Deschutes Canyon Garlic: the Long Road to Farming in Oregon’s High Desert
In mid-July, Deschutes Canyon Garlic owners Jon Sattler and Gia Matzinger can be found hanging garlic in their barn. The barn overlooks a small canyon and a scattering of fields tucked away in Oregon’s high desert, only 20 minutes from the quaint tourist-favorite town of Sisters.
Jon and Gia hang garlic for about a week each year after harvest. They had harvested the entire year’s crop the week before, and were now moving on to the next stage of the process – hanging. This is a crucial step to ensure the garlic dries properly before moving it into longer-term storage.
Despite working in temperatures that surpass triple digits, moving hundreds of pounds of garlic, and the repetitive task of hanging the crop, Jon and Gia are grateful for this work. Understanding everything Jon and Gia went through to create this business may help explain their thankfulness. The origin of Deschutes Canyon Garlic is a story of persistence, hard work and a little bit of luck.
Jon started farming in 2014, working seasonally at OTCO-Certified Willow Witt Ranch in Ashland, Oregon, a picturesque hidden gem a few miles from Ashland. He was “pretty much instantly hooked from that experience”, and soon branched out to other farming ventures. He started a hops farm with a friend, while Gia enrolled in Rogue Farm Corps, where she worked at three different mixed vegetable operations in Oregon’s Applegate Valley.
After some time, they decided to “get serious about this farming thing”, and enrolled in UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology Apprenticeship Program. According to Jon, “this changed everything.” The apprenticeship opened them up to the rich world of California organic agriculture, and surrounded them with inspiring individuals eager to share farming wisdom.
“That was the beginning of the journey,” Jon said of the Center for Agroecology Apprenticeship Program, “ I think without that, we would’ve just been flailing around.”
When the apprenticeship finished, Jon and Gia moved on to lease a farm called Green Oaks Creek in Pescadero, a short drive from Santa Cruz. This step up gave Jon and Gia the chance to run a farm and put their new-found knowledge to use, without having to make the intensive capital and material investment required for starting an entirely new operation.
But the itch to come back to Oregon was strong. Within a couple of seasons, they had moved back north and decided to try their luck at farming garlic in Oregon’s high desert. Jon and Gia chose to specialize in garlic because (1) focusing on one crop allowed them to become experts instead of generalists (2) central Oregon has been a historic center of seed garlic production for generations (3) garlic is a very appropriate crop for the area and responds well to the climate and soils (4) and last, it allowed them total control over their seed stock. So, in this move back to Oregon, Deschutes Canyon Garlic was born.
However, Jon and Gia still had to find land to farm their garlic. They ended up leasing land from a family friend for a couple of seasons. They then moved to a neighbor’s land for a few more seasons. During these years, they would spend a lot of work building up the soil and fields, only to move to another plot the following season – a lot of “turnover and madness”, as Jon put it. All throughout this pinball journey around Oregon’s high desert, Jon and Gia were looking for land to buy – a difficult process in itself but especially challenging for young farmers.
Jon and Gia did stumble onto the perfect property in 2017 and eventually decided to put in an offer. Strangely, though, the day they submitted their offer, the owner accepted a bid from someone else. Spirits dashed, Jon and Gia went back to farming garlic on leased land, but never forgot about their dream property. It was nestled into a small canyon, with excellent water rights and uncharacteristically good soil. They would cruise past the land in their spare time, and in 2018 even mailed the new owner a three-page letter handwritten on printer paper, detailing their life stories and farming dreams. Yet, still, nothing.
So, imagine their surprise two and a half years later in March 2021 when they received a phone call from the sister of the property owner. The owner had passed away, and the sister was in charge of executing her estate. She found Jon and Gia’s letter in her files and wanted to sell them the land.
After the initial shock wore off, Jon and Gia said yes. They moved quickly and ended up purchasing the land in a private settlement. At last, after a transitory lifestyle and so much moving around, Jon and Gia had their land. They could put all of those years of experience to use; they could build the soil and start setting down roots – all thanks to a Hail Mary letter sent in a moment of desperation. This year, 2022, is their first year harvesting garlic grown on their land, and they think this is the best crop they’ve ever produced.
“This is our first crop on this land and it blows away anything we’ve ever done,” said Jon, “And just knowing this is just one year of building soil, it’s like, where are we gonna be five years from now? 10 years from now?”
Jon and Gia now grow eight varieties of garlic at Deschutes Canyon. They sell seed-grade garlic to other growers via their website, as well as saving some themselves for next year’s planting. Culinary-grade garlic is sold at farm stands in Central Oregon, and they contribute to other farmers’ CSA boxes. Jon and Gia also supply some area restaurants, and this will be their first year selling their garlic direct to consumers at farmers markets.
Deschutes Canyon Garlic has been certified organic with Oregon Tilth since 2018. Their certification has helped them establish trust with consumers in these different markets, especially when selling seed via the internet to other certified garlic growers. Put simply, Jon said “our online business wouldn’t be anything close to what it is without the certification”. Still, Jon and Gia see certification as just a baseline for their operation, and these organic practices are a key part of their farming philosophy – Jon declared he wouldn’t farm any differently with or without the certification.
Reflecting on their years of experiences, on all of their moves from one farm to another, Jon had two pieces of advice for a new farmer starting out: “find a mentor” and “it all starts with the soil”. One can only learn so much through books and videos, and spending time with an experienced farmer is invaluable to learning the fundamentals. And in the end, it all comes back to fundamentals, with soil being the most fundamental thing of all.
After they are finished hanging their year’s crop of garlic, Jon and Gia will take a short and rare break. They will then get back to tending their fields, working with cover crops to build soil, and plant next year’s crop in October. It isn’t a stretch to think that their garlic will only get better with time. Check them out at farmers markets around Sisters, or order online via their website. If you get a chance, try their ‘Music’ variety – it is Jon and Gia’s favorite and a “joy to grow”.