Go Small or Go Home: Flying Onion Farm proves that smaller can be better

Mark and Karen, owners of Flying Onion Farm

“I never mowed a lawn until I was 22, and now, here I am,” says Mark as he stands in the middle of Flying Onion Farm, a small, diversified farm dotted with do-it-yourself projects. Together, owners Mark and Karen strive to be as resourceful as possible. From logging and building their own barn, to sourcing everything from ducks to greenhouses on Craigslist (Karen claims that Mark is a “Craigslist whiz”), the couple cuts costs and minimizes their impact on the land.

The two acres that they use to grow food are part of the 65-acre Mahonia Land Trust Conservancy just outside of Oregon City. This land, featuring rolling hills and picturesque views of Mt. Hood, is protected from careless development and aims to promote outdoor education, sustainable agriculture, and community. Of the 65 acres, 55 of them remain wooded.

Mark and Karen's house (left) and the barn they built themselves (center)

When Mark and Karen spent their first year on Flying Onion Farm building infrastructure, they knew they had to be exceptionally mindful. Mark explains, “We tried to carve out a little niche without disturbing the land.” Their plans included the removal of several trees to make space for a new orchard and the construction of a barn. So, what was their solution? The couple cleared the wooded area for the orchard and used that same timber to build a barn 20 feet away.

This mindfulness carries over to their farming methods, as well. With more than 23 years of organic farming experience between the two of them, Mark and Karen are dedicated to farming in a manner that benefits the environment, as well as the eater. They try to work with—instead of fight—natural systems. For example, they let their small flock of ducks roam the land and eat slugs. It’s a simple act that satisfies the ducks and benefits the plants.

Fennel and radicchio at the Oregon City Downtown Winter Farmers Market

While their past farming experience taught them a lot about what to do, it also showed them what not to do. Mark laughs as he explains that working on a 65-acre farm taught him to stay small. The size of Flying Onion Farm gives the farmers the opportunity to “baby” their plants. “A lot rides on everything,” Mark says as he explains how you have to be more detail-oriented when you’re working on a farm of this nature. They take good care of the soil and aim to produce a few high-quality crops without a lot of waste.

Mark picking out a snack in the greenhouse

“We like to think of ourselves as large scale gardeners,” Mark announces, but he quickly adds, “Ok, occasionally we use a tractor.” Mark and Karen like to keep things interesting by growing a wide range of vegetables and a few unusual varieties. They are currently growing a trial plot of overwintering cauliflower for a British seed company. Nobody knows how they will fare in this country, but we’re about to find out. Flying Onion Farm also grows more familiar crops like parsnips, Brussels sprouts, spinach, and carrots (I had the privilege of munching on one of these straight from the ground!).

As my visit came to a close, Mark and Karen searched their minds for any details they left out. After a bit of reflection, Mark summed up by saying, “We knew how we wanted to do things, what we wanted, and what we needed.” The two of them gave it a little more thought, and Karen suddenly looked at Mark with realization: “We did good!”

They certainly did.

Gina Lorubbio

Portland Fall Food Warrior

For more photos and information, check out Flying Onion Farm on Real Time Farms!


Village Gardens Cultivates Community

Photo courtesy of Village Gardens

Village Gardens saved my life,” Helen Nash exclaimed at the nonprofit’s 10th anniversary celebration last Saturday in the St. Johns neighborhood of Portland. What started off as a simple community garden has grown to affect countless people like Helen with a youth-run organic farm, kids garden programs, a livestock committee, community health workshops, and a healthy corner store.

One of the most notable projects, Food Works, uses an urban farm to teach young adults from ages 14-21 about farming, business, community, and themselves. The youth operate a 2.5-acre certified organic farm on Sauvie Island where they grow over 40 different types of vegetables. In this past year alone, they produced 12,919 pounds of food. They sold their produce at the Village Market, New Seasons, the St. Johns Farmers Market, and the Portland State University Farmers Market, bringing in a total of $14,000.

Photo courtesy of Village Gardens

While those statistics are impressive, they don’t account for the immeasurable impact this program has on its young participants and their community. The Food Works youth tirelessly give their time, energy, and carefully cultivated produce to their neighbors. They package oats, beans, and rice at the Oregon Food Bank, volunteer at the community gardens, and pass out fresh vegetables (for free!) every Thursday.

The participants learn many job skills, including time management, communication, and leadership. In fact, I watched firsthand as the Food Works youth gained public-speaking experience during their presentation at the 10th anniversary celebration of Village Gardens. These young adults also learn a great deal about nutrition. They learn how to grow fresh vegetables and how to cook them, and in turn, they share these healthy habits with their families and friends, creating a strong, healthy community.

The newest installment of the Village Gardens program—the Village Market—offers a consistent outlet for Food Works produce. The market is a “healthy corner store project” that aims to bring fresh produce to the New Columbia neighborhood of North Portland where healthy food is rather inaccessible to its diverse residents.

Food Works carrots at the Village Market

Instead of selling chips, soda, alcohol, and tobacco, the Village Market is a convenient, affordable corner store that offers meats, produce, dairy, and bread. The store also includes a small deli and selection of grab-and-go foods that provide a healthy alternative to fast food meals. The Village Market makes the most convenient option also the healthiest—it’s brilliant!

In addition to cultivating physical health, the Village Market also strengthens the health of the New Columbia, Tamaracks, and St. Johns Woods communities. The store is completely run by residents of these neighborhoods, and the staff boasts some of the friendliest people around.

I am fortunate enough to live three short blocks from the market, and I can personally attest to this claim. Often, I find myself buying one or two items at a time to ensure that my visits to the store will be frequent. I also make it a point to purchase my bus tickets at the Village Market, even when my wallet is stuffed with one-dollar bills. These decisions all come down to one thing: the people. Sure, affordable, fresh food is enough to bring a smile to my face, but it’s the people who work here that keep me smiling even after I walk out the door.

Fresh produce and community artwork at the Village Market

Village Gardens has done amazing work over the past ten years, from Food Works to the Village Market and beyond. Helen Nash explained, “It’s not just a garden,” and as I watched community members talk about foods they’ve grown, meals they’ve shared, and friendships they’ve formed, I began to understand what she meant. It’s not just a garden–it’s a family.

Gina Lorubbio

Portland Fall Food Warrior

Real Time Farms