Good Food, Good Living

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our-tableAn ex-Microsoft executive hatches a new business model to help small-scale, sustainable farmers thrive.

By Kerry Newberry
Photos by Shawn Linehan
The drive to Our Table Cooperative farm winds through backcountry roads and by stately subdivisions dotted with craftsman-style homes. The 58-acre property sits about one mile from Sherwood’s urban growth boundary, where urban, suburban, and rural landscapes meet. “I look at this place as a grand experiment,” says Narendra Varma, as he walks along a stream that flows through the property.

Born and raised in India, the 46-year-old Varma possesses the animation of a college philosophy professor, with wire-rimmed spectacles and swiftly moving dialogue. One second he’s quoting author-farmer Wendell Berry and the next, the theories of British economist E.F. Schumacher. Varma moved to the United States in 1986 to attend Brown University, graduating with a degree in Educational Technology, and then landed a job in Seattle at Microsoft.

“We talk about local food a lot, but really, we don’t quite know what that means,” Varma muses as we walk past hoop houses brimming with spring greens. When he speaks, his hands rise and fall, punctuating phrases for emphasis. “We do know it’s very different from what our grandparents experienced,” he says. “But what does a revitalized local food system that meets our contemporary requirements really look like?”

Varma came to Oregon farm life by a circuitous route. He and his wife, Machelle, retired from Microsoft in 1998. While raising their children, they became interested in food and health, agriculture and the environment. This led to studying books and philosophies on small-scale farming, permaculture design, biodynamic agriculture, and soil vitality. During his research, Varma was struck by the crisis facing young farmers today, many of whom encounter staggering roadblocks to entry. According to a recent study from the National Young Farmers Coalition, access to capital and land are two of the biggest barriers for young farmers.

It’s very difficult to make a viable livelihood as a small-scale, organic farmer…There’s no health insurance, no retirement. You are living on the edge of financial viability.

 

members“It’s very difficult to make a viable livelihood as a small-scale, organic farmer,” says Varma. “There’s no health insurance, no retirement,” he says. “You are living on the edge of financial viability.” The latest agricultural census reports that 57 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million farms gross less than $10,000 a year, requiring most to rely on “off-farm” income to survive.

To feed us, small-scale farmers are growing food out of pure passion, posits Varma, and they are struggling financially. “It’s not sustainable,” he says. In 2010, Varma and his wife decided to see if they could find solutions to some of these problems, breaking ground with what was originally envisioned as a small-farm incubator.

“But the issues facing young farmers don’t just magically vanish once they graduate from that incubator,” says Varma. The farmers may leave with new skills, but the challenges of access to land and capital—not to mention marketing, aggregation services, and distribution—still loom. This led Varma to explore a cooperative model that would support new farmers and expand to include entrepreneurial, small-scale food producers.

“A cooperative by nature is collaborative, and it incentivizes a more holistic view of natural resources and people,” says Varma. The cooperative model stands in stark contrast to the “get big or get out” mentality, which defines the broader economic system that propels a more industrial form of land management and agricultural practices. Varma knew he wanted to build a farm around the principles of permaculture, a concept that advocates designing human systems based on natural ecosystems. “We realized, if we want to have a different land ethic, we needed a different economic system,” says Varma.

Looking for arable land near an urban center, Varma and his wife found 60 acres of forest and gently cresting farmland 15 miles south of Portland. Using his own capital, Varma invested in the infrastructure of the farm: a food processing facility, food storage capability, barns, and an irrigation system. Varma and his family currently live on the property, and they plan to build up to two more residences. There’s a stream that flows year-round, grazing paddocks for chickens and cows, fields of blueberry and raspberry bushes, and in the summer and fall, rows of organic vegetables. On a clear day, you can spot the snow-capped peak of Mt. Hood.

From where he stands now under a low-hanging sky, Varma can point to a chorus line of fruit- bearing trees, from fig and shiro plum to fuji apple. “Did you know the average American household today spends more on cable television and cellphones than food?” Varma asks. It’s this shift in values that leaves him incredulous, wondering what happened to the ritual of food. Varma still remembers reveling in mango season each year as a child in India.

He nods to Wendell Berry for inspiring his call to action with a speech the author gave at the Washington Post Live Future of Food Conference in 2011. “What he said is that the problems that face us as a society are essentially of our own making,” says Varma. “Which means the solutions are as well. It’s our own imagination. We created it. We can imagine something else,” he says. After that rally, he decided to “pick up a shovel and start doing.”

Imagination and a sense of possibility imbue Varma. There are other agricultural co-ops— think Organic Valley, Norpac, and Tillamook. There are other experimental investment models, such as development-supported agriculture (DSA) or “agrihoods,” which are suburban housing developments built around working farms. But there’s nothing quite like Our Table’s multi-stakeholder cooperative model, which seeks to transform the economics of small-scale farming.

