Jan 26, 2010

Big Table Farm

This is the first farm to be documented for this project. I interviewed Clare Carver by phone and email, and hope to visit the farm sometime soon. It was a privilege to speak with Clare, and I thank her for generously taking the time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions.

The most important bit of information she wanted to share was that, in farming, there isn't one solution - it all depends upon your goals; what do you want to do, what is the purpose of your farm, what are your desires. And all else follows from there. There are many solutions, which grow out of the context of one's farm. This idea resonates with my own farming experience. And this is why I think farmers are truly some of our most unsung heroes and quiet geniuses. They possess rare gifts; visualizing, orchestrating, and seeing the big picture as well as the details.

Clare and her husband Brian moved from Napa, Ca, to Oregon, where they purchased a 70 acre homestead. On their farm they are practicing rotational grazing - "grass farming", as it is described by Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms. Rotational grazing is all about the grass, the pasture. Animals are moved onto the pasture and off again, in a continual dance that cycles health through the system. Animals eat, grass gets fertilized, soil is built. As Michael Pollan describes in "The Omnivore's Dilemma", this relationship between pasture and animals does not result in a zero sum game; rather, as the animals benefit, so does the soil, which increases it's health and fertility by being grazed. Even though so much is harvested off this land, the soil does not loose; instead, it gains.

At their farm, Clare and Brian raise layers, broilers, pigs, and more recently, steer. They are also planting a vineyard and grow a vegetable garden. Clare is learning to work their horses on the land. She tells me that it has taken these last three years to get up and running; to get pastures in shape, work out the fencing and animal moving, establish a garden and structures, and so on.

Can anyone start a farm? Yes, assuming you can afford some land. It will of course depend on your resources and what the market for land is like in the area in which you are looking. Clare says they used a Realtor to find their property, but that's only a small piece of the pie - the key is to know what you want to use the land for and then hire experts in that area to help you asses it's application. In the case of Big Table Farm, they wanted to plant vineyard, so they had a soil expert come out and do analysis on the hillside, and a vineyard consultant come out and talk about overall viability. They also had water guy come out and look at the low land for development into pasture for the animals. Her advice is to look at what's been planted there, how the land was used in the past, and how that translates to what you want. For instance, if you are interested in having animals, think about fencing; what type of fencing is there, will it work for what you want, and so on. Don't under estimate any infrastructure already in place on a piece of land. Find out if there irrigation, water rights, and so on. You need to know what you want for your farm BEFORE you look for the land.

Big Table Farm is situated in a progressive community in the Portland area where there are lots of organic eaters and organic farmers. It seems an ideal place with a ready market of appreciative customers, who are not only happy to pick out their own bird or a pig for their table, but to know the animal will be raised and readied in the most humane way possible. My greatest hope is that more people do what Big Table Farm is doing, so that we can keep moving away from industrial systems with its monocultures and poisons, and toward diversity and health for ourselves and our earth.

Here's a great video of Clare and Brian on their farm!

Big Table Farm, Oregon from Outstanding in the Field on Vimeo.

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