The City Gardens: Growing food in Portland

It’s common the world over to plant food near your house, and Portland’s a quick study. There’s a growing community of people who realize they would just as soon like to eat vegetables grown next door as they would buy some picked and shipped to the supermarket. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) is one way to get vegetables from a local farm to the table. City Garden Farms is a Portland CSA grown on small plots throughout the city. “I’m a lifelong gardener, a passionate gardener,” Dan Bravin tells me. “I always had a dream to make a small business off what I grow.” Bravin and his business partner, Martin Barrett started City Garden Farms last year after Barrett read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and said to Bravin: “I have a big backyard, can I make money growing vegetables?”

Most CSAs in Portland have a waiting list, some lists are a hundred customers long. “One reason,” Bravin considers: “once people sign up, they tend to stay on. There’s a buzz about local food and ‘getting back to basics’ during the recession, so there’s more demand than supply. Every year, you sell a share of your farm – as much produce as you grow – so they’re buying a piece of the farmer’s output. That’s your share of the farm.” City Garden Farms grow high quality vegetables and promote urban agriculture.

Bravin and Barrett started the business last year with 12 backyard sites around the city, and this year they’ve optimized it at around nine, though the number is not finalized yet. “We get requests to farm in people’s backyards all the time,” Bravin says. They farm any unused land in general that is at least 1000 square feet, has eight hours a day of sunlight, and is not in complete disrepair (if concerned about a site, they do heavy metal testing). They use all organic methods to fertilize the soil: fish meal, soy bean meal, kelp meal,alfalfa pellets, and manure from local farms – so long as the farmers don’t give hormones to the animals. In exchange for the input of agricultural wealth and a share of the CSA, the owners of various yards provide space, water, and welcome City Garden Farms to come in about once a week to maintain the garden.

They grow everything, though sometimes melons and tomatoes have a rough time. Melons need almost desert heat, but here in the Willamette Valley you can grow: lettuce, radish, beets, rutabaga, peppers, carrots, beans and peas, endive, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, summer and winter squash. And that’s the short list. The good thing about CSA is you eat whatever is in season – subscribers pick up a box of vegetables once a week during a growing season of about 22 weeks. An average share in a farm goes for $500 for the season, that works out to about $20 a week. There are more expensive farms, some CSAs also do honey, fruit, meat, cheese, and eggs, and have different growing seasons.

“I would love to be able to employ people and take on more volunteers,” Bravin ventures, but so far with only 40 shares (they’re still working on finalizing the number), it’s not a full time wage for both Bravin and Barrett. “My original idea – I like growing salad greens – was setting up gardens to grow salad greens and maintaining them for people.” The idea quickly took root and suddenly Bravin started noticing other people acting on the same impulse. Most notable is a Canadian effort, Small Plot Intensive, or as it’s more commonly known “SPIN Farming“. Bravin explains, “Their model allowed us to think more thoroughly about how to grow on a small scale for a CSA or Farmers’ Market.” Spin produces manuals and a website explaining how much to grow and how to optimize time and space. Another great inspiration is Growing Power by Will Allen in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “He’s leading the charge in urban agriculture,” Bravin says and that’s no exaggeration. In 2008, Allen received a McArthur Foundation Fellowship of $500,000.

City Garden Farms will give a workshop on March 10th and 14th to teach gardening, how to start your own small urban farm, and how to start your own CSA, if you want. “We’re training people to be our competition, but at this point … ” Check out the Urban Growth Bounty series of workshops presented by the City of Portland Office of Sustainable Development to learn everything from growing vegetables, raising chickens, beekeeping, cheese making, to CSAs. “Food security is a good use of space in the city”.

SPIN Farming with Dan Bravin and Martin Barrett
Small Plot Intensive Farming techniques
One class, offered two times;
Tuesday, March 10, 6:00–9:00 p.m.
Beverly Cleary/Fernwood School, 1915 NE 33rd
Saturday, March 14, 9:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m.
East Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District, 5211 N. Williams

$40 each
Register now for March 10
Register Now for March 14


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