Farm: Our Table Cooperative

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DLR5556Our Table Cooperative is a 2014 Local Hero Award nominee in the Farm category. Read about the Local Hero Awards and the nominees. Voting is now closed. Winners will be announced at Summer’s First BBQ on June 12 – get your tickets today to feast with the Pacific Northwest’s finest!

Since its purchase in 2011, Our Table Cooperative, a 58-acre parcel near Sherwood, has grown from a dream into a dynamic, multifaceted farm. Our Table operates uniquely through a cooperative model, offering membership to its 12 workers on the farm, other regional producers, and customers. It takes a view of the farm as a single, whole organism – every component building into and feeding the others, from vegetables to animals to plans, this summer, for the farm to open its own store and commercial kitchen.

We spoke with Marketing Director Gianna Banducci and farmer Karen Flowers about how Our Table is uniquely positioning itself in the regional food system.

 

How did the farm start, and how does it work within a cooperative model?

Gianna: The motivation for the farm came from the current state of our food system. It’s industrialized, consolidated, one-size-fits-all, and that’s not what gets us healthy local food. Machelle and Narendra Varma started the farm based on an alternative approach, pulling on the wisdom of the past and adapting it to how we live and eat today. We’re looking to be part of a regional food system based on the surrounding community. Some of the main things we have going on the farm are U-pick blueberries, a CSA, and we’ll be opening a farm store and commercial kitchen this summer.

 

The business model is a multi-stakeholder food and farm cooperative. Within the co-op there are the workers on our farm, regional producers and small farmers, and our customers. With the regional producers, we want to pool resources and services, so we can market, sell, and deliver together. This allows regional producers to focus on what they do best. Customers also can buy in and are eligible for different events and promotions, and how much they spend determines their share of the profit. We work with a wide range of stakeholders from farmer to eater, in a system based on real costs that are apparent to everyone involved.

 

What do you have growing on the farm?

Karen: We have almost three acres of vegetables and nine acres of blueberries. We’re also planting out strawberries, raspberries, and even organic flowers this year as part of our U-pick. We’ll have an organic pumpkin patch this fall. We raise free-range geese, pasture chickens and laying hens for eggs. We’re partnering with another farm to offer grass-fed beef shares to our customers. When the farm store and commercial kitchen are ready, we’re also going to offer prepared and preserved foods like stews, lasagnas, pies, and jams and jellies.

 

FullYearCSAWhat is special about your CSA program, and why is it a valuable model?

Karen: Our CSA is based on an individual-sized share, so it’s a great way to sample a CSA to see what it’s like. People have really come behind the CSA and gotten excited about the idea that they’re supporting a local farmer. I think the CSA is valuable because it gives people a much more intimate connection with their food than just buying at a grocery store. You build a relationship with the farm you’re getting it from. And I think that connection makes you value your food in a way that you never really have before – you understand what went into it. The other unique thing is that our farmer, Josh Volk, delivers into Portland via cargo bike. A couple of our farmers also post weekly on our blog with tips for preparing the unique vegetables that people may not have seen before.

 

What types of methods do you use on the farm?

Gianna: Our Table is currently going through the process of organic certification, and we’re headed toward a biodynamic certification in another two years. Biodynamic is a closed-loop ecosystem approach to farming, working with what’s existing on the farm as opposed to bringing in anything from outside. For example, with our blueberries, we use leaves and other things off the farm to mulch the plants instead of having to irrigate. And when the last season was over we ran our geese through the fields because they do a nice job of cleaning up all the remaining berries and leaves. It’s really an interlocked, diverse ecosystem-based approach to farming.

 

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What has been one of your greatest challenges?

Gianna: There is a big challenge in introducing an alternative into an existing and very embedded system. You have to get creative in selling your product in order to meet pricing requirements and still make enough to cover your costs. That’s why we want to build and strengthen a customer-direct channel through our farm store and have that to support the farm.

 

If there was one thing you could tell the world about farming, what would it be?

Karen: I grew up very disconnected from my food in Detroit, and I really had no idea how things grew. My personal journey has been into deeper and deeper connection into where food comes from. The message I’d love people to understand is that you really should care about where your food is coming from and where it’s grown. Was it grown in a way that gave back to the land and allowed for the land to be healthier in the future, so that we can continue to use it as a resource? My hope is that we’re helping people on that journey to discovery with food, knowing that connection will ultimately be better for our health, our communities, and our world.

Photos courtesy of Our Table Cooperative.

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