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From Fork to Farm

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Oregon nonprofit Friends of Family Farmers doesn’t want you to merely eat locally grown food. They want you to get to know the grower — and maybe become one yourself.

“Most local food groups are coming from the foodie point of view,” said grassroots organizer Michele Knaus. “We’re the farmer end of things.”

On the second Tuesday of every month, Knaus hosts a gathering called InFARMation (and Beer!) at Roots Organic Brewery in southeast Portland. About 100 foodies turn out to nurse pints and listen to a longtime farmer describe switching from conventional to organic methods or a rancher talk about raising grass-fed beef.

Portlanders already are passionate consumers of local food. But even here, Friends of Family Farmers wants to make sure that the farm gets equal billing with the fork. The happy-hour foodie-farmer confabs are part of a campaign to educate consumers — and voters — about the challenges facing small farmers. As in most states, the majority of Oregonians live in urban areas, with 30 percent of the state’s population — and votes — in Portland.

“When people talk about food issues, we want them to talk about food and farm issues, to have that just roll off the tongue,” says Knaus, who in another life ran a kosher vegetarian cafe on the campus of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “Everybody and their mother says, ‘Oh, eat local.’ But when it comes down to convenience versus conviction, having met the farmer pushes you a little more toward conviction.”

Friends of Family Farmers was born in 2005 when an out-of-state factory farm moved into a rural community in eastern Oregon over the protests of local farmers. The farmers appealed to both environmental and agricultural groups for support.

But environmentalists, preoccupied with problems in western Oregon, didn’t respond, and mainline agricultural groups didn’t see anything wrong with industrial farming. So family farmers, rural residents and sustainable food activists formed a hybrid conservation-agricultural organization. Two years later, Friends of Family Farmers, or FOFF, was able to fight off a large chicken factory.

At first, the group focused on communities threatened by large-scale factory farms. But eventually, its members realized that it wasn’t enough to just say no.

“You truly have to have a vision for what kind of agriculture you want,” said Kendra Kimbirauskas, a FOFF co-president. “So we continue to support threatened communities, but we’re also working to put forth and promote policies that will allow family farmers to remain on their land.”

Over and over, FOFF heard from farmers that one of their biggest concern was that Oregon had no plan in place to nurture the next generation of farmers.

The average Oregon farmer is 57 years old, according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture. Many have no children willing to take over the farm.

At the same time, the local food movement has inspired a new generation of young people who want to farm but lack the land and know-how.

So in the spring, Friends of Family Farmers launched a Craigslist-like Ifarm Oregon database to help match retiring farmers with aspiring ones.

When the Ifarm Oregon database went live, the response was “overwhelming,” Kimbirauskas said.

Farmers called with offers to lease land and mentor newcomers. Would-be farmers logged in from as far away as Kansas and Oklahoma. An investor, wary of the stock market, inquired about putting money in a sustainable farm.

The FOFF staff plays matchmaker, screening calls and helping answer technical and legal questions. Two matches are pending.

“A lot of young people have the fire in the belly, and they want to get on the land and get their fingers in the dirt,” Kimbirauskas said. “When kids can see that farming is a respectful job, that you can hold your head up high, that you can make a living at it and feel good about the role you’re playing in the world, you’re going to see more people getting interested in family farming.”


Mary Engel, a former reporter and editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, is on the road exploring the U.S. food revolution.