant and wildlife diversity and to improve water quality; this project has involved school children planting more than 10,000 willows over the years. In 2008, we received an Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) grant to monitor the wetland restoration and water quality and to conduct bird and rare plant surveys.
In 2009 Willow-Witt Ranch was named a “Watershed Friendly Steward.”
The Farm and The Forest
The conifer forests on the ranch in 1985 were badly overstocked with diseased trees as a result of “high grade” logging in the past, cutting only selected species. We have gradually thinned the monoculture White Fir forests and successfully planted more than 7,000 seedlings of Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, Incense Cedar and Sugar Pine to approximate the original diversity. We selectively harvest sick and dying trees and have improved the fire resistance of the forests. We were honored to be the 2007 Jackson County Tree Farmers of the Year.
Our certified organic small farm has continued to diversity. We produce goat milk, chickens, eggs, and vegetables. Our animals rotate on pasture and each year brings improvements in our soils. Our fresh goat milk is available by membership in our Herdshare. Our eggs, chicken, and vegetables are available at our on-farm Store and at the Ashland Growers’ and Crafters’ Market.
Our organic farm is off-grid and powered by solar and micro-hydro power; our goal is to use, reuse and recycle everything on the farm.
Willow-Witt Ranch has truly become a model of sustainable integration of farm, forest and wetland management.