Rancher Sisters seeks to start a honey-based winery; watchdog group appeals Deschutes County approval

(Update: added video, comments from Lazy Z Ranch owner, CO Landwatch)

The County Hearing Officer must take testimonial wednesday evening

SISTERS, Ore. (KTVZ) — Lazy Z Ranch in Sisters may soon be serving people its homemade wine.

However, as owner John Herman explains, wine is not made from grapes, but from bees.

“At this place, you’ll feel like you’re at any winery you’ve been to, really — just in a more funky, classic ranch setting,” Herman said Wednesday. “Instead of vineyards, we have pollinator habitats. We have what we call regenerative bee pastures.

Herman said that mead ferments sugar in flowers, the same way wine does with grapes and beer and whiskey with grain.

But he said regenerative pastures that make mead use less water, turn over less land, integrate livestock and support native plant life better than other alcohol fermentation farms.

“Mead is by far the most sustainable alcoholic drink on the planet, and it’s not close,” Herman said. “Mead thrives. Mead can only be produced in a system of abundance, from a healthy system, and it is the celebration of that healthy system that we want to bring here to this ranch.

He wants to open a mead shop off Highway 20, with indoor and outdoor tasting rooms, a farm shop, wine sales, a food cart lot, and occasional concerts or events.

“It’s an extension of who we are and who we want to be as people,” Herman said.

The mead was approved by Deschutes County planners, but Central Oregon Land Watch appealed it.

Herman thinks the call is just a misunderstanding.

“One challenge that mead makers have around the world is that people don’t really know what mead is. It’s an ancient form of wine and it hadn’t really had much popularity for a few centuries,” Herman said.

Central Oregon Landwatch attorney Rory Isbell told Newschannel 21 in a statement.

“Central Oregon LandWatch is committed to preserving our region’s farmland and supporting its agricultural economy. In Deschutes County, opening up our remaining farmland to commercial uses may ultimately harm agricultural economies by driving up the cost of land and inducing speculation in the market, which is what Oregon’s land use system was designed to prevent.In this particular case, we have some concerns about the decision of the Deschutes County to approve primarily commercial uses on agricultural land.

In January, Kristy Sabo, Environmental Planner and Lawyer at LandWatch, raised some questions: “We are initially concerned that the application for conditional use of a mead in conjunction with agricultural use may not meet all applicable criteria / that the burden of proof is not met for all criteria.”

In its notice of appeal, LandWatch says the county approval “misinterprets and applies applicable law” and that “there is no legal basis to conclude that a mead is a permitted use in the EFU area.” (exclusive agricultural use).

Concerns have also been raised about the traffic that could be generated from the nearly 84-acre property, located between highways 20 and 126.

Links to the land use documents and notice of appeal, as well as a Zoom live stream of Wednesday’s hearing at 6 p.m., can be found on the agenda of hearings officers.

Herman believes his mead would create healthier soils, retain water, support pollinators and provide education on a sustainable form of alcohol creation.

“We wanted to see if there was a chance to do a type of farming business that models leaving things better than we find them, in all aspects,” Herman said. “Whether in the field, in the production space, or in the tasting room, in how we interact with our neighbors and tell them the story of regenerative agriculture in central Oregon.”

Herman said he has received letters of support from the High Desert Food and Farm Alliance, the American Mead Makers Association, the OSU Bee Project and other local and national groups.

Elisha A. Tilghman