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These Women Farmers See Their Fields as an Organic Classroom, Part 2

The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement.  Read Part 1 of the Vibrant Valley Farm profile.

Now two years into their farm, both women admit it’s been a challenge, but both also express complete happiness with their decision.

“It’s hard, but I love this life,” Elaine said. “You eat what you grow. It’s very creative. It’s outside. I’m my own boss. It’s really nice to come up with our own schedule. We have so much fun working together. We take time off to make sure it’s still fun, but we just laugh a lot. The best job I’ve had thus far, for sure.”

“It is fun, but it’s also important to be able to be okay with the lonely time,” explained Kara. “I mean if you come from the city and you’ve got a lot of energy, you have to be able to step back and realize that the lonely time is a beautiful thing. And our culture has none of that… it’s like, next screen, next screen, next screen… it’s so intense. This helps you shed a lot of that. And another thing the farm teaches you is letting go. I’m getting into some philosophy over here, but it’s true. It teaches you about your life. Your relationship with yourself. Your relationship with everyone else. Your relationship with the land, and that you cannot be attached to anything.”

Elaine continues, “We always talk about the mandala of it. You work so hard to create this patchwork quilt of food… this artwork basically. And then it’s turned into the ground. It doesn’t disappear, of course, but you have to start all over. But each year is a fresh start, and you’re ready because by Spring, you miss the smell of the dirt and that righteous tiredness that comes with all the Spring preparation. You’re excited to get back at it. And that’s why we take winters off, which is super important for us. I think people who do year-round farming are badasses, but for me, I know that would mean burnout if I didn’t have winter off.”

“Being able to make that choice is nice,” adds Kara. “I mean there are people all over the world who do this type of work and don’t have a choice about taking time off. But I don’t have to worry about making sure my village has broccoli. I just have to make sure a couple people have broccoli. And we’re getting our farm systems perfected, so we don’t have any problem getting that broccoli or whatever to our customers.”

Both Kara and Elaine are clear about their goals, which remain the same from the day they started two years ago. Make the farm work first, then build in the educational component. Making the farm work means they had to begin as a CSA farm because it allowed them to begin farming even though they had extremely limited start-up capital. However, since launching their CSA, which they continue to grow, Vibrant Valley has begun acquiring additional customers from both the restaurant and grocery store ranks. Kara credits these gains to their outgoing personalities.

“We’re good at going out and meeting people and pushing our products,” explained Kara. “That’s our strength. I mean we could sit here and feel sorry for ourselves because we’re not selling enough, or we could say I’m tired and I want chocolate but instead I’m going to go hustle shishito peppers because we’ve got a ton of them. So we’re actively out selling our product, and at the same time we’re perfecting our systems, determining what works and what doesn’t, and figuring out what’s sustainable.”

Both women agree that when they started, it was farm management they were least confident about. But the business gains they’ve made with their farm have brought them to a point where they will be comfortable as they begin to expand their vision.

“A big part of our original goal was to teach,” said Elaine. “But we didn’t want to start that program without a viable business. Bringing ten to twenty young people out here simply would not work if we don’t know what we were doing. But now we’re at the point where we can begin serious talks about how to add in education, so we’re working on incorporating that element of it.”

Step one will be figuring out what the community needs and how Vibrant Valley would play into that. And they will need to determine what demographic to work with. Being city kids, they feel especially connected to urban youth, so that’s a distinct possibility. But their travels and experiences have made Elaine and Kara aware of food system injustices throughout society, so they anticipate looking at underserved populations everywhere, which could take them in a variety of different directions.

They anticipate that their search for educational partners will begin in Portland, and an area where Kara has extensive experience and relationships with a variety of schools and organizations.

“Once we determine who our allies are and who we can work with, then we figure out how our farm can fit with therapy or job training or whatever we decide to focus on,” explained Elaine. “Because based on our experience, we’ve seen how a farm can be everything. Beyond growing plants, farming teaches marketing, accounting, even floral design or event planning. There’s so much that fits in a farm, and as educators, we use this as our stage. But the final program will depend on the age and background of the population we’re working with.”

Lofty plans. But will they work? The combination of energy, pragmatism, and passion are difficult to bet against.

“It’s important to not get caught up in the idealistic young farmer mentality of just needing to do something and not worrying about making money,” said Kara. “You can definitely make money, and, in fact, you have to in order to keep it going. It’s just a matter of figuring out what that looks like. And part of that is letting go of what doesn’t work and embracing what does. And we can’t just run ourselves into the ground. That’s the martyrdom thing you have to avoid. In order to farm or teach well, you have to stay fresh. That’s the only way it will work.”

Elaine sums the conversation up with a look into the future. “I think I will always work with food, in one way or another. Food is everywhere. It could be on this land, on this farm. Or it could be elsewhere. I simply can’t guarantee where. But for me personally, I want to work with young people and food, no matter what.”

Get your copy of Planting a Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Store.

Author note: Since being interviewed for this profile, Kara and Elaine have relocated their farm to Sauvie’s Island, an agricultural community located just north of Portland, Ore.

Photo credit: All photos by Lisa D. Holmes. (Top) Vibrant Valley Farm owners Elaine Walker and Kara Gilbert. (Middle) At the head of rows of squash, basil and peppers sits Vibrant Valleys operations building. (Bottom) Elaine and Kara have successfully diversified their crops and now focus a great deal of energy on growing flowers for both retailers and CSA members.

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