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Getting to Know the Farmers at Winter Green Farm, Part 2

My new book, Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement, spotlights 18 Oregon farms and farm supporters who are committed to a return to ecologically sound agricultural practices. This group reflects the diversity of people, both young and old, who are reshaping our state’s food system and reclaiming our right to eat well. In their stories you will hear how they came to be where they are, learn something about the challenges they face, and share their happiness at the successes they’ve enjoyed thus far. The following profile, which has been excerpted from Planting A Future, features one of Oregon’s oldest and most successful biodynamic farms. Read Getting to Know the Farmers at Winter Green Farm, Part 1.

Cattle relaxing at Winter Green Farm

“We were really naive about how to make it all work,” said Jack Gray. “We were pretty grounded in the environmental movement and we had a lot of things in our head. But within a couple of years we got rid of the draft horses. When we looked at the prospect of becoming a viable farm and actually making some money, we realized we had to do something different. As we looked around, we noticed that a new environmentally friendly, alternative form of agriculture was just starting to bud a little bit, so we tried to get involved with that.”

So they began attending the early organizing meetings of Willamette Valley Tilth (which would evolve to become Oregon Tilth). They also participated with another local effort called the Organically Grown Co-op (now Organically Grown Company) which was in the process of kicking off. As they ventured out, what they discovered was that many things involved with food and agriculture were starting to change. Diverse activity everywhere. So many possibilities.

Which brings us back to that meeting with Wali and Jabrila Via. Two couples, both convinced they could accomplish more by working together with someone else than they could do alone. There was no intention to do a deal when they all sat down. They were just two families getting together to share ideas and maybe ask for a little advice.

Wali recalls, “We just came over to talk to them and after awhile they asked if we would consider working here, and we thought that sounded like a good opportunity so we said okay. Then we worked here and we did a contract with them that first year for vegetable starts. That’s my recollection of it, and that was 1985.”

It wasn’t all roses though. After their years farming in the Deadwood community, and another five years working to build a life on their own farm, Jabrila didn’t want to leave it all behind. Turns out there was a silver lining waiting to be discovered.

“I believe the thing that really changed us over to doing something different was that Wali never got to see his kids,” says Jabrila. “I didn’t want to come here at first, although I’m very happy here and it’s my life, but I didn’t want to leave our farm in Deadwood. I loved our life there. But when the girls woke up that first morning here and they asked ‘where’s Dad?’ I said ‘look out the window.’ And he was out there harvesting cauliflower and they were like, ‘is this where he works?’ and they ran out and saw him, and I was like, okay, okay, I’m over myself.”

Thus began a partnership that would yield one of the best loved organic farms in Oregon, as well as one of the few biodynamic farms of any size. That’s not surprising when considering the spiritual and idealistic roots these four farmers share. For those who aren’t familiar with biodynamic practices, it kind of takes an organic commitment and kicks it up a few notches.

A biodynamic farm is viewed as one holistic organism. To the extent possible, no external inputs are brought in. Instead, all inputs such as fertilizer and compost are generated on the farm, which means that both plants and animals are raised in harmony, and all of the farm’s processes are intricately connected. A healthy piece of earth is home to a diversity of plants, both those we call crops and those we call weeds. Both insect pests and insect beneficials have their role to play. The soil needs to eat and drink and breathe to become supple and strong.

There’s a complex science behind biodynamic agriculture that was founded by a man named Rudolf Steiner. But if you just sit back and think about it, a biodynamic farm is pretty darn close to the classic, old-time family farm with cows and pigs and chickens and goats and grains and vegetables and fruit and pastures and all the rest of it. Throughout history those farms managed to produce food as self-contained operations that were handed down through the generations. They didn’t depend on chemicals, poisons, or even organic imports being brought onto the farm the way modern industrial agriculture does. They depended on healthy soil and diverse natural ecosystems. And anytime those principles were cast aside, the land perished and became barren.

That’s one of the truly beautiful things about Winter Green Farm. It has taken an idealized notion and, through science, management, marketing and dedication, has translated that notion into a commercially viable agricultural reality.

Basil to supply Winter Green Farm's pesto business

Another important part of the Winter Green Farm story is that it has served as a training ground for hundreds of future farmers and contributors to the organic agriculture industry. Some for just a season or two, but others stay for many years. Two of those long-time employees recently became the third couple to join the farm’s ownership group. After fifteen years of commitment to Winter Green Farm, Chris and Shannon Overbaugh became co-owners in 2009.

Chris and Shannon exemplify the approach that Jack believes works best for people who want to become farmers.  “You really have to work for other farmers first,” he explains. “Learn and see what it takes, and then build a plan from that. A lot of people are homesteading these days, and homesteading is great, but that’s not really the best way to break in to farming anymore. Also, I think there’s a lot of potential for cooperative farms, but the main thing is that there’s just a lot more to learn about organics now than there used to be. Less margin for error. More professionalism is required. It’s one thing to grow it, but it’s another one to produce a product that you’re able to consistently sell.

“And I suppose that it’s important to keep an open mind. In the long run I think agriculture will just keep evolving. Commercial agriculture has definitely moved in the direction of organic. And unfortunately, organic has moved a bit in the commercial direction. To a certain degree, it may need to. But the question of scale is a central issue. Can you really scale up organic and have it work in the same way… the holistic way it should work. Large farms do have some incredible advantages economically, but in terms of where things should be going… I’m a firm believer in local, and that’s not going to change.”

Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement.

(Top) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes. Cattle provide vital nutrients for Winter Green Farm's sophisticated biodynamic compost operations.

(Bottom) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes. In addition to providing a wide range of organic vegetables for CSAs, farmers markets, and wholesalers, Winter Green Farm grows basil (shown here) for its pesto operation.


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