Arriving at Stoneboat Farm, Matsu one of the large, white farm dogs immediately trundles over and pushes his head under your hand for a few ear scratches. He wanders freely around this farm in the rolling hills just west of Portland doing his part to keep animals, like hungry deer, away from the rows of veggies.
The Moore Institute likes to highlight groups around the state that are working to improve the food culture and ultimately reduce the prevalence of chronic disease. This month we had the pleasure of touring a sustainable farm in Hillsboro whose owners have a bent not just about growing healthy food in a manner that is good for the earth, but also for supporting groups who have traditionally worked the land, but not reaped the benefits from it.
Brothers Jesse and Aaron Nichols didn’t grow up on a farm, but felt the pull to learn about how food is grown, how it could be grown in a way that protected the earth and how it could be used to bolster a sense of community.
Aaron, a chef by training, and Jesse, who worked with non-profit organizations, bought a 30-acre nursery in Hillsboro four years ago. Since then, they’ve pored through seed catalogs and farming manuals, learned skills from other farmers and generally just tried to see what works to grow healthy food using sustainable techniques. Besides their planting methods, which include planting rows of beautiful flowers in between rows of veggies to attract pests, and planting cover crops to maintain soil nutrition, the unmistakable difference on this farm is its resident hard laborers.
The hard labor is done not by large pieces of machinery, but by two beautiful Belgian draft horses named Esther and Gale. While Gale looks like she’s built for farm work, she would prefer to laze in the pasture, chew grass and urge Esther on from afar. The horses pull the plow used for turning over the earth, as well as other implements Jesse and Aaron have found, had made, or converted for horse use. The brothers decided to use horse power because it causes less soil compaction than tractors, and frankly because it’s just more fun.
Beyond the typical tomatoes and summer squash, Jesse likes to plant some vegetable varieties more common to places like Central America. This is in part to introduce people to a wider variety of food and to keep foods around that are less common, but also a belief that planting a wide variety of crops offers safety in terms of pests and disease.
In Jesse’s view, their goal is pretty simple, “We feed the ground so the ground can feed the vegetables and the vegetables can feed us,” he said.
Jesse’s background includes an undergraduate degree in Spanish and multiple stints in Latin America. He believes farming needs to be more accessible. Over time, Latin American immigrants have put in the work on American farms, but have not been the ones to see the benefits, in terms of health or wealth.
He worked with Adelante Mujeres to start their incubator farm program for Latino farmers. He has regular interns on the farm, one of whom has stayed-on and become a full-time employee. Now he’s started a non-profit called Campo that is working with the University of Oregon to start an internship for Spanish-speaking students interested in agriculture. The first cohort of students will arrive next summer. They’ll spend half their time getting their hands in the dirt to learn about sustainable farming techniques, and the other half learning about the politics of agriculture and the history of land reform movements in the U.S. and Latin America. They’ll stay with local families during the internship and take field trips to organizations that support Latino farms. Looking ahead, he eventually sees an opportunity to start another incubator farm to ease Latino farm workers into running their own farms.
You can find out more about Esther, Gale, Matsu and the other inhabitants of Stoneboat Farm on their website. You can find their produce at the Hollywood and Orenco Station Farmers Markets, at several local restaurants and even in a few local grocery stores. They have a CSA available too. In keeping with their goal of increasing community, they invite their CSA members to drop by the farm and hang out for a while when picking up their produce. Aaron puts together recipes to go along with the weeks produce, Jesse is quick to show off his latest plant starts and greenhouses, and Matsu is usually around looking for some ear scratches.
If you know about a local organization or group working to improve the food culture, let us know and you might see it profiled here soon.
Go to a farmers market
If you're lucky enough to live in an area with a farmers market, get out there and talk to the farmers about their work and buy your fresh produce directly from them. This way they get a larger percentage of the profits, and you get to know the people responsible for growing the food you eat.
Volunteer at a local farm
Lots of local farms love for community members to spend time getting their hands dirty and sharing their passion for growing healthy food.
Support your local farmers
Talk to your local grocery store about offering produce from local farms, especially from farmers of color. If your workplace has a cafeteria, ask about including produce from local farms.