03 February 2011

Food For All—Farmers During The Off-Season

When markets are open during the season, you can feel the buzzing energy from blocks away.

If you’ve ever been to one of Portland Farmers Market’s six area sites just before the opening bell, you know what I mean. It’s at this time that you’ll see vendors, staff, and farmers milling about in a synchronized dance that would give the Oregon Ballet a run for their money. Crates of fresh produce are being unloaded from vans and trucks by folks who grew it and picked it, then packed it all up and drove it to your neighborhood market that morning—some traveling more than 3 hours to get there.

They even managed to get sweet, springtime strawberries to market intact, and not in a jammy, berry mess that many of us find at the bottom of our market baskets when we bring our local treasures home.

I’m not the only one, right?

And when it’s all over, and you and I are walking home with a fistful of fiddlehead fern curls, thinking, “what am I going to do with these?”, farmers are just beginning to clean-up. Stalls are getting organized, trades are being made, and trucks are being reloaded. Farmers then go back to the farm, unload, re-organize, and prepare to do it all again—often the next day. All of this, in addition to the daily tasks of running a small, local farm.

I began to wonder if farmers ever get to slow down.

When I talked with Rick Steffen from Rick Steffen’s Farm, a mostly greenhouse-grown farm located in Silverton, Oregon, I asked him when his “off-season” began. He said he just got back from a week-long trip to Hawaii two days earlier, so his off-season started about 10 days before that. By the time we talked, he was already back in action.

Rick grows beautiful, seasonal produce in one of his many large greenhouses. He also grows year-round to sell at a variety of other markets in the Portland area when PFM is closed. Rick said he could grow more if there was a market for it, but is grateful for his week-long break to the sunshine.

During his trip, Rick visited multiple markets, and even went to look at a few greenhouses to see what Hawaiian farmers were doing during this time of year. His dedication and passion for local, sustainable food is contagious.

As a greenhouse farmer, Rick is able to get a nice year-round harvest of produce in the mild climate of the Pacific Northwest. He has few pest problems, and those that he does have, he tries to take of care of through his own continuing education and natural remedies. Rick has been farming long enough to see the ups and downs of farmers markets around Oregon, and is excited about the increasing popularity of locally-focused food.

Jeff Falen, of Persephone Farms echoed similar excitement. Jeff has been farming the same piece of land for 26 years. He uses greenhouses for starts, but chooses to grow all of Persephone’s produce out in the open. While he’s still currently harvesting Brussels sprouts, kale, and collards from the fields, he prioritizes most of his time for getting ready for the next season. This involves performing routine maintenance on his equipment, and cleaning up after the previous year. He is also busy keeping up with all of the paperwork that goes into being a small business owner; taxes, sales, and identifying problems and solutions from the previous year are all a part of the gig.

While Persephone may not be at the market during the off-season, there is still plenty growing. Jeff’s sustainable farming practices include growing cover crops of legumes on land that has yet to be planted for the year. This has not only led to a higher yield for Persephone, but they have made his soil happy, healthy, and full of organic matter. Since his first crop of corn in 1985 (which he calls a “disaster”), Jeff has increased the organic matter in his soil by 300%. What this translates to for you and me is food that is grown organically, in soil that is rich and full of nutrients: better soil = better food.

At the end of each conversation, I asked both Rick and Jeff what kind of advice they would give a novice backyard farmer, as residents of Portland are increasingly taking more and more control of their food lives. Both farmers said the same thing, “start small”.

“It’s easy to get overwhelmed,” Jeff from Persephone Farms said, “start small, and focus on soil health.” It may take a while to get the soil you want, but when it’s healthy, you’ll get the results you want.

So whether you are toying with the idea of growing your own lettuce greens this year, or going all out and trading grass space for raised beds, have fun doing it. Get dirt under your nails, and blisters on your hands. Not only will you harvest a delicious reward, but you’ll also have a new-found appreciation for all of the hard work our local farmers put in to provide Portlanders with the freshest, most delicious and nutritious produce imaginable.