One of the core tenants for Our Table is nurturing relationships. “From the fields to the farm, everybody has a seat at the table,” says Varma. “We see food as the catalyst for community,” says Varma. Three member groups compose the Our Table multi-stakeholder community—workers, producers, and consumers—and each group shapes the future of the farm.

 

If it doesn’t leave the land in a way that is better or as good as we found it, how is that success?

 

Anyone can join as a consumer member by purchasing an ownership share. Consumer members receive patronage dividends in profitable years, lower food prices on membership days at the on- site grocery, discounts on educational classes, the ability to vote in co-op elections, and the right
to run for the board of directors. The farm currently has 50-plus consumer members, the majority from the surrounding community.

Cecil Denney lives in West Linn, about ten miles from Our Table, and first joined as a subscriber to the farm’s community-supported agriculture (CSA) program. “As I learned more about the farm, I wanted to provide greater support so became a consumer member,” he says. The more Denney interacts with the farmers, the more he values his stake in the cooperative, knowing that he is directly supporting the people who grow his food.

The current “worker members” consist of a pioneer group of four individuals who were at Our Table before the co-op was even formed. Eligibility for this group requires candidates to work for one year at the cooperative before they can buy in as a stakeholder. Workers—ranging from farmers planting the fields to those processing food and making sales—are paid a base wage plus benefits and share in the profits in the form of a patron dividend.

Karen Flowers joined Our Table two years ago as a worker member after completing the Beginning Urban Farmer Program at Oregon State University. “I believe the multi-stakeholder co-op model brings a unique sense of ownership that encourages involvement, caring, and commitment to our local food system,” she says. “I have seen this happen for myself but also for consumer members of our co-op. They are developing an increasing understanding of the challenging but crucial importance of growing food locally in a sustainable way.”

The third stakeholder group, producers, is still in its infancy. Similar to the model for worker members, a potential producer member goes through a 12-month courting period before either party commits to co-ownership. There are currently eleven producers on the path to membership, people who produce a range of agricultural products, from specialty crops and meats to dairy and coffee.

The idea of partnering with regional producers is twofold. “First, producers augment what is grown and raised on our farm in Sherwood so that the co-op can offer more of the one-stop experience for consumers,” says Mallory Cochrane, aggregation and distribution manager for Our Table. “Second, producers increase their revenues through additional sales, above wholesale pricing, and profit sharing.”

Our Table uses small farms and producers around the region instead of a single farm to provide the products. The multi-stakeholder cooperative model allows all three member groups to be tied together through shared decision making, financial investment, and benefits. The model invites everyone, including the consumers, to help make the project a success and to share in its profits—or losses. This for-profit venture comes with risk, as Varma knows. But he believes it is essential to move away from extractive forms of capital, and the cooperative model is one step forward in that direction.

In two short years, Our Table has built up a 500-plus CSA program and launched an on-farm grocery. The grocery and commercial kitchen, which opened last fall, sells local meat, eggs, dairy, and organic fruits and vegetables. Kombucha, beer, and wine are available on tap. Baked goods, house-made soups, and jams change with the seasons. From the front door of the store, you can spy grazing cattle and sprouting rows of lacinato kale and hakurei turnips.

“To me, this is the perfect example of a farm pushing boundaries…providing value-added products, running a CSA, and working with producers from the region. And it’s just in the beginning phases so I can only imagine it’s going to get better,” says chef Joshua McFadden of Ava Gene’s in Portland.

“This is one of the most important agriculture examples that we have going right now,” says
McFadden.

When asked about success, Varma refers to his vision of the whole farm as a single, self- contained organism. “You can’t really define success for one stakeholder; we all have to thrive for the whole to thrive,” he says.

For customers, it means access to food that is high quality, affordable, and meets their needs. Success for the farmer is producing a crop in a way that regenerates the soil and making a decent living. Success might translate to rollicking sales for producers and stronger relationships with the entire community. “Or the whole thing is a giant failure,” says Varma. “We still learn something from it. We still try,” he adds, undeterred.

“Of course we have a business plan and financial predictions in order for us to succeed from a purely financial perspective. But that is only one aspect of what success means,” says Varma. One of the shifts he hopes to highlight through the cooperative model is moving from economically driven agriculture to values-based agriculture.

Varma reflects, “If it doesn’t leave the land in a way that is better or as good as we found it, how is that success? It might be great for me today, but it also needs to be good for my children and my great-grandchildren. That’s the way I look at success. It’s a much broader, longer view.”

Kerry Newberry is a Portland-based freelance writer covering food, wine, and travel for local and national publications.

READ: More stories from the Spring 2015 issue

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