The LocalHarvest Blog

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Community in Action: Portland, Oregon’s Food Works Farm and CSA

These days we may know a lot about where our food comes from, but despite the broad array of choices in many grocery stores, access to good food is often a privilege rather than a given. More than ever, it is important to recognize communities who come together to provide sustenance to people who need it and support the good work they do. With this in mind, I looked forward to the chance to visit the Food Works Farm of Sauvie Island, near Portland Oregon, to meet some of the people who have made it their vision to make this happen.


Food Works Farm is an offshoot of what began as a grassroots community garden project at the St. Johns Woods apartments, a North Portland public housing community, in 2001. The St. Johns Woods garden (now called Cathedral Garden Apartments and Village Gardens), came about through a strong community effort, and was the first place in the country to offer community garden space at a publicly owned subsidized housing location. During the time that Village Gardens became more established, youth from the community created a plot for growing salad greens for sale. As demand for the salad greens increased, the youth expanded the business onto donated land on Sauvie Island, granted by Metro, the Metropolitan Planning Organization for the Portland region. Eventually this gave rise to the current Food Works Farm and its youth employment program.

The Food Works Farm is a 2.5 acre certified organic farm, nestled between a public orchard and fields run by Sauvie Island Organics, a well-known, established organic CSA serving the Portland area. Food Works Farm produces food for its own CSA, grocery and restaurant accounts, and farmers markets, located mostly within the North Portland community. On the hot summer afternoon of my visit, youth were gathering at the Food Works’ shed after preparing a shared lunch at the farm kitchen. Settling on their plan for the afternoon, they divvied up totes used to load up the tomatoes and peppers they’d be harvesting to fill an order for a local grocery.


I met with Victor Montano, Food Works Farm Retail Coordinator, and Leslie Heimer, Food Works Program Supervisor, to talk about the history of Food Works Farm, the youth leadership program, and Victor’s role at the farm. Victor’s story starts out on a bus ride in North Portland. During their commute his mom and brothers were caught in a water balloon fight on the bus, and in the ruckus they met Leslie, the supervisor at the farm. Leslie encouraged Victor and his brothers to apply to the summer youth leadership program and that summer he joined Food Works, working at the farm. From there, while in high school, he returned to join in the Academic Year Program, and then stayed on as the farm’s Retail Coordinator during the summer. Reflecting on his three years at the farm, Victor says:


“I’m a little biased, because my best friend works here, but [I like] working with others, and with people who want to work together [with you]. Here you start in the summer program, so you build all the way through together. You spend quality time with [your friends/co-workers]. You’re building a friendship, coming here everyday. That’s what I like the best, working with friends.”

These days, Food Works receives far more applicants than they can take. Leslie says that in 2017 they received more than five times more applicants than they could enroll in the program. She no longer needs to recruit for applicants, since word of mouth is enough to spread the word. When asked if they’d ever consider growing the program, she says yes, but there are reasons to keep things small:



“We have a two-person adult staff at Food Works. We’ve been bigger before, and someday we’d love to grow, but we found that working with one crew is more effective. Everybody feels more a part of a team, and we are able to provide more access and attention to each person that way. We’re part of a larger organization called Village Gardens, so we can’t expand exponentially. We want to stay within our North Portland community. Those are our [long-term] relationships. They’re who we’re close to and who we answer to.”


Youth in the 8-week summer leadership program take public transportation to get to their workday. It is a commitment: a bus ride to Sauvie Island, then a walk up the road to the farm itself. Oregon summers are hot, and a work day is physically demanding. Lunchtime usually includes a break for a game and potentially a little spray from one of the garden hoses. While in the program, youth learn about planning, growing and selling produce, as well as developing leadership skills, like teamwork, accountability and conflict resolution . At the end of their workday, the youth gather together to review “positives and deltas” from the day: what went well, and what could use a little more practice. Positives for this day were the beautiful produce they’d picked, teamwork, and celebrating the birth of one of their friend’s babies. Deltas included recipe-tweaking on the baked onion rings for lunch, time-management with one less person on the crew and that it was challengingly hot that day.


