Minto Island Growers Seek Balance As Their Farm Expands, Part 1

Reader Contribution by John Clark Vincent
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The following profile has been excerpted fromPlanting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement.

The scene when we pulled up to the Minto Island Growers’ farm stand was one of happy activity. A food cart was prepping meals, several picnic tables were filled with diners, a couple of farm hands were planting and watering flower starts, and a cashier was adding up the total for a woman buying vegetables. I was convinced we had arrived at a successful farm, because there was simply too much going on for it not to be so.

Chris Jenkins and Elizabeth Miller are the farmers making all this activity possible. They’ve been farming for seven years now, and they’ve jumped wholeheartedly into virtually every opportunity that’s come their way. In fact, there’s so much going on that I wonder how they manage to get it all done… and whether the workload has any impact on their outlook.

When asked, both express confidence they’ll be doing this work for the rest of their lives, and when they take the time to think about it, they’re pretty sure they still love it. But they are tired. Mentally, physically, emotionally. Seven years of running as fast as they can to take advantage of every door that opened has taken a toll. And now, as we sit at a small wooden table in the corner of a metal warehouse large enough to park a few trucks in, they almost seem relieved to have a reason to sit down and reflect for awhile.

When they got started as Minto Island Growers back in 2008, they were carrying the ideas and ideals they had developed during some fairly radical ecology and economic studies abroad coupled with a one-season internship at a free-thinking California farm. But it’s not like they were coming into this adventure blind. Elizabeth grew up on this farm, and in her mind, she had never really left. She came back most summers during college to help out her dad, who specialized in native plants, traditional poplar breeding, and mint leaf production. In a sense, Elizabeth’s path to having her own farm was more like taking a sabbatical for a couple of years, during which she found her own style and developed a context for agriculture that came from the world beyond her father’s farm.

Though Chris didn’t have any direct ag experience growing up, he spent as much time as possible exploring the Ohio countryside of his family’s 150-acre country home, where his physician father escaped the pressures of his profession. Chris became enamored with nature to the point of eventually studying biogeochemistry in college, doing urban ecology work in New York City, and working for a California-based restoration and living architecture firm that used plants functionally within the built environment. But as he found himself spending more time in front of a computer than outdoors, he knew he needed to come at his love of plants from a different direction.

It was in this context that Elizabeth and Chris came together to spend that single season at the California farm doing something completely new to both of them. Growing vegetables. They fell in love with it. And vegetables, it turns out, more or less defined the launch of their own farming operation.

“When we got started here, there were opportunities for us to carry on some of the work my dad was moving away from, like the native plant nursery,” said Elizabeth. “But we were more passionate about vegetable production. We both just love growing vegetables. And especially for me, it was also about bringing to Salem, which is my hometown, the community value that fresh organic vegetables represent. Organics are thriving in Portland and Corvallis and Eugene, but there aren’t a lot of organic farms in this area. And here we are with this large land mass ten minutes from downtown. We saw this farm as a huge community asset just waiting to be developed.”

It didn’t take long for Chris and Elizabeth to get a vegetable-based CSA up and running. As they were kicking off their own CSA, Winter Green Farm, an established biodynamic farm located in Noti, was wanting to eliminate it’s Salem drop. Picking up that drop enabled Minto Island to begin with a substantial foundation they’ve just continued to build on.

Part of what they’ve been building is the farm’s relationship with the community of Salem. To help with that, they added a farm stand where locals could pick up a CSA share or simply buy vegetables and fruit. The stand also provided a base for the farm’s u-pick blueberry operation. And though the farm stand was performing okay on its own, Chris and Elizabeth felt it needed a bigger drawing factor, so they decided to add a food cart that could provide meals for anyone wishing to come out to the farm.

From CSA to u-pick to farm stand to food cart. It seems like these young farmers haven’t been able to stop themselves from continually looking for ways to make each aspect of their operation more successful. And this is all on top of the “other opportunities” they took over from Elizabeth’s father, which included a native plant nursery that supplies various environment restoration projects, a poplar breeding operation that provides plant stock to an eastern Oregon timber operation, and a business growing mint plugs for Oregon mint leaf producers.

“To be honest, a sense of responsibility has driven a lot of what I’ve done on the farm,” said Elizabeth, “but I’m starting to understand that no matter how much of a strong ethic and value system there is behind a dream, you have to be able to live a balanced life in order to fulfill that dream. And that’s very challenging in agriculture.”

“And there’s also the tea,” injected Chris. At which point Elizabeth visibly drooped. In recounting for me the multitude of businesses they’re trying to juggle, she had forgotten the one that is currently generating the most buzz and about which they both are most excited. Half an acre of 24-year-old tea plants.

“Elizabeth’s father, Rob, planted the tea in the late 80s with a partner,” explained Chris. “Not much happened with it initially, but we’re now working with a processor from Chehalis, Washington. He went to China to learn a very specific style of oolong processing at a village there and is really passionate about it. We’ve been through a number of trials and now we’ve got a product we feel like we can really stand behind. But, of course, developing this marketing opportunity doesn’t do much to solve the problem of doing too much.”

Elizabeth adds, “The economics of the tea project are really challenging because all the tea leaves have to be picked by hand, and there’s no cultural expertise here for that. On the other hand, this opportunity is simply too unique and too promising to walk away from. So the logistics and the work load is something we’ll have to continue to work on.”

Click here to read Part 2.

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Top photo by Lisa D. Holmes. Elizabeth Miller and Chris Jenkins, owners of Minto Island Growers, standing in their tea plantation.

Middle photo by Lisa D. Holmes. Native plants were part of the farm operation Elizabeth and Chris took over from Elizabeth’s father.

Bottom photo by Lisa D. Holmes. A food cart with prep and seating area was added to the Minto Island farm stand. 

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