The scent of dusty earth and sunbaked Ponderosa pine seeps into my senses, making me feel normal-ish. A rarity in these times. I escape to the forest near my home when the general home-stuck chaos takes its toll. The vanilla and piney-spice scent radiates from the Ponderosas’ thick, flaky bark when the sap is warmed by the sun. En masse, it is the scent of sweet resilience.
As Ponderosas age, an inner yellowish bark is revealed, which has a notoriously stronger aroma — a characteristic of age that happens to coincide with the tree’s enhanced defense against fire. Under assault, a Ponderosa’s puzzle-piece-like bark will ignite and fly off, taking with it the fire’s heat, leaving the heartwood protected and the tree standing. But a Ponderosa’s thick armor is no match for today’s fires that burn so hot they destroy the forest canopy and, with it, a forest’s future seed source. What’s more, this extreme heat can sterilize the soil, burn off large amounts of stored carbon and alter the soil’s ability to absorb and retain water.
After witnessing recent wildfires near my hometown in Oregon, I’m starting to come to terms with my personal resilience, and that of my community, because when the things that make up our armor, our resilience, are threatened, we take note. And when the smoke is so thick that the skies rain ash and the songbirds stop singing, we wake up.
A seasonally abnormal weather system moved into Oregon Labor Day weekend 2020, generating very low humidity levels and 75 mph wind gusts out of the east by Monday afternoon. A bluebird sky morphed into a dusky orange — a foreshadowing of days to come. I vividly remember how eerie it was, like the atmosphere was churning … conspiring against something. There was an uneasy energy.
By Tuesday morning, I woke to a newsfeed that was flooded with accounts from the previous night’s events. Level 3 — Go! Evacuate Now! — evacuation orders had been issued overnight for a string of communities along both the Santiam and McKenzie Rivers, roughly 40 miles northwest and southwest of our home in Sisters, Oregon. These river canyons are steep, rocky, tree-lined, threaded with power lines and thousands of homes and human lives. It’s the worst place to either run from or tackle a raging firestorm in the black of night.
I read an account of a man, Don Myron, who sheltered overnight on a rock in the middle of the Little North Santiam River with nothing but a neighbor’s green plastic lawn chair to fend off 70 mph winds that tore down the river canyon, showering him with flying embers, the river engulfed in a wall of flames. He survived, but tragically, some did not. It could be my family and me running for our lives next time.
The statistics frame the extent of the Oregon-wide devastation. Close to 500,000 acres burned. Nine lives were lost. Thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed. Thirty-three school districts were damaged. Beyond this, thousands of wells may be contaminated, miles of power lines need repair and major highway systems have been closed with no immediate plans for reopening. It was like nothing my state had ever experienced before.
For most of the previous two decades, Oregon has experienced severe drought conditions. By September 2020, things were pretty bad. Eighty percent of the state was under at least moderate drought, and 25 percent was under extreme drought. Winter precipitation had yielded a solid showing of spring regrowth that would later turn into loads of dry, brittle fuel. Summer brought little rain and very low humidity. The same conditions plagued most of California and the Pacific Northwest.
In Oregon, wildfires typically start and burn in remote, hard-to-reach places, where (for the most part) humans don’t live. The Labor Day fires changed all of that. Places we thought were resistant to fire were suddenly, in a matter of hours, in the direct path of destruction.
For weeks, the Pacific Northwest and California would experience the worst air quality in the world, saturated in a thick layer of smoke, completely obscuring the sun. Without the sun, temperatures were around 10 degrees cooler than average, and the trees began to yellow and drop their leaves.
We learned that the smoke’s particulate matter can penetrate deep into the lungs, crossing over into the bloodstream and spurring an immune response in the body, similar to the way our bodies fight sickness and disease. Even the birds surrendered. They just stopped singing. Had they nearly given up, too?
Throughout all of this, I kept working. I am a climate person working for a climate-impacted company with a significant climate footprint in the midst of our planet’s current climate crisis. The burden of responsibility is real.
As the sustainability manager for Organic Valley, the nation’s largest organic, farmer-owned cooperative and maker of certified organic dairy, meat, produce, and eggs, I am in a near-constant place of learning, testing, adapting and co-conspiring climate strategies with my fellow colleagues, or climate comrades, as I like to consider them. It is our job to help our farmers cocreate resilient and restorative systems to adapt to the climate crisis, but also to mitigate the impacts of our business and production methods on the planet. All of our nearly 1,800-member family farms and 950 employees are involved in climate work, whether they know it or not.
Organic Valley has 83 family farms in California, Oregon and Washington. Nearly all these farms have been directly impacted by the 2020 wildfire season. Some were evacuated from their homes and farms, and all were granted the rare exception to return to their animals for feeding and milking and to make sure the animals had water.
“It felt as if the whole world was on fire,” said Jon Bansen, an Organic Valley dairy farmer located near Monmouth, Oregon. “The sun never rose that Tuesday morning after Labor Day. The sky was black to the east. The only light was on the western horizon, and it was glowing orange, making it seem that the sun was rising in the west. The cows were acting strange. The birds were silent. Things were eerie, choking. It felt post-apocalyptic.”
The stress farmers endure, and the stress their animals and crops endure, has taken a toll, impacting food production across the western U.S. The smoke stops one fundamental life-giving process: photosynthesis. Without sunlight, trees, crops and grasses stop producing carbohydrates, which are fundamental to plant health and the health of animals that eat these plants, like Bansen’s cows.
