Organic outlaws, part I
What can farming teach us about the world? About ourselves? About each other? I’m on a mission to find out.
In the spring of 2011, I ventured to Grass Valley, California with a group of PSU students for a Student Leaders for Service Alternative Spring Break Trip that focused on organic farming. The people I met and the experiences I gathered were irreplaceable. Now, a year later, I’m back and craving for more.
Today is my ninth day in Nevada City, just north of Grass Valley, the home of the local non-profit Living Lands Agrarian Network (LLAN). This unique network of local farmers collaborates with surrounding landowners to create small-scale organic farms that fuel farmers markets and CSA’s throughout the area. The community here is unique—it’s as though everyone has adopted a land ethic that radiates from the locals and instills itself in visitors and travelers alike.
From the first day I stepped onto First Rain farm, owned and operated by Tim Van Wagner (farmer and board member of LLAN), I was greeted by harvest volunteers coming down from the upper pasture. It was a Friday and they had just harvested a plethora of vegetables for Saturday’s market in town: kale of multiple varieties, chard of vibrant reds, yellows, and oranges, collard greens the size of tennis rackets, parsley for days, and green onions like you’ve never seen—some nearly three feet long. The bounty is plentiful, seasonal, and all too delectable.
Living Lands is committed to fostering sustainable agriculture through education and mentorship. Each season, interns work side-by-side with local farmers to produce food on a small scale, which ensures the highest quality of produce while simultaneously embodying a new generation of farmers.
Goats, chickens, and pigs play just as big a role on First Rain farm as water and sunlight do. Each has an integral role in the success of the land. The goats forage through blackberries bushes, clearing space around overrun apple and pear trees; chickens roam free on the pastures, sowing essential nutrients back into the land; pigs provide mounds of compost that will be introduced back into soil, completing the cycle of life. Nothing is wasted. It all seems so simple—and it is. Just be ready to work some long, hard days in the beating sun, which is actually a nice change from Portland’s rainy climate.
Sleeping in my tent for over a week, I’ve risen with the sun, worked throughout the day, and returned to my bed under the stars of the Sierra Mountains. Nevada City is rich with gold country history, where saloons and small alley-sized streets meander through downtown, an area smaller than Portland State’s campus. Mark Twain, in his novel Roughing It, talks extensively about his time in Nevada City, a town once prided by its whiskey and outlaw culture, outlaws who claimed their stake and did what they needed to survive.
Now, the outlaws are back, and they’ve taken shape as organic farmers. They’ve made their claim and are devout in their mission to help this small, high-desert community thrive in a way that was once a dream. A dream not so different from that of the pioneer West, full of opportunity and wealth, ready for the taking—or in this case, the sharing.
Grant Neely is a senior English major at Portland State University.