CSA shares from the Food Works farm are delivered to pickup locations in the north Portland area, and some are offered at a discounted rate to people in recovery at a local addiction rehabilitation center. For many it is a unique opportunity to obtain the fresh, healthy food so necessary to our wellbeing. Not only can people make the choice to buy into the CSA and cook with the freshest of produce, Food Works also offers cooking demonstrations based on what is in the CSA box. In addition to the raw ingredients comes knife skills, proper storage, and food preparation, leading to more confidence and enjoyment in the kitchen.


In winter the Farm Supervisors and Academic Year youth team review the farm’s retail accounts and make plans for the upcoming spring and summer seasons. As Retail Coordinator at the farm, Victor heads up the accounting and outreach to community retailers:


“In general the way it works is that we do business planning during the school year, then we reach out to [local businesses] with a partnership proposal. My favorite is Village Market and New Columbia (part of Village Gardens). We’ve worked with New Seasons (a B-corp organic grocery chain) for many years, actually since we started. They’re very much in support of community programs. They have always bought produce from us. The heirloom tomatoes we’re harvesting right now are going to New Seasons. New Seasons also coordinates volunteer groups that come out to the farm.”


After we had finished our chat in the shade of the farm packing shed, Victor showed me around the Food Works fields, pointing out which crops were ready for harvest, which were finishing up (giant Walla-Walla onions were just harvested and curing), as well as crops going the long haul, like winter squash. He explained how the youth work with the farm supervisors to decide which crops to grow, when, and how much each season. Crop varieties are often chosen for their past performance: whether they provided providing good yields, worked well in Portland’s climate, and of course, the taste test. Victor’s new picks this year, robust clumps of chives and lemongrass, were approved by group consensus during planning this past winter.


To me, this is one of the delights of CSA and small-scale farming: where people from the community are encouraged to come visit and participate, to get to know how their food is grown, and to know the people that produced it. The Food Works farm takes this even further, providing youth with the opportunity to give to their community, learn new ways of working together, job training, and commitment to a cause. It isn’t all rainbows, there are “positives and deltas”, farming takes a lot of work, and teamwork takes practice and patience. But we all depend on our food systems, and sharing food brings us a lot of basic joy.


Programs like The Food Works Farm thrive off community involvement with other small businesses working directly with the farm, community volunteers, and even some input like USDA grants. It’s the energy of community and our interdependence that encourages independence and growth, which then cycles around again. However you choose, the next time you’re browsing in the grocery aisle, farmers market, or opening your box of food, we invite you to pause and consider again the people who made it all possible.


 
 

Oxbow Farm and Conservation Center: Pioneers of Good Food, Community and Land Stewardship

Adam on TractorLast month, in the midst of gearing up for the CSA season, Oxbow Farm Manager Adam McCurdy took time to talk with LocalHarvest about farming, community, sustainability and much more. Oxbow Farm & Conservation Center is a unique non-profit organization situated along the verdant Snoqualmie River in Carnation, just 30 miles from Seattle, Washington. Oxbow hosts an impressive variety of projects, including their 500 member CSA program, outdoor education and summer camps for kids, food gleaning programs, and a native plant nursery.


LocalHarvest: What is your role at Oxbow and what got you into farming?


Adam: I’ve been with Oxbow since 2006, and I’ve been farming since 1999 in different regions: in the Willamette Valley outside of Portland, the Methow Valley in Eastern Washington, and now currently in the Snoqualmie Valley. I first became interested in farming while working with an Americorps program in Maine, doing environmental education and forest management, and as a result I became interested in food systems more generally. From there, I started helping with different gleaning efforts in Maine, working towards hunger relief, which is now a major aspect of what we’re doing at Oxbow.


LH: How does the gleaning program at Oxbow work?


