Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Conscious Cultivation: A community food solution flourishes in rural Oregon

Note: The Food Cycles Bike Tour will officially launch on December 5th from the Oregon coast. Meanwhile, we've been exploring some innovative food-related projects in our area as we gradually ride farther from home. Here's a story from a recent trip.

Hannah and I hopped off our saddles when our tires turned on the gravel parking lot of Monroe, Oregon's stately white church, the tallest building in town. We pulled in under a sheltered picnic table made from a single 100-foot slab of Douglas fir. Immediately, we knew two things: One, that this place has hosted meals of epic proportions. Two, we would be glad we made the trip out this way. What we didn't know that the afternoon would change the way we thought about our relationship to the world, our community, and to each other.

It had been a slow start. With the wind blowing the rain sideways, and our lack of experience doing day trips by bike, we were nervous. I packed extra snacks and cinched my rainpants on tight.

As we pedaled north out of Eugene, suburban sprawl slowly dissolved into farmland, and the horizontal rain gave way to occasional drizzle and a road-spanning rainbow.  With the squash harvest just completed, the sunlit fields gave off a dizzyingly sweet aroma of baked pumpkins.

Hannah grazes on roadside blackberries on the way to Monroe.
This is one of my favorite regions of Oregon - the picture-perfect fields, barns and country roads that roll over the landscape from our valley to the coastal mountains make it a cyclist's, as well as a farmer's, paradise. In all of this agricultural richness, however, many lack access to fresh foods. Monroe, a community of about 700 people living 15 miles from the nearest grocery store, is the perfect example of this. Or was, at least, until Chris and Llyn moved to town in 2008.

My estimate of how long it would take us to ride the 23 miles from our house to Chris and Llyn's garden project was a bit conservative. For once, I was early. As we waited for our hosts to arrive, catching glimpses of the garden through the fence beyond the picnic table, Hannah started asking questions, questions I didn't have the answer to.

"So, who are these people again?"

"They run this thing called the Sharing Gardens." Hannah is always up for a bike ride, and I'd coordinated the destination. I'd heard about Llyn and Chris' innovative take on community gardens, and Monroe was about the right distance away for us to begin training for longer bike rides. They'd responded to my email with enthusiasm. That's about all I knew so far.

Llyn Peabody in summer 2012 with some beautiful yellow tomatoes.
Finally, an old green GMC truck pulled into the gravel drive, and the faces I saw through the windshield beamed a warmth and light that cut through the drizzle. We were rewarded for our trek by a hug from Llyn and a couple of pears harvested from a nearby tree.

The garden was pretty much done for the season, all the crops harvested and the beds turned over, but as we walked between the rows, I could tell by the richness of the soil that these guys knew what they were doing. Inside the tiny greenhouse, we found proof in the gorgeous ripe tomatoes, as well as racks of drying peppers and bean pods. Designed and built by Chris and Llyn, the greenhouse was a tropical oasis this time of year. As we basked in the warmth, the couple told us their story.

Five years ago, they were fed up with paying too much in rent, working unrewarding jobs, and not being able to exercise their full ability to help the community. They were searching for a way to redefine the living standards that most of us in this country take as non-negotiable: You work, you pay for a place to live and for food to eat, and if you want to do anything more, you incur debt.

Chris Burns - not a big-headed man, but his lettuce certainly is.
In Monroe, they found what they were looking for: a tiny house whose owners were willing to let them work off a portion of the rent, leaving them with free time to pursue other projects. The fact that the tiny house is a travel trailer with less floor space than some people's bathrooms didn't deter them. In fact, they considered a healthy way to eliminate all but the essentials in life.

The couple founded the Alpine Garden in a tiny community just west of Monroe in 2009. Finding that they needed a slightly larger population to sustain the garden, they put feelers out again for the perfect plot of land. When they spotted an empty lot behind Monroe's church, they knew they had found what they were looking for. They contacted the owner of the property, who not only agreed to allow the couple to plow up the grass and plant a garden, he also offered to pay the water bill - a big deal for gardeners in a valley that receives almost no summer rainfall.

"Well, shall we sit at the picnic table and shell beans while we visit?" Llyn asked. I could see how her energy contributed to transforming what was a weedy patch of grass in the beginning of 2010 to what the Sharing Gardens is today: A vital source of fresh produce for 75-100 families in the area. We grabbed tubs of dried scarlet runner beans and made our way back to the wooden benches.

Most community gardens comprise individual garden plots assigned to families, who are then completely responsible for keeping up that plot year-round. At The Sharing Gardens, all the spaces are communal, allowing everyone to grow more in the long beds than they could ever do in shorter, individual ones. Working like peas in a pod has its challenges, but with Llyn and Chris as the dedicated core volunteers, the garden has the leadership and communication structure to stay productive.

