There was a time in our nation’s not so distant past where deciding what to eat for dinner was as simple as asking your mother. Pork chops with applesauce. A side of green beans. Cherry cobbler for dessert. Was it good for us? Of course it was. Because mom canned the beans and foley milled the apples. Dad picked the cherries out of the back yard, and the chops came from the local butcher. But more importantly? Because mom said so.
Unfortunately, mom lost the battle over the dinner menu when “nutrtionism” took control of our tables in the 1960s, and real food slowly began to disappear from grocery shelves. Rather than using instinct and common sense to guide our decisions (we are, in fact, highly-evolved animals equipped to do so), we began to examine food in terms of its nutritional and chemical constituents. Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and In Defense of Food) explains that such a reductionist mentality is risky at best. Let alone, delicious. Plagued by obesity, hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer, many argue this mindset has also left us one of the least healthy nations in the world.
Thankfully, it appears that our minds and mouths have finally turned back to the dinner table. And as unfortunate as the recent economic downturn may have been, it was not without its upsides. In a penny-pinching backlash, Americans concerned about globalization and the destruction of our natural resources, connected with a burgeoning rural nostalgia and reclaimed their self-reliance. For the first time in decades, moms and dads began to pickle and preserve, tend a backyard garden, keep bees and chickens. Because growing your own food isn’t just simple and cost effective, it’s also nutritious and comes with a low carbon footprint.
“Excuse me, waitress, can you tell us more about the chicken?” It’s a question that peppers restaurant menu conversation across the country. All Portlandia quips aside, we the people want to know what’s in our food, where it came from, and we’re not afraid anymore to demand it. Milwaukie residents are no exception.
And so it came to be that on a recent Sunday morning, I found myself with a couple dozen like-minded citizens biking a ten mile loop in and around the city to visit six of its most successful urban farms and community gardens. Whole families showed up for the trek, armed with helmets, CamelBaks, and trail mix. Some were experienced cyclists. Others (like me) borrowed a bike for the journey, and had all but forgotten basics like how to signal for a turn, or how not fly head-over-handle bars when you break. One woman even made it through the entire ride barefoot.
The ride—organized by Bike Milwaukie co-leaders Matt Menely and Greg Baartz-Bowman—is one of many such monthly and semi-monthly outings that “encourages folks to get on their bikes, explore their town, and meet with friends and neighbors in a causal manner”. Last year, the Harvest Farm Tour was the group’s most popular. And for good reason: the three hour jaunt is a feast for the senses.
During the course of the morning, our little pack of cyclists ventured off road to Jean’s Urban Forest Farm where we learned that orange-bellied salamanders and four species of birds which have been absent for over twenty years, are making a recent comeback thanks to the responsible stewardship of their historic land.
At Rising Stone Farm/Lovena Farm, I stalked a rooster, followed a black farm cat down a row of hearty kale, and sampled tulsi (Indian holy basil) and borage flowers from their medicinal garden right off the plant. At the Growers Alliance, we discovered what it takes to connect beginning and refugee urban farmers with consumers. And at the Urban Farm Center, we saw that a half-acre in the city could yield enough food for twelve families, the Arleta Library Bakery & Cafe, Toast restaurant, and Milwaukie Kitchen & Wine.
Though I cannot speak for my two wheeled co-pilots, I’m fairly certain that the lot of us ended the ride not only inspired to cultivate our own green spaces, but also famished. Our thankful stomachs concluded the journey at Milwaukie Farmers Market, where I promptly found my way to a half pound of ripe peaches, a cup of locally-roasted coffee, and a handcrafted wood fired pizza made with direct-from-farm tomatoes and leeks.
That evening, visions of hops and garlic danced in my head. But before I got too swept away with romantic ideals of turning over the plot of bark dust adjacent to my driveway, I came to my senses. Cultivation takes more than just good intentions and a healthy appetite. Commitment, determination, and serious elbow grease are as essential to its success as the weather. No kidding.
Donna Smith, The Urban Farm Center’s plucky leader, turned an overgrown backyard at the edge of the city into one of the most impressive backyard farms I’ve ever seen. But she didn’t plant forty tomatoes, pear trees, apple and fig by resting on her laurels.
“She doesn’t see the house until the sun goes down!” joked one man. “It’s true,” Donna chuckled, “I go in when the chickens go to bed.”
Couldn’t make this year’s Bike Milwaukie ride? Mark your calendar now for next August. In the meantime, here’s a sampling of the farms and community gardens we were fortunate enough to visit.
Growers Alliance Empowering our community to grow healthy food
A Partnership between Grow Portland and Mercy Corps Northwest, which connects beginning and refugee urban farmers with consumers through Portland area farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). For more information about Growers Alliance: http://www.growportland.org/growers-alliance
For more information about the Mercy Corps Northwest Agriculture Project: http://www.mercycorpsnw.org/what-we-do/refugee-farming/
Jean’s Urban Forest Farm An ideal setting for ecological and place-based learning
A small historic family farm off SE Johnson Creek Blvd. where students and teachers can learn how nature and agriculture work together to support life-sustaining systems that benefit both the land and its inhabitants. The farm recently added a yurt provided by Mother Earth School, which will offer a nature-focused school program and summer camps.
For more information about Jean’s Urban Farm programs, events and classes: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Myriad Growers Blessed with the opportunity to cultivate and steward the land known as JEAN’s Urban Forest Farm
An urban farming partnership dedicated to nourishing the health of the land and community through the use of holistic horticultural practices, education and service. For more information about the Myriad Growers CSA and Farm-to-School education programs: http://www.greentowns.com/initiative/community-supported-agriculture/myriad-growers-llc-portland-or
Rising Stone Farm/Lovena Farm Healing and empowering the land, community and our selves
An urban collective of farmers that distributes vegetables, fruit and medicinal herbs to individuals through its CSA and to Portland area restaurants. Rising Stone is committed to natural methods of growing, including biodynamics and bio-intensive farming. For information about the CSA or to learn about volunteer opportunities: www.risingstonefarm.com
Campbell Elementary Community Garden A place for community members of all ages who share a common interest in organic gardening
A 4,000 square foot community garden located in the Hector Campbell Neighborhood, adjacent to Campbell Elementary School. The garden rents 28 plots, and reserves an additional four where volunteers grow crops for sharing. Since its inception, the Harvest Sharing Garden has donated over 150 lbs of food.For more information about volunteering, or to make a donation: http://www.campbellgarden.org/
Your Backyard Farmer & The Urban Farm Center We do the work, you enjoy the healthful harvest!
Your Backyard Farmer helps create a balanced and responsible relationship between people, the food they eat, and the farmers who grow it. The program provides individuals with custom-built organic method farms in their own backyard, and includes weekly pest inspection/weeding/planting visits and a weekly harvest basket at your back door. For more information about the program: http://www.yourbackyardfarmer.com/
Bike Milwaukie Building community and encouraging advocacy in Milwaukie on self propelled wheels
Matt Menely and Greg Baartz-Bowman co-lead this effort, which offers monthly or semi-monthly rides in and around Milwaukie. Bike Milwaukie
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