Cougar Mountain Farm, and Its 40 Years of Sustainability
Nate Gartrell, EDN
You won’t hear much man-made noise at Noah and Anna Wemple’s residence; no jackhammers, no rumble of car engines in the distance. But if you know where to look, you may find an arrowhead, or an old button left by a pioneer, or a guitar string from the 1970s.
Noah, Anna, and their family live on a farm located way, way up, near the top of Cougar Mountain, in unincorporated Saginaw. Though in the Lane County area, the Wemples’ farm is off the grid, which means they’ve had to provide everything for themselves–food, water, shelter, and electricity–since 1972, when the Wemple family first called Cougar Mountain home.
“I remember watching the 1972 Olympics on Cougar Mountain in a tent,” Noah said. Nowadays, the Wemples live in a multi-story wooden house built primarily by Noah, equipped with running water and solar-powered electricity.
The Wemples organically cultivate most of their food, since they’re trying to live lightly by example. Their ultimate vision is to create an educational center on the mountain, and hold regular seminars to teach people how to grow, harvest, and process food without the use of pesticides or herbicides, and a minimal use of machinery.
Currently, the Cougar Mountain collective is small; Noah, Anna, and their children Zarah and Zen are the farm’s consistent inhabitants. But in the 70s it was Noah’s late father, Edd Wemple, who headed Cougar Mountain Farm, along with his wife and Noah’s mother, Betsy.
Edd and Betsy were part of the Hoedad cooperative, a group of counter-culture naturalist foresters which existed during the 70s, and held frequent gatherings on Cougar Mountain.
“They were very much about the revolution that was happening in peoples’ minds,” Noah said. “With the Vietnam War, the oil embargo that was going on, with people wanting to make a sustainable future for themselves, and having a desire to return to the land.”
Thanks in great deal to Edd, the Hoedads became one of the largest worker-owned cooperatives in the US during that time, former Hoedad John Sundquist said. Edd was a natural leader, with many connections in the area, as well as a mountainside base for the Hoedads.
“I encouraged Betsy and Noah to not get a lot of names involved in the title,” Sundquist said. “If it was continued under their family’s ownership, then I was pretty sure the vision of sustainable living wouldn’t be tainted.”
This proved to be a smart move when Edd died unexpectedly, of a cerebral aneurysm at 36, leaving Betsy to see after the 320-acre Cougar Mountain property. At the time, 1985, Noah wasn’t living there, but his father’s vision ultimately brought him back to Cougar Mountain.
“When I was 17, two years [after Edd’s death], my father came to me in a very powerful dream,” Noah said. “He told me, ‘You need to caretake this land.’ It was incredibly vivid, and I went to my mother after that and said, ‘I’d like to be a part of the farm for the rest of my life.'”
Now Noah’s 41, and just as dedicated to the Cougar Mountain dream. But it’s not lost on him, that as one of the mountain’s only current inhabitants, Noah is also continuing a legacy of living off the land that started when indigenous Americans began migrating to the mountain seasonally.
“This was an old, beautiful homestead for tens of thousands of years,” Noah said. “Shoshoni and Kalapuya tribes figured out a way to live sustainably with the land, and we’ve tried to honor that.”
In keeping with this mindset, the Wemples have built a large apple orchard, some greenhouses, and they keep bees and raise various livestock. They oppose the use of pesticides, on moral, not just scientific grounds.
“As organic farmers, the use of herbicides and pesticides is against our belief system,” Noah said. “The ‘cide’ at the end of those words is about death, and organic farming is about life. They contradict each other.”
It’s an efficient system; the bees pollinate the Wemples’ crops, the animals provide manure for compost, and excess apples generally get turned into apple cider, or wine, or sauce. Almost nothing is wasted.
“In everything that humans do, there’s a natural way to do it and there’s a constructed ‘human’ way,” Anna said. “This is blending the two; taking the natural system and making it work for us.”
In an attempt realize their dream of a permaculture educational center on Cougar Mountain, the Wemples created Tayberry Jam, an annual fundraising music festival during which time is given for speeches and discussions on various environmental topics.
The name “Tayberry Jam” is sort of a pun–the tayberry is a cross between a blackberry and a raspberry, and “jam” can refer to the act of playing music, as well as a jar of jelly. The first one was held in 2006, and this year’s will happen in early August.
“Along with the early Tayberry Jams, we started holding work parties,” Noah said, just like his parents used to. “Various groups in the community embraced the idea, and have been coming out several times a year since then.”
Still, there’s no denying that the world today is different than the one Noah remembers from the time he and his parents lives in a tent on Cougar Mountain.
The Hoedads have since dispersed, and some have died. Many of the famous musicians from that era and stopped playing, and the phrase “counter-culture” doesn’t have the same resonance it had 40 years ago.
Meanwhile, the use of pesticides amongst farmers is rampant in today’s world. US farmers used 223 million pounds of pesticides in 2006, and 193 million pounds in 2007, according to EPA market estimates released in 2011.
Also, the Organic Farming Research Foundation, which promotes organic cultivation, reported that just 2 percent of US food is currently grown using organic methods. All of this, though, only underscores the need for a place like Cougar Mountain Farm, Sundquist said.
“We need to get an Eco-tourism learning industry; a place that can serve as a template for other farmers,” Sundquist said. “To battle the commodity agriculture, you have to make money somehow.”