As John was kicking his feet through the dirt, he was quietly explaining his legacy. Gathering Together Farms is a 60-acre farm in Philomath, OR, our first stop 4 hours south of Olympia. With over 60 types of vegetables and fruits grown intensively on the property, we were stuck by the sheer diversity – in every since of the word — of their operation. Providing for a (delicious!) on-farm restaurant and farm stand, 350-family CSA visiting 5 farmers markets on the weekends, along with growing for Organically Grown Company, John’s humbleness is something to admire.
John’s humility shined through as he spoke to us as his equals. He seemed intrigued and inspired by a group of young people interested in seeing his production practices.
The farm’s growth is impressive, though he acknowledges, “We’ve been growing ever since we started. Just responding to demand as we create it.” He certainly keeps himself busy, but this fact didn’t stop him from spending his morning (and part of his afternoon!) showing us around the operation.
Key players in the Willamette Valley organic movement, John and Sally started the oldest CSA in Oregon 27 years ago. “Organic is just going back to what grandpa did,” John chuckles.
GTF provides jobs for 114 people at the peak of the season, and many bounce back and forth from the restaurant and markets to the fields. Their care and dedication to their workers is apparent, as they provide family lunches for the crew three days a week and breakfast daily. “This chicken thing…” John says as he nonchalantly walks us past a brood of white hens sleepily plucking at grass: “For years we were feeding [the employees] home-grown produce and Costco chicken. I got to feeling pretty guilty about it, so this year we’re growing it ourselves.”
GTF shares their land with Wild Garden Seed, a seed-saving company run by Frank Morton on 8 acres of the land. As we traversed the seed fields, we stumbled across Delicata squash starts and a beautiful story unfolded. After saving their own Delicata seed for years, establishing quite a rapport for their own variety, a cross-pollination mishap with acorn squash forced GTF to order seed from a company in Colorado. The result was disastrous, as there were reports of a long-lasting bitter aftertaste and general disappointment from Delicata enthusiasts. Stories from around the country helped conclude the squash had been cross-pollinated with a wild gourd, the seed destroying Delicata harvests all over the country for 2 years. “We had been giving out boxes of Delicata in our CSA for years prior, requesting that the seeds be returned to the farm,” explained John with sparkles in his eyes, “and we found a member-provided bag stuffed in a drawer.” This resulted in Wild Garden Seed starting a Delicata seed-saving program, while the rest of the operation remains focused around salad greens. This story exemplifies the importance of seed-saving and community involvement.
His advice for young farmers? “Get your systems down. Start small. Take care of your back; work on your stomach muscles. Find where you want to be. Live lean… And a trust fund wouldn’t hurt.”
We also ate a very spectacular meal at their restaurant, which included goat cheese, onion, garlic, and mushroom pizza, tomato, basil, mozzarella and mushroom pizza, fresh garden salad with fried mozzarella and zucchini, and semolina gnocchi with goat cheese, pesto and tomato sauces. This is us eating it.
And we saw this van.
Day one, complete.