“As a farmer, I have no choice but to be out in it for hours and hours,” said Bansen. “With each passing day you can see the stress on the pasture. The plants suffered due to a lack of sun to make sugars — sugars that equal energy to a cow. When there is no energy in the forage, the cows become increasingly stressed, and their milk production starts to plummet, to the lowest levels I’ve seen. This was an ‘ah-ha’ moment, a stark reminder of how much we rely on the sun as farmers.”
As of mid-October, in Oregon alone, more than 2,000 fires had burned more than 1.2 million acres since the start of the year — a small number compared to California’s nearly 8,000 blazes. Across nine Western states, 60 large fires are still burning, including six in Oregon. More than 8 million acres have burned across the West since the beginning of 2020. These climate-induced extreme fire events are expected to increase, both in size and number, with no relief on the horizon. As Jonathan Franzen argues, “Our atmosphere and oceans can absorb only so much heat before climate change, intensified by various feedback loops, spins completely out of control.”
“It’s like I told my son: we can affect the change that we can affect,” said Bansen. “We can and do attempt to mitigate the impacts of climate change here where we live and farm. We do this with perennial pasture systems, no-till farming, increasing pasture rotations to improve organic matter and soil health, making sure we don’t contribute to the greenhouse gas problem. And we plant copious amounts of trees on our 650 acres because this is how we can effect change. Hopefully, we can get folks to catch up.”
As renowned writer, historian and activist, Rebecca Solnit urges in her essay, “When the Hero Is the Problem,” there is no single solution but, rather, a framework of change made up of many parts championed by ordinary people working together and holding each other accountable.
“Positive social change results mostly from connecting more deeply to the people around you than rising above them, from coordinated rather than solo action.”
– Rebecca Solnit, “When the Hero Is the Problem”, April 2, 2019
Ordinary people working together to create change can and does work. I witness the mechanics of collective action led by ordinary people every day at Organic Valley. We strive to be agents of positive change, driven by a firm belief in the regenerative organic farming methods that our planet needs to adapt to the climate crisis. Organic agriculture is part of the climate solution — part of our strategy to build resilient and restorative systems. It is the armor our food system needs right now.
Often, dairy is a target in the agriculture-versus-climate-impact debate, but not all dairy is created equal. When you feed and raise a cow organically, with access to fresh air and healthy pasture, on soils that are restorative and regenerative, this act alone can be a catalyst for change. These farms can become carbon sinks just like our forests. This is what we strive to do on Organic Valley farms. Because farms, like forests, can be high-carbon-storing ecosystems.
When I spoke to Bansen after the fires, I asked if he was in a state of grief or hope about the climate crisis. He explained, “I can’t not be optimistic, but I feel a sense of pessimism because what we are seeing in our species is not promising. We set ourselves up for these fires. Things must change. I feel grief, which stems from knowing my kids and grandkids will see worse than we’ve seen, not better.”
He said resiliency in the face of the climate crisis looks like “building systems that are as strong as possible for healthy soils and healthy animals. We need to start at a high level of health to survive what is coming.”
To build this kind of resiliency, we work alongside our farmers to continuously improve soil and pasture productivity, and to conserve and protect water quality. To do this, we help our farmers secure the financial and technical resources needed to implement practices that sequester carbon by pulling it out of the air, where in excess it does harm, and returning it to the soil and woody trees and shrubs, where it can do good.
We’re working to reduce enteric and manure methane emissions through alternative feed supplements and manure systems. We’re advancing a clean energy environment on our farms that involves both reducing energy use and installing renewable energy systems. And where it makes sense, we help our farmers permanently protect their farmland through conservation easements because, once farmland is developed, it loses its ability to sequester carbon, forever.
I know from experience that finding common ground when leaning into the climate conversation is the place to start if the aim is deeper, broader change. I can’t convince each of our nearly 1,800 farmers that the climate crisis is real, and human caused, and that individually we all have a responsibility to change our behavior and actions. I am not that kind of hero. Instead, together with my fellow climate comrades, we will inspire and support incremental yet lasting change, which requires a transparent and deeply authentic approach.
So take this as a personal plea from someone who is not a scientist but an ordinary person immersed in the climate crisis every day, and as a mother who wants her children to experience something better: Whether we are in a collective state of grief or hope, belief or disbelief, we must actively participate in cocreating resiliency in whatever form it takes, comprising many parts, opinions and perspectives.
Until this point, many of us, individually, have been passive, waiting for a solution to turn the tide, but a silver-bullet solution is not coming. Let this be the moment where resilience becomes our common ground — our place to start the conversation and accelerate positive change because, when we lead with resilience, we all win — and because I believe sweet-smelling Ponderosa forests and organic cheese are worth fighting for, along with so many other things.
Organic Valley Is No Stranger to the Climate Crisis
On August 27, 2018, the Driftless Region of Southwest Wisconsin was hit with a monsoonal rain event that dropped more than 14 inches over a single 12-hour period. This was an incredible blow after the region had already received nearly an entire summer’s worth of rain — more than 20 inches — in the weeks prior.
Rain events of increasing magnitude are becoming more common in parts of the Upper Midwest. The hardest hit areas have dealt with a handful of catastrophic floods in the previous 10 years — two of the worst being back-to-back “100-year” floods in late 2007 and early 2008.
“The scale of what is happening is absolutely unbelievable to witness,” said climate scientist Eric Booth in this 2018 Wired article.
These floods hit close to home, literally. Organic Valley’s primary office, distribution and manufacturing facilities are located in rural Southwest Wisconsin. Every campus but one sustained flood damage in recent years. Wisconsin is also home to 390 Organic Valley farm families, many of whom have been directly affected by the previous decade’s climate-fueled flood events, and some devastatingly so.