It’s the dirt road to paradise: my tires crunch the gravel as I drive through meadows full of Queen Anne’s lace and goldenrod, then through a tunnel of trees where blackberry vines reach out to scrape the sides of my car. I stop to open a gate, and ahead of me the valley broadens into fields of vegetables sheltered against forested hills. The only sound is that of a dozen sprinklers scattering swathes of drops. Sun gleams off a bank of solar panels.
I’ve come to Persephone Farm to meet Elanor O’Brien, whose partner, Jeff Falen, began Persephone Farm in 1985, making Persephone one of the oldest organic farms in the mid-Willamette Valley. With the help of their employees, Elanor and Jeff farm 14 acres of vegetables, and keep another 9 acres in rotation with cover crops and pasture. Located along the banks of the Santiam River, the farm’s soil is a clay loam; they feed it with cover crops, compost, and manure from their two large flocks of hens. The hens are housed in mobile coops; every 2 to 4 weeks the coops are moved to a new location, where the chickens eat bugs and fertilize the fallow fields with their droppings.
Elanor rattles off a long list of the vegetables that are growing now, in alphabetical order, “basil, beans, beets, broccoli”- through kale and kohlrabi, and ending up with “radicchio, spinach, and summer squash.” I begin to understand why their stall at the Salem Saturday Market always overflows with abundant variety. “If you grow a lot of things, something will always do well,” she smiles. In their early days, Jeff and Elanor specialized in only a few crops and sold wholesale, but they found their profit margin was less than they could have made by selling direct to the consumer, and that there was more risk of crop failure with less diversity. “Growing a large variety of crops spreads the risk, both ecologically and financially.”
We walk through the fields: hedgerows and banks of flowers and native plants break up the rows of vegetables. Elanor points out serviceberry, wild mustard and wild radish, current and elderberry, marigolds and calendula. These flowers–and the wild, overgrown margins–provide shelter and food for beneficial insects, such parasitic wasps, that help to control many pests that plague farmers, like aphids and cabbage moths. “We work with what we have,” she tells me. “We don’t try and grow crops that don’t do well here, like melons and eggplant. We don’t use hoop-houses to extend the season.” Their only greenhouse-like structure is the propagation house in which they start their seedlings. She shows me the electric tractor, and old farm machine which they have adapted to run on a bank of batteries. Eighty-five percent of the energy they use on the farm is produced by their solar panels.
Persephone Farm doesn’t sell through a CSA; all their produce is sold at Salem and Portland farmer’s markets. In the years she has been selling at the markets, Elanor has noticed a change in the attitude of buyers – more and more people are interested in buying local, seasonal, organic produce and are eager to try new things. “I couldn’t sell kale in Salem ten years ago.” She believes that people are, once again, beginning to identify the place they live as one that produces their food, and that, as a culture, we need to spend more time tasting the food we consume.
“We need to realize that not only is the taste and nutrition better, but our well-being improves when we eat food that is grown with respect, appreciation, and gratitude.”