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These Women Farmers See Their Fields as an Organic Classroom, Part 1


Elaine Walker and Kara Gilbert met as freshmen at the University of Oregon. Both city kids – Elaine from San Francisco and Kara from Portland – they hit it off immediately and began a friendship that would enable them, years later, to reunite and begin building a new type of farm in rural Yamhill County, Oregon. The foundation for this new adventure was built through shared interests and experiences which began during those early days in Eugene.

During college, in addition to their urban roots, both young women shared a passion for helping people in need. They pursued interests in social justice, in creating opportunities within underserved communities, and in educating disadvantaged urban youth. They also both happened to enroll in a university course called Urban Farm, which taught them how to grow vegetables, exposed them to our country’s ever worsening food justice issues, and allowed them to discover just how much they enjoyed working outdoors.

The Urban Farm instructors encouraged all their students to participate in the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) program, in which people exchange labor for room and board on organic farms around the world, because doing so enables students to learn how organic farms in differing cultures and environments approach sustainable agriculture. Though not together, both Elaine and Kara stepped on this path.

While still an undergrad, Kara began her studies abroad in Italy, working on three different farms… “My goal was to work with three farm families and have them all be really different,” she explained. “I was able to spend time learning from one couple who had a bit more experience, and then stayed with two younger couples who were just really going for it. Everything about that experience was cool, and after getting my undergrad degree I wanted to continue to travel, so I did the same thing in South America at a permaculture center in northern Patagonia.”

Argentina was followed by Hawaii, where Kara spent time working at a special farm that offered a permaculture therapy program. Young people would go to the farm and work the land as way of creating change in their lives, or as Kara says, “It was basically a place to work out a lot of their problems, and it worked. That experience was inspiring for me.”

After Hawaii, Kara returned to Portland to attend graduate school at Portland State University in a program called Leadership in Ecology, Culture, and Learning (now Leadership for Sustainability Education). And while she studied garden education in that program, she was running a sixth and seventh grade garden program at Lane Middle School in Portland, and continuing her youth therapy work. A three year stint at a working CSA farm following grad school brought her to the point of wanting to begin her own program on a working farm.

Naturally, Kara called her best friend Elaine to see if she wanted to take the leap with her, because she knew that Elaine had been following a similar track.

After majoring in journalism – “I thought it might help change the world if I could get better information out to people.” – she found herself working in an office and not feeling good about it. So she left the office world behind and went to the permaculture center in Patagonia based on Kara’s recommendation. While there, she was able to complete some projects that Kara had begun during her stay, and more importantly, she cemented her desire to work outdoors and learn to grow things.

“After WWOOFing, I went home to San Francisco and became a garden educator,” said Elaine. “Initially I was working in Oakland with elementary schools and after school programs. And then I spent a summer working at Pie Ranch in Pescadero.”

Pie Ranch is a well known educational farm that works to bridge the urban/rural divide by bringing urban high school students to the country to learn about organic food and how to grow it. Pie Ranch also actively participates in the process of training a new generation of farmers who will work to integrate farms into the larger community and the web of nature.

“I soaked up as much knowledge and experience as I could at Pie Ranch,” explained Elaine, “and then after spending some time back in San Francisco at a local garden, I enrolled in an agroecological school in Santa Cruz called the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems. A lot of people who run CSAs, especially in California, have gone through that program. We ran a 75 member CSA, so it was very much a working farm, and it was great to get that hands-on experience. Then as I was finishing up that program, I knew I wanted to farm, but I wasn’t sure where to go. That’s when Kara called and said she had found some land in Oregon and that we should start a farm, and eventually, an educational program. So I moved up here, and we started Vibrant Valley Farm.”

Click here to Read Part 2.

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

Ed. 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.

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