Can we provide the nutrients needed to grow our crops 100% on farm?

This season at the farm Simon spearheaded a project called Determining if Comfrey Fermented Plant Juice is a Viable Alternative to Traditional Purchased Fertilizers. We were able to fund this project through a grant received from SARE, Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, a federal program to “put the principles of sustainable agriculture into practice on farms and ranches.”  The results from our study will be shared through SARE and a few other organizations in order to share our results with other farmers who may be interested in saving money or becoming more sustainable in their practices.  

The name of the project is charmingly descriptive. At Rainshadow one of the core principles is close loop nutrient cycling: all of the nutrients on this farm, or as many as possible, either stay on the farm, or are produced by the farm. The idea is to add nutrients to the land you are caring for and not take them away. 


One of the ways that we do this is by making a variety of ferments and fertilizers on the farm to feed the soil. One of those is called Fermented Plant Juice (FPJ). The idea of FPJ comes from a set of principles called Korean Natural Farming (KNF). KNF gets very complicated with ferments and preparations for a variety of uses but it boils down to making fermented plant juice by taking the leaves of a vigorously growing plant and soaking them in water. Over a period of time this will extract the nutrients from those leaves into the water. What you end up with is DIY liquid fertilizer that is then used to fertilize crops
Photo Credit: Zoé Griffith
We cultivate comfrey at the heads of many of our beds in the 2-acre garden and in our hoop houses. Here is Simon harvesting Comfrey to ferment. Comfrey leaves are put into the fermentation bags and then placed in a barrel of water. Time and the heat of the sun releases the nutrients from the leaves and ferments it into a form more easily absorbed by plants.

Comfrey, a perennial shrub that grows vigorously, is a collector of nutrients from the soil, and is an excellent producer of biomass.We knew from our research and previous use that FPJ worked as a fertilizer, but we didn’t know how or why. How well does it work? Is it comparable to traditional organic fertilizers, such as fish emulsion, kelp, or pelletized chicken manure? Does it work well enough to replace these traditional organic fertilizer? The grant allowed us to test the FPJ in a “controlled” environment and hopefully answer some of those questions.


This summer, we tested the FPJ using pepper plants in our hoop houses: one bed of Iko Iko and one bed of Jimmy Nardello. Each bed was split into 5 zones: control, traditional organic fertilizer, 3oz FPJ, 6oz, FPJ, 9oz FPJ. We then tracked a variety of variables throughout the season, both qualitative and quantitative.

  • Transplant success: We learned that any amount of FPJ was superior to no FPJ (the control) with regard to limiting stress and plant death at the time of transplant. Additionally the 9oz FPJ treatment was comparable in this regard to the traditional organic fertilizer we usually use at the time of transplant.
  • Yield: we tracked yields all season long for each zone independently. The Jimmy Nardellos went from smallest yield to highest as predicted: control (smallest yield), 3oz FPJ, 6oz, FPJ, 9oz FPJ, traditional fertilizer (highest yield). The Iko Ikos were not quite so clear cut for a variety of reasons but in general the more FPJ the better.
  • Finally, we had the Comfrey FPJ tested for nutrients, biological activity, and Food Safety (It is safe). All of which yielded interesting results. For instance compared to fish emulsion, the Comfrey FPJ had about one quarter the amount of nitrogen, but had almost 3 times more potassium percentage per volume.
Photo Credit: Zoé Griffith
Iko Iko peppers (yellow) and Jimmy Nardello peppers (red) were planted in our hoop houses so we could science the use of our in house comfrey FPJ.


The final takeaways were that the FPJ does work as a fertilizer for both macro and micronutrients that plants need. If we were to do the experiment again I would double the concentrations of FPJ per zone from 3, 6, 9, to 6, 12, 18. I think this would have more interesting results. Additionally, the FPJ effectively reduces plant stress from transplant at any concentration, but it seems, based on our observations, that at least 9 oz was good, but more would be even better. Finally the cost of the FPJ was essentially the time it took for me to make and apply (approximately 1 hour a week). This being the case it could be said that it is a cost effective alternative to traditional organic fertilizers and that with more accurate application rates it possibly could even compete with yields from those traditional fertilizers. This would require more research to determine for sure.
How will we use these results at Rainshadow going forward? Instead of making the FPJ and feeling like it works, we know for sure that it does work. We will be able to make and apply this fertilizer with confidence knowing that the plants and soil microbiome are getting the nutrients they need. These results will also inspire us to continue and expand our use of KNF ferments and Biodynamic preps. I do not think we will stop using all of the purchased traditional organic fertilizers as we believe in the diversity of nutrients on the farm. If in the future, however, these alternatives become unavailable or cost prohibitive we will have established an effective system of on farm fertility to confidently fall back on. Finally these results will be shared through SARE and a few other organizations in order to share our results with other farmers who may be interested in saving money or becoming more sustainable in their practices.

Sockeye Salmon dinner here on the deck!

At this dinner we will be introducing and featuring one of our new community partners, Salty Debby’s. Salty Debby’s, operated by Oregon native and Captain of her craft Keree Smith, distributes high-quality, wild-caught Alaskan sockeye salmon direct-to-consumer. Born and raised in Government Camp on Mt. Hood, Smith now owns and operates her commercial gillnetter, the FV Deborah, in the wild waters of Bristol Bay, Alaska.
Keree recently founded Salty Debby’s to educate consumers on healthy commercial fishing practices, promote and protect Bristol Bay and deliver her summer catch.

This special dinner will be a culinary adventure featuring certified organic vegetables exclusively from Rainshadow paired with Keree’s sockeye salmon from Bristol Bay. This dinner will highlight the artful expressions of Chef Nic Maraziti, the beauty and bounty of our Central Oregon farm, and the abundance and health of Bristol Bay.

If you are interested in buying a 20# box of filleted sockeye salmon, you can email us at [email protected] to have a box reserved for you. Dinner ticket purchasers will receive a 15% discount on boxes purchased on the night of the event.

Dinner will be $138 per person ($115 for the meal, plus a 20% gratuity). We will offer a bar with our hand selected wine, beer, and hard cider menu. Corkage fee is $20/bottle if you choose to bring your own.

We are also hosting a  Brunch on Sunday, December 11 and a very special Winter Solstice Dinner on Wednesday, December 21.  

We hope you can join us to experience our Farm-to-Table kitchen.

photo credit: Sarahlee Lawrence

While dahlias flowers are done for the year, we spent a bit of time this month harvesting the bulbs and packing them in sawdust in the potato barn so we can plant them again in the spring. Dahlia blooms are just a small part of what makes Rainshadow Organics beautiful in the summer!