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Getting to Know the Farmers at Winter Green Farm, Part 1

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.

The farmers who own Winter Green Farm in Oregon

Jack Gray, Mary Jo Wade, Wali Via, and Jabrila Via came together at Winter Green Farm the way tributaries meet and combine on their way to something larger than themselves. In doing so, they helped cut a path that many of today’s new farmers are stepping into. There are a lot of ways to tell this story, but I think I’ll follow the sun west and begin back east in Atlanta, Georgia.

Wali Via was looking for something when, as a teenager, he ran away from his Georgia home. A lot of people were looking during the late sixties and early seventies. But regardless of the inciting incident, his search began in an intentional community (aka commune) in the Georgia countryside, and it was there he discovered an activity that would become the central element in his journey. That activity was organic farming.

Wali spent ten months discovering agriculture in that Georgia community before resuming his travels and ultimately settling in another intentional community near Deadwood, Oregon. The eight and a half years he lived and worked in the Deadwood community brought to fruition all of the seeds he had carried with him from his Georgia roots. He began to understand the nature of biodiversity and the rudiments of biodynamic farming. He also met the love of his life, Jabrila. And together, they had a child and began a family of their own.

It takes very little time when talking with Jabrila Via to know she is a perfect match for Wali. A fellow seeker from Menlo Park, California, Jabrila embodies the metaphysical influences of people who cherish the spiritual connectedness of life and wish to share the beauty they see. But in Jabrila’s case, metaphysics should not be confused with something overly ethereal or anything other than pretty damn strong. She has earned her position in Oregon’s organic farming community with a lot of work over a lot of years.

Not long after the birth of their first child, Wali and Jabrila left their intentional community to create a homestead of their own several miles down the road on a worn out farm they were able to lease from a friend. They both talk fondly of the experience, but neither mince words about what kind of a struggle it was. With virtually no money, Wali was forced to find work where he could, either in the woods or occasionally fighting fires. Which left Jabrila home alone with first one, then two little girls.

"I’d get up in the morning with a three-year-old, a new baby, and a cow to milk. My three-year-old learned to milk a quarter by herself. She was fantastic and she’d just sit there and do it. Then I’d milk the rest of the cow while I nursed the baby, and of course the cat and the calf wanted milk, so it was a full experience. There were greenhouses to water. Starts and transplants. Things had to happen and it was me and the girls, so we’d make games of it. The big projects waited for Wali to come home.”

It’s hard to make progress when there’s too much to do, and by 1985 Wali and Jabrila knew they were at a decision point. Either they were going to spend the rest of their lives struggling to make something of the rundown farm they were attempting to rebuild, because it was going to be slow going, or they could look for another situation that might lead to more opportunities for them and their children. That led them to pay a visit to Jack Gray and Mary Jo Wade, another young farm couple they had met during the original formation meetings of Oregon Tilth.

Jack and Mary Jo had their own homestead near Noti, Oregon, which has grown to become the Winter Green Farm we know today. But when it was founded in 1980, it was just two idealistic 20-somethings chasing a dream they were struggling to realize. Regardless, they weren’t about to give up on it… that wasn’t in their makeup.

A field of cruciferous vegetables at Winter Green Farm in Oregon

If one imagines what a wise and experienced farmer might be like, I suspect they’d come up with someone akin to Jack Gray. Jack’s journey to an Oregon homestead was nothing like Wali’s, but it was every bit as interesting.

Jack was born and raised in Portland, son of a businessman who happened to own a ranch in eastern Oregon, and that’s where Jack “was involved for a chunk of time from high school on.” It’s where he loved to be. Outdoors. Riding horses and raising cattle. Who would have guessed that he’d travel to Middletown, Connecticut, to attend Wesleyan University and study geology. But I’m sure he’s glad he did, because that’s where he met his very own Jersey girl.

When Mary Jo met Jack, she knew nothing of farming beyond the garden her father grew in their backyard, but she was ready to follow Jack west when college came to an end. “I didn’t mind coming to the West Coast. I’d finished my economics degree, and I was ready to go somewhere. My boyfriend was out here so I came out here. I worked in Portland the first couple years while Jack worked on the ranch in eastern Oregon. As far as homesteading went, I was as idealistic as everyone else. It turned out to be a pretty fun adventure. And I guess it worked out because we’re the only people I know who have had the same address since 1980.”

Before launching their homesteading plans, Jack took a job as business manager of a new magazine called Small Farmers Journal which actually had its own small farm. Jack and Mary Jo moved onto the Journal farm and if Jack had any reservations about farming prior to that, the magazine erased them. Readers of the Journal can vouch for the fount of agricultural romance packed in each issue. The Journal even had it’s own draft horses. At that time, the Journal was based in Junction City, Oregon, so they began looking for their own land in that area and settled at their current place near Noti.

Jack and Mary Jo’s homestead had a stronger financial foundation than Wali and Jabrila’s, but homesteading is homesteading, and regardless of what you start with, a steady source of income is necessary to sustain it.

“As we got started we were going to raise raspberries and be a dairy,” said Mary Jo. “Maybe sell cheese. And do it all with draft horses. We were pretty young. We had a lot of ideas.”

Click here to read Part 2.

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

(Top) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Winter Green Farm owners (from left) Jack Gray, Chris Overbaugh, Shannon Overbaugh, Wali Via, Mary Jo Wade, Jabrila Via.

(Bottom) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: A field of cruciferous vegetables at today's Winter Green Farm.


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