Square Peg Farm Tour
Drive outside Portland, Oregon, 45 minutes in any direction and parcels of farmland begin to appear, boasting a variety of crops from pumpkins to Christmas trees, cabbages to nursery plants. For me, they are a reminder of Oregon lawmakers in the 1960’s, perhaps most notably, Governor Tom McCall, whom I met as a young child. McCall's greatest legacy was his vision to establish land use zoning laws to protect and preserve Willamette Valley farmland for agricultural use today. These rulings are frequently challenged, and will continue to be as the population of our state increases and housing must grow to meet demand.
On this particular day in December, I drive west toward the coastal mountains to the northern Willamette Valley where I will visit Chris Roehm and Amy Benson, owners of Square Peg Farm. Chris and Amy have been living on and farming their 40-acre track of land since 2002, using organic practices to grow some of the finest quality produce in the area. Their approach has always been to meet the needs of their customers, whether they be chefs, farmers market shoppers or CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscribers.
For a short time, Chris and Amy ran a CSA, supplying devoted customers with weekly harvests from their abundant fields during the growing season in exchange for advance payment for a season of weekly boxes. The CSA model was founded in part out of a necessity to provide farmers and growers with increased cash flow at the beginning of the growing season, when a financial boost is essential to planning and planting for a new season.
I am astonished by Chris and Amy’s stamina. They run their farm without employees, planting, harvesting, cleaning, sorting, packing and then bringing their harvest to the farmers market, where they sell it. From their booth at the market, they offer the most direct connection that a consumer can have to his or her food, to buy it from the people who grew it. Don't miss out on a chance to experience that!
I have learned from farmers for decades, but never as much as when I have the opportunity to walk their land with them. There is an intuition and wisdom that can only be achieved by working the same land year after year, observing changes both subtle and dramatic, as one season gives way to the next, and fields are transformed from fallow to thriving.
As I walk Chris and Amy's dormant fields, the overall effect is that of a nearly bare landscape, which leads to talk of what needs attention. Among the farm chores mentioned were relocating or tearing out the currant plants; moving the pig pen for diversified grazing; dismantling the ancient chicken coops; plant more pickling cucumbers and/or more Ailsa Craig onions, an amazing semi sweet heirloom variety. And the list goes on.
Other topic of discussion included their decision not to plant a cover crop, since rains came early, soaking the earth so thoroughly that the crop seed would not germinate properly, and to not till the wet soil, which would cause more damage then good. Instead, the withering branch frames from tomato and squash vines remain to be turned into the winter soil, offering fewer nutrients than a cover crop, which can absorb some of the heavy rains. And I learned something about kale. Go to the head note for the recipe for Raw Kale Salad with Hazelnuts, Apples and Parmesan Cheese for that bit of farmer knowledge.
Square Peg’s farmland used to be called Greenfield's Farm. The parcel has been farmed since the late 1800’s, when early settlers to the state recognized Oregon's Tualatin Valley as prime land for growing. And it still is. It is a blessed piece of land with good drainage, forested areas that give shelter to wildlife, and rare unlimited irrigation from near by Haag Lake. In the process of seeking organic certification, Amy tried to obtain records from the previous farm in order to verify whether the owners had applied any inputs, such as pesticides or herbicides to their crops. As it turns out, those sorts of details were loosely kept and rarely recorded. Such statistics are also important for tracking production values, measuring how and when crops ripen on a specific track of land, and whether the soil contains remnants of inputs, which will need to be purged over time in order to transition the land conventional to organic. As we talked about the conundrum in greater detail, the three of us drew a comparison to operating a restaurant and the imperative that it thrive on adaptation, intuition and logical sensibilities about what might work best in the long term. The conclusion is inextricably tied to the land and what is best for the long-term vision of preservation, sustainability and, of course, the quality and flavor of its crops. Hence the field conversation on this December day was about possibility.
We returned to Chris and Amy's kitchen to continue the conversation, some of which can be heard in the audio portion of this post. We revisited several of the topics we'd discussed while walking through the fields, going one step further to examine how a farmer remains a farmer, and what their work load and lifestyle will look like if they are to achieve their ultimate goal of conserving their land. Since they have no children, the possibility of passing their land and vocation onto the next generation--at least in the traditional sense--does not exist at this time. Chris's primary concern is to ensure that their land is always farmed with the same ethos he and Amy practice, even when the square and the peg don’t seem to match, or fit. And I for one am confident that they'll keep twisting and turning, all the while churning out the loveliest produce a chef could ask for.