Adam: The development of our gleaning and partnering with hunger relief organizations has been quite an evolution. We’ve had to find solutions to questions like: how do you open your land up to volunteers who are willing to come and glean? How do you get the food to the food bank? Most importantly, how do you serve the populations that need local nourishing food, probably more than anyone?


Over time, we’ve worked with organizations such as Rotary First Harvest, Foodlink, and LifeLine, in a few different ways. The first task is to bring volunteers out to the farm to harvest, and the second is get the food to the food pantries. We’ve also developed a purchasing program, so not only are we working with the food bank on a donation basis, but the food bank helps to support the local farm financially. Our gleaning program was managed through Rotary First Harvest and Americorps for a few years, and then HopeLink created a permanent gleaning coordinator position, who manages all the volunteers and getting the food to the food bank. Now HopeLink has gleaning funded as part of its primary structure.


LH: So, HopeLink has set up gleaning as part of its ongoing program?


Adam: Yes, so it’s not just a federal grant with life expectancy, it’s become part of HopeLink’s operating budget each year. We’ve been working with them for five years now, so we have continuity. A committed group of volunteers comes out to the farm regularly. They experience the seasons and begin to understand what it takes to provide products from a local farm to a food bank, and to get food to the people who really need it. It’s really amazing.

LH: How is Oxbow’s CSA structured, and how many members do you have?

Oxbow CSA Box

Adam: Our program has evolved over the years, depending on what the community is needing and what is economically viable for the farm. In 2011, when we started working with LocalHarvest and CSAware, we had 350 members, and then in 2013 we were on a growth trajectory with 480 members. By 2014 we were up to 600 members, and in 2015, 700 members. Currently we’re around 500. In terms of the numbers, in different years we’ve offered different types of shares, so the numbers reflect some long season shares and some shorter season shares.


LH: Was it Oxbow Farm’s desire to grow, and how did you accommodate so much growth?


Adam: Yes, we did plan for growth - we basically have three to four business branches. We are Oxbow as the non-profit organization, then we have an educational farm-garden, a native plant nursery, and we have the production farm. The growth of the CSA matched our mission to give members of the community the opportunity to come and experience their local farmland through one of these different channels. We put a lot of intention into growing that aspect. We stopped going to farmers’ markets and started building select relationships with local restaurants and grocery / co-ops. So our CSA has a dual purpose: people can buy direct with us, and also they have the opportunity to experience the farm in these different ways.


When you’re planning for the CSA, how do you plan for what goes in the shareholder’s box? Do you get input from your members? Are there certain trends you’ve noticed or started?


Adam: We take customer feedback very seriously. We always want to know what folks are desiring. Sometimes we buy-in from another local grower if we can’t grow something our members want. Economically this makes more sense and additionally it spreads the customer’s food dollar within the local community. When we buy from another local grower, we’re supporting other local farmers and securing local farmland.


There are a lot of different reasons people are choosing to join a CSA: some are interested in local, sustainably grown fresh food, others are considering the health benefits, some are foodies, and others want a convenient neighborhood pickup. When you’ve got hundreds of subscribers, you have a lot of different folks in the pool. Some people are really fired up about local and sustainable. Others are more interested in just getting their box of fresh produce. One of the trends we’re looking at is providing the best regional product our fields can produce, and strengthening our regional food system through community relationships.


Our CSA is for people who are looking for high quality staples that will grow in this region. We don’t make false promises - you’ll get great value, quality, seasonality, we’ll give you a nice variety and sufficient quantity to make your meals. We have over 30 different pick-up sites in the greater Seattle area. Each site host is a Community Partner that builds a relationship within the community. Some of those are faith-based community hubs, or health & wellness-focused businesses, like the chiropractor’s office. Delivery becomes part of a regional commerce - connecting people with similar values like eating healthfully. We are moving into those relationships with even greater intention. It takes intention, effort and maintenance to keep up those relationships.


LH: what is your perspective on preserving farmland preservation, and how did the native plant nursery project come about?