While only a handful of people appear at the garden regularly to help out, around fifty are part of the volunteer network. Others give in other ways, with donations of cash and materials. It's all paid off for the community: This year, the garden produced 30 different crops, and the top ten producers weighed in at 6,200 pounds.

Dipping into the tub of pea pods, Hannah broke her silence with a typical to-the-point inquiry.

"Don't you worry about healthcare? Retirement? Getting away once in a while?"

Our hosts smiled serenely. They are perfectly healthy, they told us. They never want to retire. When they feel the urge to travel, they get in their roomy van (their second vehicle) and go camp out somewhere. Other volunteers run the garden while they're gone. Of course, they do rely on cash for some living expenses, and continue to use their savings while their new way of life comes to an equilibrium.

We needed to know more. We invited ourselves to Chris and Llyn's travel trailer to explore their take on efficiency housing - the sharing philosophy applied to their own lives. They kindly accepted our invite and drew us a map, promising to follow in their truck once we'd gotten a good head start.

So far, the biking part of this journey had been easy (ie, flat). Now, we were climbing a long, windy hill into Christmas-tree-farm territory. Ten minutes later, wheezing, we took a right turn and were headed down again, accelerating a bit recklessly, my hair beating against my helmet like a hundred tiny flags snapping in the wind. As soon as I remembered to check the numbers on the mailboxes as we flew by, we had arrived.

As we turned into the driveway, the big green truck rumbled up behind us. We got out of the way. With a light tap from the truck's bumper, the big metal gate flew right open. Sheep galloped to the fence bordering the driveway, serenading us with comical bleats. We closed the gate and followed the truck up the hill.

The travel trailer was just that, and nothing more. The special thing was how Chris and Llyn used the space. Most of the trailer's storage goes to food - jars of applesauce, dried beans, onions, canned tomatoes - most of it from the Sharing Gardens. They removed the table and benches that normally take up most of a travel trailer's living area and laid down a beautiful rug. Now, the space functions both as a Japanese-style eating area and a yoga studio, dance floor, or whatever.

We stepped back outside to tour the outdoor kitchen. Llyn made the excellent point that most kitchen activities that require a lot of space - canning, dehydrating, juicing, etc - can be done on a nice day in a covered area that doesn't necessarily need to be indoors. On the porch attached to the trailer, they installed a counter, sink, and propane burner. They do all their everyday cooking in the trailer, and they use the outdoor kitchen for bigger projects.

We spent the rest of the afternoon on the rug, sharing a bowl of walnuts harvested on Chris' recent trip to California and a quart of homemade grape juice. We told stories and discussed the obstacles people face in embracing a shared lifestyle.

The Sharing Gardens has been a success because it lives up to its name; everyone in the community has access to the bounty, and the shared space makes the best use of everyone's skills. On a personal level, Chris and Llyn, who had only been together two years before they launched into the full-time-volunteer lifestyle, have been able to live in a tiny space on a very limited budget without going crazy because they have an exceptional ability to respect each other's needs.

"We're cultivating we-consciousness," says Chris.

Whoa. For Hannah and I, it's been one thing to work together, live together, and plan the Food Cycles tour together. Functioning as a single cognitive unit? This was a whole new level to consider.

The travel trailer was a sanctuary and Chris and Llyn felt like old friends, but we had to get back home while the sun was still awake. With bellies full of tree protein and heads swimming with ideas and wisdom, we strapped our helmets back on and rolled down the driveway. The sheep shouted their goodbyes.

All the way home, I turned over Chris and Llyn's simple but transformative act of building a garden in a community that desperately needed one. Can it be replicated elsewhere? People like them don't come along every day - Chris and Llyn have a lifetime of experience in sharing through communal living situations, were prepared to go minimalist and didn't have debts to pay off or chronic health issues. Then again, even if they did, I had the feeling they would probably still find a way to make it work.

The Sharing Gardens isn't just a way to get fresh food to a community that lacks it. It's a gathering point and educational tool; this fall, the group hosted a 150-person "Farm to Farm" bike ride, and is offering potlucks and beginning cooking classes in the church. For Chris and Llyn, it's been a path to fulfillment and a way to test and strengthen their relationship. Maybe all food-culture transformations have to happen this way, with a deep dedication to sharing, not only of our time and energy, but also of our philosophies.

City lights welcomed us back home as we pedaled the final miles. When we walked back into our small two-bedroom house, it seemed cavernous and excessive. Still, the ride had been a success, food for the soul and for the body: Llyn and Chris had sent us home with a bag full of the best walnuts we'd ever tasted.

To learn more about this revolutionary project, visit The Sharing Gardens Blog. You can find Llyn and Chris at the gardens most days, and we highly recommend a visit - by bike, of course.

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