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Christopher Briscoe photoSuzanne Willow, left, and Lanita Witt

Willow-Witt Ranch owners create an educational nonprofit

Education is the intended legacy of two longtime Ashland ranchers who founded a new nonprofit.

The Crest at Willow Witt will begin programming this summer with its Farm & Forest Sleepover Camp, scheduled for July 17-19. Designed for students entering second through fifth grades, the camp furnishes activities on the working farm, lessons in conservation and restoration, hiking, crafts, games, music and food harvested from and prepared on the property. Cost is $325, and several spots remain.

“We’re just getting a couple of things off the ground this year to prove ourselves,” said Trine Ostergaard, The Crest executive director.

The public also can experience Willow-Witt Ranch at July “barnyard parties” that boast live music and an August farm-to-table dinner in partnership with chef and restaurateur Neil Clooney of Ashland’s Smithfields. Willow-Witt has hosted both types of events for several years but transferred their operation to The Crest.

“We want to do something for all ages,” said Ostergaard. “It’s not only kids.”

Approaching their retirement years, Willow-Witt co-owners Suzanne Willow and Lanita Witt looked to community involvement as the means for sustaining their 445-acre property on Shale City Road, a 30-minute drive outside of Ashland that culminates at about 5,000 feet elevation. For more than 30 years, the couple has raised goats, pigs and poultry and sold their meat, eggs, milk and vegetables from the property and at local farmers markets.

“There’s a lot of goodwill there already,” said Ostergaard of the women’s presence in and around Ashland, where Witt, 67, had a well-known obstetrics and gynecology practice before entering this year’s Jackson County Board of Commissioners race.

Willow, 71, left her career as a physician assistant in family practice and women’s health more than a decade ago. Since she devoted herself full-time to the ranch, it’s gained certified-organic status and become a model for forest and wetlands restoration that draws Oregon State University students on spring break over the past few years. Willow-Witt offers farm-stay accommodations, works with native tribes and other stakeholders on archaeological surveys and nurtures Western pond turtles and rare birds and bees that are the subjects of other studies, said Willow.

“This land has been made healthy,” she said.

But for all their efforts and expertise in a variety of fields, Willow and Witt couldn’t take on the roles of educators without help. They’ve hosted excursions for the nonprofit Rogue Valley Farm to School and field trips from Ashland’s Walker Elementary for years but wanted someone to develop a curriculum and expand opportunities for learning. Establishing a nonprofit paves the way for securing more grant funding that can provide materials and scholarships for students.

“It’s something that we’ve talked about and dreamed about for years,” said Willow. “We’re really excited to be getting some grant help.”

The Crest’s first grant comes from Ashland Food Co-op, said Ostergaard, adding that the nonprofit will vie for funding from the region’s well-known foundations, including the Carpenter Foundation and Oregon Community Foundation. The Crest also is soliciting memberships and more board members, she said.

“We really want to work with a lot of the organizations in the area.”

Inviting a diverse contingent for an archaeology camp put off planning the event for another year, said Ostergaard. Initially conceiving the camp for this summer, The Crest rescheduled it for June 16-21, 2019. Scholarships will be available, said Ostergaard.

“We are starting out small and hoping to end up big.”

A “Barnyard Party” featuring blue-grass music is planned for 4-9 p.m. today, July 6, at the ranch. Tickets bought online are $15 per person and $25 for a family. Don’t bring alcohol (state rules) or dogs.

See The Crest’s full complement of events and programs, buy tickets and register at willowwittranch.com or www.thecrestatwillowwitt.org.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.

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