Adam: Our farm serves the purpose of food production, and in addition we have a conservation program with the goal of being a sustainable steward of the land. In the floodplain where we grow, we work with fish habitat and restoration, keeping the water clean. Everywhere we are is the watershed.


Keeping local farmland producing is going to keep it preserved. We maintain buffers so that there is clean water in the waterways. Preserving biological diversity while doing our best to sustainably grow food is a constant challenge. Bringing those aspects together, food production and land preservation, is a major focus at Oxbow.


Partnering with universities who conduct research projects also helps us to accomplish our goal of maintaining a healthy biodiversity on the farm. For example, right now we have a bird diversity study going about nesting sites around the production fields. We’ve found that there is a direct relationship to the presence of birds and integrative pest management. Another angle of conservation and sustainable growing is nutrient management and knowing what is enough but not too much, in keeping the waterways clean. Understanding the impact of cultivation to the outlying buffer zones is very important to us and our goal of land stewardship.


LH: Tell me a little about the Education Farm?

Oxbox and Kids

Adam: Oxbow’s Education Farm works toward preparing future generations to be stewards of the land as well. We’re using many of the same production practices that we use on our larger-scale farm fields on a micro-level at the Kid’s Farm. When children come to the farm, they see a pared-down version of how a farm works. They learn about pollination, seeds, germination, soil, insects, where food comes from, how it tastes, and how it nourishes. The kids really get to feel and experience all these aspects of our food system. Our educators go into classrooms during the winter months when there is less going on in the field.


Many thanks to Oxbow Farm Manager Adam McCurdy for speaking with us. If you are interested learning more about Oxbow, you can visit their website or sign up for their CSA here.


 
 

LocalHarvest Featured Farmer: Pablo Rodriguez of Rancho Charanda

Pablo.jpg We at LocalHarvest are embarking on a new project to bring you closer to the farmers who grow your food. Periodically we’ll be interviewing our members to share their unique stories with you.

Pablo Rodriguez is the owner of Rancho Charanda, growers of citrus and specialty fruit crops, and The Aztec Garden, his project featuring medicinal and culinary herbs of ancient and modern Mexico. We’ve always loved his artful presentations and passion for growing good food and herbs, so we looked forward to asking Pablo a few questions about what inspires him.


LocalHarvest: What got you into farming?

Pablo Rodriguez: I was totally inspired by my grandmother. As a young boy, I remember spending the summer playing in her huge garden filled with tomatoes, chiles, cactus, herbs and several types of stone fruit. Every time my siblings and I visited, we would peek into the refrigerator and shout, “there’s nothing to eat”... but grandma would always whip something up freshly picked from her garden. So I decided to continue the tradition of growing my own meals. Plus farming keeps me grounded, it connects me to the land and nature, brings me peace and relaxes my mind. I respect the earth and the life giving energy the food provides us.

LH: What inspired you to create The Aztec Garden?

Pablo: Years ago I discovered a reproduction of an obscure little herbal book written in 1552 called the Aztec Herbal. I read it cover to cover. It is the first herbal, in fact, the first medical book produced in the Americas. The original book is preserved in the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico City. It is known as the Codice Badiano, or Badianus Manuscript, after the Aztec scholar Juannes Badianus, who translated the original manuscript into Latin.

The herbal was written in the local Aztec language (Nahuatl) by Martinus de la Cruz, a prominent physician at the College of Santa Cruz in Tlaltelolco, Mexico. The book was produced thirty-one years after the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán, which is present-day Mexico City. This little book provided the names of the herbs, hand drawn images and remedies for a variety of illnesses and ailments. I decided to grow as many of these herbs and plants that I could find and share the remedies with others.


What are the three herbs you think everyone should have in the cupboard and why?

