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Our Table Cooperative revisits our farming roots

Our Table in Sherwood participates in Oregon Farm Loop to encourage others to get involved with their local agricultural systems


TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Louis Kemp, a vegetable farmer at Our Table Cooperative farm, uses a walking tractor to grind up produce in a greenhouse in Sherwood.On a rainy Tuesday morning, 25-year-old Louis Kemp is staying dry in a hoop house, using a push tractor to grind up produce remnants. He’s working deliberately, moving slow and steady. But before long, he’s out in the rain, giving some attention to the surrounding lawns.

“It’s more a lifestyle choice than anything. I just wanted to be outside. I like being tired at the end of the day; I get to make a living while improving the land and the soil,” the vegetable farmer said. “It’s just something about physical work — but it’s not just physical labor. There’s so much you have to think about, and this is kind of the best of both worlds in terms of (using) your brain and your body.”

Kemp is one of about 13 full-time workers at Our Table, 13390 S.W. Morgan Road in Sherwood, a cooperative farm that uses collective person power in an attempt to address the food crisis happening in the United States, said Marketing and Sales Director Gianna Banducci. The land, totaling 59 acres, was purchased in 2011 by Narendra Varma and his wife, and fully adopted the cooperative mentality in 2013 when many of the workers, including Kemp and Banducci, came on board. TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Gianna Banducci, marketing sales director for Our Table Cooperative farm, walks by the front of the grocery and kitchen of the farm in Sherwood.

Among those to join initially was vegetable and flower gardner Karen Flowers. Like many people working on the farm, this career path was not Flowers’ initial choice. She grew up in the midwest, where her only familiarity with vegetables were the ones that came in cans.

“I hated vegetables. ... As a kid, I literally remember fights where I would sit at the table and my mom would tell me to eat my vegetables and I would not. So this is full circle for me, because now I think they’re the greatest thing in the world. If I don’t have vegetables in my day, something’s wrong,” the 46-year-old farmer said. “I just really developed a passion for helping people get connected to the value of food. When you grow it, you really appreciate it, and it tastes so much better when it’s local and it’s fresh. It’s a completely different experience.”

Introducing people to this experience is part of the mission of Oregon Farm Loop, which identifies more than 60 agriculture-centered businesses and organizations for families to tour during the spring and summer. Our Table is on the list this year, helping people build a relationship with food that for many no longer exists, or at least doesn’t exist the way it did in the past.

The future of farming

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Eric Harvey, an employee at Our Table Cooperative farm, weeds a row with a tool in a greenhouse in Sherwood.According to Varma, there are about 2 million farmers in the U.S., farmers who currently average 68 years old. Further, some 400 million acres of farmland will shift ownership in the coming years as the farmers who own them age out. In an industry that used to pass land down generationally, this is rarely the case anymore, said Varma, 47. But contrary to other industries that come and go as people’s interest wanes, food can’t simply be forgotten.

“It’s kind of a unique, historical moment. It’s the largest transfer of farmland since white people came to this country,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us as a society to say, ‘All right. What do we want the future of food to look like?’ Is it just more consolidation of larger farms under corporate control, or is it a different kind of agriculture?”

For Varma and the farmers, producers and workers who make Our Table possible, the idea of smaller-scale, community farming rings true. It’s the idea of actually knowing where food comes from, knowing the people who raise it and them knowing their customers. It also means understanding food as something beyond what’s on the shelves at a grocery store.

“Today, food production is essentially outsourced. When we’re talking about plastic stuff at Walmart, we go ‘Oh! It shouldn’t be outsourced because it takes away manufacturing jobs.’ Well, the same thing applies to food,” Varma said. “We’ve outsourced most of our food production to people that we never meet, see or care about. Little plastic things I can kind of do without — I’m going to get really cranky if food isn’t available.”

With the majority of U.S. farmers due to retire soon, outsourcing less and keeping food in the community more will require a new generation of farmers.

“We need to eat, and we need to eat a lot better than we’re eating,” said vegetable farmer Eric Harvey. “I think really educating people about that and empowering people to actually reconnect with their food and the people who produce it locally is a really big barrier to get more people to farm, and creating a market for people like us to actually sell our product.”

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Karen Flowers of Tualatin is positioned between L.A. Hybrid Lilies in the propagation house at Our Table Cooperative farm in Sherwood.

A cooperative model

Even though it’s a completely necessary and important industry, farming is also a risky business. When unpredictable elements such as weather play a huge role in the success of a crop, it’s tough to place the blame for failure — if it comes — on the farmer. Further, profit margins are relatively low, especially compared to industries such as high tech, where the monetary rewards for a single person can be substantial.

“By collectivizing their resources, they essentially collectivize the risk,” said Varma. “Here, the risk is much higher, the margins are low, so it makes far more sense to collectivize the risk and share the reward. That’s the reason why in agriculture, co-ops have existed for a very, very long time. I mean, it’s the largest co-op sector there is.”

Being a co-op means that a single farmer doesn’t necessarily have to be a business person, communications manager and entrepreneur all rolled into one. Instead, these duties can be split between people who care about the message and end result, but are good at different aspects of bringing it to fruition.

“You’re forced to kind of be a jack of all trades. You have to know not only the growing processes, but also how are you selling your product? How are you delivering your product? You have to be a one-person show,” said Banducci, marketing and sales director. “But the co-op, we distribute all of those responsibilities and build these independent relationships where we’re kind of in it together and taking out those middle players who are taking a bigger piece of the pie away from the farmer on one end and the customer on the other.”

Beyond that, farming can be a lonely business, said Harvey, but the co-op allows for both mental and physical collaboration. TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Narendra Varma is the founder of Our Table Cooperative farm in Sherwood.

“To me, that can be a drawback of having your own farm — you’re in the field all day and on your own. Kind of the community aspect of what we’re doing here, it keeps me a lot more engaged socially, mentally,” said Harvey, 28. “There’s a lot of synergy that comes from working with others.”

Assessing our values

Of course, giving more energy and resources to food and farming means changing the way we’ve been taught to think in recent decades. As other elements of daily life have grown more important, food has dropped down the list.

“One of the things that always surprised me, if you look at statistics from the (United States Department of Agriculture), the average American household used to spend about 15 to 20 percent of their disposable income on food in the 1920s. That’s now gone down to under 10 percent. And of that, half is spent in restaurants,” said Varma. “You can argue that that’s great — food prices have gone down. But the counterpoint is that certainly our health and well being haven’t improved.”

And because most food is outsourced and produced as cheaply as possible, those cheap prices are reflected in grocery stores. Varma argues that this isn’t a good thing.

“The reason it’s underpriced is because its true cost of production is being put off either in space, as in I’m going to buy from some Mexican farm where there’s no child labor laws and I can pay people nothing, or it’s put off in time, as in I’m going to pollute the ground and make it terrible and then my great grandchildren have to deal with that problem, not me,” he said. “The real cost in production is actually hidden.”

Varma said that it’s not something people need to stress about, and he doesn’t spend hours in a grocery store stressing about why his broccoli only costs $1. But what it does pose is a question — what is the true cost?

At Our Table, they’re trying to get back to the baseline of what food is actually worth and back to the natural soil and nutrients that have always helped it grow.

“The natural system is extremely resilient. On some level, we were poisoning it. When we just kind of step out of the way, unless it’s totally denuded, it sort of recovers,” he said. “As long as you make room for life, life will thrive.” TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Boothby's Blonde Cucumber grows in the propagation house at Our Table Cooperative farm in Sherwood.

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