From Garden to Farm

By | 2018-03-01T09:45:02+00:00 March 1st, 2018|
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TIm GilmerOur cover story this month is about accessible gardening and its many benefits. I’d like to tell you about how my wife’s and my gardening experience enriched our lives and prepared us for making a leap we never even considered until it happened — farming organic vegetables for sale to local restaurants and markets.

After several years of enjoyable gardening that started in 1974, we were fortunate to be able to purchase a small farm about 25 miles south of Portland, Oregon. The farm had small pastures for a modest herd of cattle, the kind of operation that appeals to “gentlemen farmers.” But I ain’t no gentleman, and neither is my wife.

Our first year on the farm we rented the pasture to a neighbor who brought over several heifers. The girls took care of themselves, so Sam (my wife) and I planted our usual spring garden with accessible pathways, but upsized it. When fall came, we had a bumper harvest. So the next year we planted an acre of vegetables and placed U-Pick signs on nearby country roads, hoping to make a little spending money. A great plan, but with one major glitch: No one came.

The earliest crop, our snow pea planting, was prolific. Snow peas are eaten as immature pea pods, mostly in stir-fry and Chinese dishes. We had pea pods enough to feed the Chinese army, but no one to pick them.

Lesson Number One: Plant only what you can eat, sell or give away.

Lesson Number Two: With no U-Pick customers, the owners become the pickers.

Despite getting stuck in the mud in my Stainless Sportster with its 2-inch tires (my Jeep chair), I managed to pick 5 pounds in a couple of hours. Sam picked slightly more, so we bribed the neighbor boys to pitch in and baited friends with promises of wine and grilled steak. By the time we all burned out, we had 30 pounds of pea pods, enough to fill three boxes. Now what?

The nearest Chinese restaurant was 20 miles distant, so Sam and I loaded our boxes, drove there and knocked on the side kitchen door. A chunky Chinese cook opened the door and immediately scrutinized the pea pods.

“Too big,” he said, tossing a few on the ground. “Too small,” he said, picking out the smallest one. Then he picked out the perfect-sized pod and took a bite, making a fresh-crunchy sound. “This good. How much?”

Lesson Number Three: The proof is in the pudding.

Our delivery route grew over the next five years, so we added acreage for beans, tomatoes, eggplant, squash, basil, lettuce, radicchio and more. By year 10 we had about 25 customers, mostly in Portland, a hand-controlled tractor, delivery driver and three seasonal employees. By year 30 we had become known for our fresh produce and were featured on a national TV series, PBS’ Chefs A’ Field.

At our peak we had six acres, deliveries six days a week, and 28 plantings of vegetables, each the size of a large garden.

Lesson Number Four: Do what you enjoy and stick with it.