Pablo: At the Aztec Garden we firmly believe that to heal oneself you must heal all elements: mind, body and spirit. With that said the first herb to have on hand would be:

Cedron / Lemon Verbena. A very comforting and aromatic herb. Once dried it makes a perfect hot or cold tea. A cup in the morning allows you to clear your thoughts and prep your mind for the tasks of the day. In the evening before bed, it soothes and relaxes your mind before you lay your body to rest. (Mind)

Oregano de la Sierra / Mountain Oregano. This is one of my favorite herbs for cooking and feeding your body with natural nutrients it needs to function properly. It is very aromatic with rich, spicy overtones. Perfect over grilled potatoes or blended with saute?ed tomatoes, onions, garlic and nopales. It adds life and zest to so many dishes. (Body)

Salvia Blanca / White Sage. This is one of the five sacred herbs. It is used to dispel negative energy that you may have absorbed from friends, family or foes. It should be used daily. (Spirit)


LH: Does your farm location have any particular geographical advantages / challenges? How would you describe your local farming community?

Xoconostle.jpg

Pablo: We are located on a hillside between Los Angeles and Palm Springs in an area known as Crafton Hills. Our farm has mountains to the north and desert to the east. In my opinion a great location with several microclimates. The area is perfect for growing several types of plants, trees and herbs. The south, higher terrain allows us to grow sub-tropicals such as avocados and guavas. Our sun-sensitive herbs are protected with the shade of our citrus trees throughout the property. The north, lower end, where rainwater and irrigation water accumulates, is perfect for our thirsty plants. The drier, sandy soil of the west side is a perfect location for our cactus garden.

Some of the biggest challenges we face are lack of rainwater, unstable weather, over development and a lack of respect for the environment. The local farming community has finally placed our local food production as a priority, but we still have a long way to go. We need the local community to support local farming … and not depend on foreign interests to supply our precious food.


SangredeAzteco1.jpg

Recipe: Sangre de Azteco

This refreshing drink features some of the unique fruits grown by Rancho Charanda. The Aztec Marigold flower garnish represents the blood that was shed by the Aztecs to the Spaniards who invaded the Americas for gold.

Ingredients

  • 1 xoconostle fruit
  • 2 pitaya (dragon fruit)
  • 2 tuna (red prickly pear fruit) 
  • 1 pomegranate (medium sized) 
  • 1 nopal (cactus paddle green or red) 
  • 3 oz chilled spring water 
  • 1-1/2oz Opuntia Prickly Pear Spirit

Preparation:
Trim the spines and skin off of the xoconostle, pitaya and tuna. Place pulp in a blender. Next, trim the spines off of nopal, chop and place in blender, cut pomegranate in half and remove seeds. Place seeds in blender. Add 3 oz chilled spring water and blend at high speed for 4 minutes. Pour mixture through cheese cloth to remove seeds into a wide mouthed cup. Add Prickly Pear Spirit, stir and now pour into a chilled glass goblet filled with ice cubes. Garnish with freshly picked Aztec Marigold Flowers.

Many thanks to Pablo Rodriguez for taking the time to share with us! If you’re curious about Rancho Charanda and The Aztec Garden, check out their listings on LocalHarvest, or if you’re in their area, you can contact them about visiting.

Until next time,

Kerry

 
 

State of CSA

Dear CSA Farmer,

By now you are probably aware of the recent conversation in the media about Venture Capital (VC) funded "Farm Box" businesses taking the wind out real CSAs' sails. I wanted to share with you what I think is going on and how we can take a stand to preserve the integrity of the CSA movement.

As the Good Food movement started to go mainstream, starting in 2006 VC investors began flocking to "local food" startups. For a few years, we at LocalHarvest received dozens of calls from hungry investors wanting to fund us. Our response was always the same: Pretty much by definition, "maximization of profits" as the investors' top goal will never be compatible with the Good Food movement, which is driven by the health of farmers' livelihoods, communities, and the environment.

Since then, VC-funded companies have attempted a takeover of the CSA market painstakingly developed by small farms and the local businesses who collaborate with them. 10 years later, and with most of the capital spent, we're now seeing these ventures fail. Good Eggs, Farmigo, AgLocal, and other heavily-funded businesses have failed to take over the CSA space. They all learned the hard way that you cannot squeeze 20% to 30% profit margins from CSAs. We believe this trend will continue, and that the space will finally resettle into the steady grass-roots-driven growth it had during its first 20 years, before the VC money flooded in.

