Meet the New American (Zen) Farmer

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Michael & Jill Paine of Gaining Ground Farm

Edible Portland


In Michael and Jill Paine’s modern split-level farmhouse nestled in the rolling hills of the Chehalem Valley, there’s a picture window with a breathtaking view of the ADEA Vineyard and the wooded hills beyond. Next to this bucolic view hangs a framed piece of calligraphy that reads:

“Until enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.”

I read the phrase and looked with bewilderment at my host for an explanation. “It’s a birthday present I got a few years ago,” Michael says with his characteristic wide smile, “to remind me of the Zen of being a farmer.”

It’s suddenly obvious that I’m not chatting with the average American farmer. At a time when small family farms are disappearing and the average age of farmers is 55, this 30- something couple is an anomaly. Led by their passion for working the land, a love of food, and a need to prove the loan officers and big-business agriculture wrong, Michael and Jill Paine have done something very risky: they’ve gone into farming.

Michael’s interest in farming begin with a stint as a Peace Corp volunteer in Lesotho, a land-locked nation surrounded by South Africa.  Working alongside farmers in hardscrabble conditions to create community gardens in poverty-stricken villages, Michael fell in love with farming. Though gratifying, it was also an eye- opener. “Agriculture is a cornerstone of development in the third world, but as aid poured into the country, I was amazed at how many big ag decisions were being made by people who didn’t know anything at all about farming. Most of those projects failed/ That’s when I realized I wanted to get involved int he policy aspect of agriculture.”

After another year abroad on a farm in Costa Rica, the couple moved to California so Michael could pursue a master’s degree in international agricultural development at U.C. Davis. The academic training, combined with introductions to the farming community and working the land at the university, provided Michael with some valuable lessons. “I learned the vocabulary and academics of both organic and conventional farming, but I also learned that farmers only listen to other farmers. If I wanted to make a dent on any policy level, I would have to start farming on my own.”

Edible PortlandAfter completing his master’s, the Paines came to Oregon, attracted by what Michael calls the “goodness” of Portland’s food culture. Jill found a position at Nike and the couple began to look for a farm of their own. Like many other young farmers, they faced an uphill battle:“Nobody would lend to us. We had a business plan, good credit, the down payment, and credentials,” Michael says, throwing up his sturdy work-worn hands in frustration. “One loan officer looked us straight in the face and said, ‘This is a great business plan, but there’s no way this bank is going to give a loan to start up a farm.’”

Jill nods sadly, “We couldn’t believe it! We’re not talking about making meaningless widgets here; we’re talking about growing food. We desperately need more farmers, not hurdles like an interest rate of six over prime for them to jump over.”

Through some creative maneuvering, the Paines managed to secure a loan at a decent interest rate and were able to buy a sloping 76-acre farm an hour west of Portland. Michael and Jill made a conscious decision to sell directly to consumers through the farmers’ market and a conscription model known as “community supported agriculture” (CSA). “Being at the CSA drop and connecting with the people, and knowing their names and their kids’ names, and talking with them about what they did with the produce we brought them the week before—that’s the best part for us,” Jill says enthusiastically.

Five years later, the Paines are continuing to gain ground. Jill still holds down her day job in addition to being a part-time farmhand, business manager and full-time mother to their newborn son Ely. Michael, with the help of summer interns, has created a successful stall at the PSU farmers’ market and a CSA service with 60 subscribing families including a “Feed- a-Family” program that raises donations so that 10% of the farm’s total shares are given to food-insecure families in the Portland area.

As for policy-making, Michael may not be changing policy on an international level, but he’s affecting change locally. He’s a volunteer member of the Portland-Multnomah Food Policy Council, an advisory board that helps local government make informed food and farming policy decisions. He’s also an active member in the Portland area CSA Coalition (PACSAC), a CSA farmer support network. Through the lens of this community service, Michael sees a bright future for Portland’s small farms and the consumers they serve. “As gas prices continue to climb, produce from Chile becomes less viable and locally grown food becomes more important. I think that as our food savvy and local food economy develop, a climate is being created where a young family can look at farming as a financial possibility again.”

After the Paines finish giving me a tour of the farm–including greenhouses, two irrigation ponds, Berkshire pigs, free-range chickens, and numerous goats—we sit down at the long dining table to a casserole of green chile enchiladas. Michael pauses before digging in and looks at the phrase hanging on the wall behind him. “You’d have to be in some kind of Zen mind-set to do this kind of toil,” he laughs. “But, at the end of the day, I feel exceptionally lucky to be able to make a living growing good food for people I know.”

Sounds like enlightenment to me.

Ivy Manning is a cooking instructor and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Sunset Magazine and Food & Wine. Her forthcoming cookbook, Farm To Table: The Art of Eating Locally (Sasquatch, Spring 2008), explores the edible joy of CSA membership and farmers’ markets.

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