By Chelsea Harlan
Gales Meadow Farm could be the poster child for the food revolution here in Portland, Oregon. Even the setting of the farm is idyllic: fifteen acres of partially wooded land near Forest Grove, nestled at the foot of the coastal range, where Anne and René Berblinger and their small circle of loyal employees plant, grow, harvest, can, and feast on over 300 varieties of vegetables and herbs.
Ducks, cats, hens, roosters, and a goose roam the property; there’s even a brand new custom-built beehive, home to the 10,000 bees the Berblingers purchased recently from Ruhl Bee Supply (“the bee gurus,” according to Anne).
The concept of living off the land-of sharing meals made with the produce you’ve grown, of having a close connection to the food you eat and with the community that nurtures this movement-is a popular one in this region. You need only look at the increase in farmers markets, community-supported agriculture (CDSAs), public demand for fresh, seasonal, organic goods, and the new generation of young farmers to see its prevalence. It’s a concept that small, local farms like Gales Meadow Farm helped to create and work to sustain. While farm life can be romanticized in the public mind, there are many facets to such a lifestyle that can be complicated, challenging, downright difficult, and, ultimately, rewarding.
The Berblingers have been vending their organic Gales Meadow Farm produce for about eleven years, with spaces at the Hollywood, Cannon Beach, and Hillsdale Farmers Markets. Gales Meadow Farm has deep roots in the community: they’re a member of Slow Food Portland; Anne served on the Hollywood Farmers Market Board of Directors for three years, and still serves on the market’s Vendor Committee, as well as on advisory committees for Friends of Family Farmers and Adelante Agricultura; René teaches guitar, banjo, and mandolin at Artichoke Music; and they both train future farmers. In fact, four former employees have gone on to start their own farms or become involved in farm-related professions after several seasons at Gales Meadow Farm. Once such former employee, David Knaus (who was also the farm’s first full-time employee) is now the official farmer for the West Linn-Wilsonville school district, where he grows food for school lunches and teaches classes on gardening for students.
Full-time employees live at the farm and work about fifty hours a month in the off season, and as many as ten hours a day during the peak season. The entire crew walks from one end of the farm to another once a week, discussing what needs to be done and shaping priorities. While everyone does everything for the farm, employees are “champions” for specific vegetables. They’re responsible for keeping a closer eye on their assigned vegetables throughout the season; nursing them along and making sure they’re started, weeded, watered, and harvested at the right time.
When I asked Anne why Gales Meadow Farm chooses not to specialize in one or two crops, she replied, “We just can’t help ourselves.” They want variety in their crops, different appearance and flavor in the vegetables they grow. The result is seven acres of hundreds of kinds of tomatoes, cucumbers, root vegetables, lettuces, eggplants, herbs, and more; it’s a rainbow of fresh, flavorful, carefully selected jewels. They get their seeds from seed catalogues (or vegetable pornography, as Anne refers to them), such as Wild Garden Seed, Nichol’s, and Baker Creek, and then flip through them, picking and choosing which veggies look promising. They try out ten to twenty new varieties each year, deciding on several to continue with after a trial growing period. More than eighty percent of the farm’s seeds are heirloom varieties-open-pollinated, as opposed to hybrid-and more than fifty years old. The farm also produces its own seeds by growing out certain crops: fava beans, in particular, but also unique seeds of certain tomatoes and peppers.
Gales Meadow Farm, like many small farms, has its green thumbs in a diverse array of pots. They vend at farmers markets and sell their vegetables and herbs to local restaurants, such as Genoa, Andina, and Fleur de Lis, the two main endeavors that make up the majority of their profit. The farm’s plant starts are a hit with home gardeners, especially the pots with a variety of lettuces. Because many Hollywood Farmers Market customers do not have sunny garden space, Gales Meadow Farm is concentrating on selecting more vegetable varieties suitable for containers-and as an inner-city apartment-dweller with limited communal yard space, I for one can appreciate having my own little tub of veggies to tend. The starts are also sold to restaurants who want to grow their own vegetables, other farms where vegetables aren’t the main focus, and to Verdura Gardens, a local company that helps Portlanders plan and plant their own gardens.
The farm also educates through outreach with its Portland Tillamook Preschool partnership, where young children can plant their own pumpkin seeds and pick the resulting pumpkins once they’ve ripened on the farm. They also teach classes-Hands-On Organic Farming-at the farm, led by Anne. They even have their own hot sauce: Black Hungarian and Wenk’s Yellow Hot Sauce.
There are, of course, pests to contend with on a farm, and the solutions for getting rid of them are more complicated when that farm is certified organic and doesn’t indiscriminately spray everything with chemicals. One of the biggest problems is slugs; those that the ducks don’t eat, the farm’s special Slug Elixir of flour, water, yeast, and sugar takes care of (check out their website for the full recipe). There are also the usual suspects: deer, coyote, bobcats, fungi, mice, and late frosts. But weeds are, hands down, the biggest pest for organic farmers. Barriers of plastic and cloth are a simple and effective deterrent, but costly and labor-intensive. Surprisingly, one of the pests you may expect to head the list-insects, such as aphids-are kept in check. The insect population is in balance because of the farm’s organic integrated pest-management techniques.
As a small local farm trying to make a profit as well as a positive difference in their community, involvement in politics is unavoidable. One of the major issues the farm has faced over the last four years is Oregon LNG and the company’s intent to run a liquid gas pipeline right through Gales Meadow Farm’s property. Two proposals have been created to attempt to push such pipelines through; one has been defeated and other is described as limping along. This sort of pipeline would effectively bring an end to not only the farm and to the Berblingers’ (and their staff’s) livelihood, but to their way of life.
Competing for the food dollar with government-subsidized crops is another challenge for small farms. Support programs are not available for fresh vegetables, and current farm bill subsidies make empty-calorie food cheap. Anne, however, doesn’t want government subsidies for their family farm; she wants farmers to be able to sell high-quality, nutritious food for what it costs to produce. She suggests one way to support this goal would be to divert the money currently funneled to farm subsidies to funding food stamps for everyone, not just those in need. The food stamps Anne proposes could only be used for “real” food, real food being defined as having no trans fats, no high-fructose corn syrup, and no GMOs. This would create more demand and higher prices for vegetable farmers.
Despite such challenges, Anne and René, and many other like them, will continue their work on the farm and the mentorship, education, and community partnerships that are created along with it. Anne says that as much as eighty-five percent of small farms have off-farm income, as Gales Meadow Farm does, and fewer than fifty percent make a profit. Against such odds, I asked her why she thought Gales Meadow Farm has been such a success. Without hesitation she replied, simply, “Love.”