Island Artisans – Oregon’s Inland Islands

   As we head into the last long weekend of summer 2011 people are winding down their travel plans, but for destinations within a day’s drive or short flight, well, let’s just say the harvest season is just getting underway and the tasty rewards for exploring intriguing farms is just getting underway.  I’m just back from my own farm exploration, which took me to Oregon State. 

Why Oregon? Why not?  It’s a short hop by plane, doesn’t cost that many frequent flyer points if you have them, or a day’s drive away that isn’t too onerous once you get through Seattle. And Oregon has a very vibrant food scene, based in Portland, but expanding to towns like Salem and Eugene, and especially into the largest wine producing area, where you can find about 400 wineries, all within about an hour’s drive of Portland. And I even discovered a couple of islands to explore.  I was doing some research, looking for restaurants in cities that use nearby farms to supply their ingredients.  I came across the name Minto Island Growers, which is right in Salem, the state capital.  Elizabeth Miller, one of the owners of the farm, explained to me how she and her partner Chris Jenkins named the farm and how they ended up there: “It’s a historical name, from when the Willamette River, which runs through Salem, surrounded this area.  Now the river channel has changed and it’s no longer an island, but lots of people still ask us about it. We named the farm Minto Island Growers because it is right next to a city park, Minto-Brown Island City Park, so that people would know that we are very close to downtown and they can get great organic produce without driving too far.”

Elizabeth Miller’s parents bought a large farm area on the island back in the 1980’s, but a few years ago she and Chris carved off part of that farm and turned it into an organic operation.  This year they decided to open up the farm to the public on a regular basis. So when you get to the main entrance, you will find a farm stand with their fruits and veggies available to purchase, but also a food cart, self-contained in a little trailer, and if you’ve ever been to Portland, you know that there are clusters of very innovative food carts downtown and in some of the other neighbourhoods. 

So, in addition to buying produce to take home, you can stay for lunch, with quite an impressive menu cooked by Elizabeth’s mother and some helpers with most of the ingredients of course coming from the farm. Chris told me that the decision to open up the farm to the public has been very rewarding so far: “We made a conscious decision to add to people’s farm experience and although it has helped our bottom line with the farmstand and foodcart sales, just to see tours come in, or mothers and their young children wandering through the fields and saying, ‘hey, there’s a Brussels sprout!’ has been a very rewarding and positive experience.”

My rewarding and positive experience there was a pulled pork sandwich with very fresh tomato-cucumber gazpacho and a lavender infused soda water. Just imagine the setting, out on the farm, surrounded by fresh produce and growing things, and having a very nice meal at the same time!

The other island I found is closer to Portland…and this one is really still an island, you have to cross the river on a bridge to get to it, and it’s called Sauvie Island, around 26 thousand acres in size, home to farms and a large wildlife refuge, the largest river island in the United States.  Somehow there is a different, quieter feel to life once you cross over the bridge, it’s hard to explain.  Not too far from the bridge I found Bella Organics, another family-run certified organic farm that is trying to turn a visit to a farm into a fun and education experience. 

The day I was there they were catering a birthday party under a large tent and farm manager Samara Hashem says that’s just a tiny part of a rapidly expanding operation: “We are going to be expanding our U-pick operation, we’ve just about finished a new farm stand building, we are getting chefs and caterers to come up and do dinners in the field to show people what they can do with all the neat fruits and veggies we produce.”  They will also do a corn maze for the first time this year, there will be a pumpkin field for Halloween as well.

We do hear a lot about how farms here in BC are struggling to make it given rising fuel costs, and competition from cheaper imports, but here are two organic Oregon farms that are really taking a more aggressive stance in providing value-added experiences at the farmgate and beyond, so if you are at all into agriculture, farming and of course eating, take a drive down to Oregon and poke around a bit, you’ll be amazed at what you see.

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