Willow-Witt Ranch celebrates 30th on Sunday

Noted for its organic produce, chicken eggs and meat from goats and pigs, Willow-Witt Ranch on Shale City Road east of Ashland will celebrate its 30th anniversary with barbecue, pies, wine and beer, and a dance band, from 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 20. 

Named for its married owners, Lanita Witt and Suzanne Willow, the 445-acre sustainable ranch features a farm store, tours of a working farm, trail hikes on nearby Grizzly Peak (using goats as pack animals), camping, birding, wildflower viewing and stays in their farmhouse studio, which sleeps six. 

“We’re all organic everything, for 25 years now,” says Willow. Their agri-tourism helps lower costs and is based on the idea that “People want to come and see how a farm works and where food comes from — the vegetables and animals. It’s productive and still an open piece of land.”

Guests get a farm tour on the first morning of their stay and can help as much or as little as they want (but not with goat milking). The couple offers workshops on wetlands restoration, forestry and vegetable farming. Their garden has shallots, onions, cilantro, tomatoes and other crops.

“Everyone wants to watch the pigs eat because it’s so wonderfully disgusting,” she says. “They eat organic grain, bread, vegetables, comfrey bread … and a lot of the kids watch them and say, ‘so that’s what eating like a pig is like. I’m not that bad!’”

The couple came to the Rogue Valley in 1995 from Napa, looking for land to create their dream farm. It had just snowed but they followed a plowed road, stopping at a spot overlooking the farm. They were looking for a for-sale spot further on but fell in love with this one and tracked down the owners, says Willow.

“It was four times what we wanted to spend, (but also) above the poison oak, with four seasons and in the Ashland School District, so our daughter Brook could go there. It was a scary jump, a big commitment but really exhilarating," she says, “and it’s been absolutely wonderful.”

Willow and Witt work hard and have five employees, she notes. They farm only 20 of the 445 acre plot, leaving the rest, including wetlands, in a state of nature. Cattle had overrun wetlands for generations, but the couple, with a grant from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, fenced it off in 2005. As a science project, local school children planted 8,000 willow trees there.

The area was running cattle 150 years ago, but it was settled as a farm in 1920 by Bill Ferreira, a Italian-Swiss emigrant sponsored by Ashland pioneer Domingo Perozzi, owner of the Ashland Creamery.

According to an oral history interview, Perozzi wanted a source for milk and said, “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.” Ferreira, a bachelor, built the sturdy timber farmhouse and pole barn, living there till his death in the 1960s.

Witt is a physician, about to retire, and Willow has worked as a physician assistant. They’ll soon be spending more time in the place they love.

“Those 30 years went by in a big hurry,” she says. “It just feels like five years. When we come home and get to the gate, we still give a big sigh of relief and think we’ve died and gone to heaven. We do not get tired of it.”

The anniversary event is $15 a person or $25 a family (10 percent of proceeds are donated to Rogue Valley Farm to School). Music is by Left. The barbecue is from Smithfields. That and pies are for purchase, or bring your own picnic. RSVP to eventsbylora@gmail.com.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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