What happens when you sign up for a farm tour with a noted chef and a farming systems researcher? Well, you have a great time in the Oregon countryside and end up learning more than you had planned!
If you have developed an appreciation for the excellent cuisine coming from the kitchens of important Portland chefs, you might want to know where many of them get their ingredients. It's the next step in becoming an aware foodie. Once you learn to appreciate good local cuisine, your food experiences will be enhanced by actually visiting the farmers who grow the foods your favorite chefs are using.
I had the great fortune to do just that. On a sunny spring day I met Blake Van Roekel and Lane Selman of Get Dirty Farm Tours at Ristretto Roasters on North Williams. I was joining a day-long tour to two mid-sized farms south of Portland. It was an ideal gathering place as mornings are made for good coffee and pastries and the parking was ample.
Our Get Dirty Farm Tour for the day was to take us to visit Cattail Creek Lamb at Vitality Farms and Gathering Together Farm with a highly anticipated lunch at the Gathering Together Farms Restaurant.
A group of very cool people either met at Ristretto or joined us at the first farm. There were amateur cooks and gardeners, a dad and animal-lover son, and a local restaurant owner... a good mix of people for stimulating conversations. All were eager to see, learn and get dirty down on the farm. All shared an appreciation for high quality, locally sourced organic and sustainable foods. All wanted to know where these prized local ingredients came from and how the farmers produced them.
First Stop - Lambing Season
We arrived at Vitality Farms just in time to see Cattail Creek Lambs being herded in by sheep dogs. It was just before lambing season and the farm was abuzz with activity. They were checking the ewes to make sure all was well in preparation for the big day, giving them anti-parasitic meds and rebuilding a barn that had collapsed in a recent big storm. It was to be used for the upcoming lambing.
We stood on the muddy land in the warm sun and heard farmer John Neumeister and manager, Karen Wells talk about the flock, lambing and the care taken to provide 100% grass fed lamb with no added hormones or antibiotics. It's more involved than you would think. Animals, cows, sheep and chickens, are rotated onto the pastures in an intricate "dance" that results in better grazing and a disruption of the life cycle of parasites. In the distance we saw the huge chicken houses for the free-range chickens. And past that, we had the view of several snow-capped mountains.
Farming, even on a mid-size organic farm like this, is big business. Spreadsheets are kept following the productivity of the chickens, for example. Animals are moved from pasture to pasture in a planned cycle. Even the hen houses are moved. John does extensive research. He may be on the Internet learning from organic farmers in Australia. We learned that they were part of an innovative business strategy. Farmland LP, via their investors, acquires conventional farmland and converts it into certified Organic, sustainable farmland.
Quality is paramount. The story was told of how the farm wanted select chicken feed that was produced by a family in central Washington State. It was pretty pricey and had to be delivered. It turns out that the family run company has relocated to the Vitality Farms property. Since this was their biggest customer, it made good sense. Money saved all around!
We also toured the packaging and storage areas and learned that eggs, if not washed, can be kept at room temperature. It was little tidbits like that that fascinated us.
We had the opportunity to purchase organic eggs straight from the hen house and Cattail Creek Lamb straight from John's truck. And, then, we were headed down the road to Philomath for lunch!
Gathering Together Farm
If you buy your produce at local farmers markets you may well have run into a Gathering Together Farm stand. Their produce, grown on a patchwork of fields across a fertile 50 acres, is sold to restaurants, to individual CSA customers and in the "big city" at farmers markets.
We stopped for a minute to admire the beauty of the area... Mary's Mountain, the Mary's River and the beautiful fields. The restaurant beckoned. We were seated in the atrium and chose from an extensive brunch menu created by Chef JC Mersmann (who we met). The salads, freshly picked from the garden, were a highlight. Egg dishes, soups and pastry filled our table. All were locally sourced. The organic potato doughnuts, made from scratch each morning, were a hit.
And then, accompanied by Joelene Jebbia, Seed, Greenhouse & Irrigation Manager who organizes and watches over the seed and produce production like an educated mother hen, we toured the farm. Both produce and seed is grown there. The seed is open pollinated, untreated, germ and vigor tested in living soil mix, and well cleaned. It is grown there and used by local organic farmers. They have been organically certified since 1987. Here, too, crops must be rotated and planting carefully orchestrated. (Article)
As we toured the greenhouses, we realized how much care is taken to grow these plants for food and for seed. Some plants needed warmth and hot water piping wound through the carefully prepared soil. Ladybugs were brought in for pest control. Plants were covered in blankets of white sheeting for protection against the cold.
As a photographer I marveled at the beauty of the plants being cultivated. New varieties, available from Gathering Together Farm, were there. It was tempting to pick a leaf of every lettuce variety for a never-to-be forgotten salad. But I satisfied the urge by just photographing them.
We saw potatoes being started down by the river. The young boy in our group hung back to pet a cat and then lean over a pasture fence to visit a horse.
A stop at the on-site farm stand ended our visit. And we went home with a few great ingredients for an Oregon farm dinner.
What we all came away with was a greater appreciation for the time it takes to grow organic foods in a sustainable manner. We finally "got" why organic foods grown with sustainable farming practices yielded more expensive foods.
We were developing a keen understanding of the passion these farmers had for bringing good food to our tables. The concept of "farm to table" was becoming real to all of us as we experienced walking the lands where our food came from and talking to those whose time, knowledge and passion went into farming.
Blake Van Roekel and Lane Selman know food and know the farmers. They are well-respected in the business. Blake, a chef, owns a cooking school and Lane is a farming systems researcher at OSU. It is through their connections that we were granted access to the people and the lands where organic foods are grown. They take great care to personalize tours so that everyone gains from the experience. While the tour was well-organized, we never felt herded like tourists. We were invited onto the beautiful lands where creative and amazing farming was being done. We met fascinating people doing important work. And, as well, we met some interesting people within the tour participants. If you consider yourself a foodie, you are not really in the know until you actually visit the source.
I highly recommend a Get Dirty Farm Tour. Offerings coming up include a visit to a farm where draft horses work the land and to the coast to learn about sea salt and oysters . Couple those offerings with their weekly urban farm tours and you'll have outstanding opportunities to learn so much about where our foods are sourced and have fun doing it. Their tour prices are reasonable and they can even put together a custom tour for your group.
Want to spend a day in the countryside? This is the way to do it!