The most recent case of a heavily-funded venture failing is Farmigo. They launched a CSA Software product in 2009 in direct competition with our CSAware. I projected at the time that their plan was to learn how CSAs are run and later use the knowledge to compete against their own CSA clients. This proved true when in 2011 they re-launched as an "Online Farmers Market". With most of $26 million dollars now spent, Farmigo proved unable to transform the CSA model while skimming 20% or more from CSA profits. While doing this, they squeezed many established CSAs and (in worse cases) helped drive CSAs out of business in the markets where they operated.

Farmigo has announced that they will refocus on CSA software while they still have investment funds to stay in operation. LocalHarvest pioneered the CSA Software space with our CSAware and CSA Manager products. While Farmigo has proven their willingness to commoditize the local farmer to gain profit share, we distinguish ourselves from this practice. LocalHarvest has always and will continue to focus on helping local farms grow their business.

We at LocalHarvest.org have been dedicated to helping CSAs thrive since 1999, and we are here for the long run. Our goal is not to sell out to the highest bidder, but to provide a livelihood for our small and dedicated crew, while providing tools and services needed by CSAs and family farms.

Just imagine what could have been achieved if those billions had been invested in promoting family farms and locally-grown agriculture. We encourage you to choose your business partners wisely and to collaborate with those that share your vision of the future of food.

If you would like to speak with us about growing your CSA using our CSAware or CSA Manager services, please contact us directly. We have successfully transitioned Farmigo clients to CSAware. If you are currently working with them, we can help make the transition painless.

Sincerely,


Guillermo Payet
President
LocalHarvest.org

PS: Watch for the upcoming July edition of the LocalHarvest Newsletter for more on this subject.



 
 

Important Day to Pick Up the Phone

Today is an important day for supporters of good food to pick up the phone and put the democratic process into action. Votes are expected to take place today on two pieces of legislation, the Senate's Agricultural Appropriations Bill, and the House version of the Food Safety Enhancement Act.[Read More]
 
 

What do you think about the Ag Census?

If you've read our April newsletter, you know that we are interested in the data from the recently published Agricultural Census. We'd love to hear your thoughts about the census. If you are a farmer, did you participate? Why or why not? What's your sense about the census finding 12,549 farmers who sold products through a CSA in '07? If you were in charge of the 2012 Census, what new questions would you include?

One of our LocalHarvest farmers wrote an extensive blog entry on the methodology used for the census. Check it out here.

[Read More]
 
 

Local and Organic for $37/week

Last week I was part of a panel at local farm conference, where my assignment was to talk about the "home economics" of eating locally. I spoke about what my family eats and why, and the time and money our diet requires. I learned a lot.

I was especially curious about the money part. It should be said that my husband and I put a high value on eating well. We also grow a lot of our own food. It’s our sustenance, both physical and spiritual. Turns out, the garden saves us a lot of money, too.

[Read More]
 
 

Try, try again

Yesterday Guillermo and I were discussing the sorry state of this blog. We have both had the guilts about it all winter. One lousy entry in almost three months? That's not a blog, it's a wind-worn flier stapled to a telephone pole announcing a concert that's long since forgotten.

For whatever reason, we haven't been bitten by the bug. Yet. But we've committed to giving it another go to see if we can turn ourselves into bloggers. Because we have things to say. Really we do. If only we could dig ourselves out of our To Do list long enough to form sentences.

[Read More]
 
 

Welcome to the Localharvest Blog

Pick a little, talk a little, pick a little, talk a little, cheep cheep cheep, talk a lot, pick a little more...

Welcome to the new LH blog! We've been wanting to be more dedicated bloggers for a while now, but quite honestly have just been too darned busy to get around to it. Finally, finally, it made it to the top of the list.

[Read More]
 
 
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