It’s a breezy Thursday evening at Oregon State University’s organic farm on the outskirts of Corvallis. A handful of helpers have gathered for the weekly work party. There’s compost to spread, grass to mow, hops to trellis, chickens to tend, weeds to pull, irrigation lines to move, vegetables to plant.
For the past nine years, this two-acre, student-run farm has been a training ground and a welcoming second home for hundreds of OSU students and community members. Each spring they whip the land into shape to grow vegetables that OSU’s Organic Growers Club will later sell on campus each Friday.
The farm, however, is more than a place to learn how to grow beets and broccoli. It’s a place where people find friendship and peace. A place where they sink their hands into the soil and let it bury their daily stresses. A place where at the end of the day, they gather around a picnic table and share a meal. It’s a place where they find community.
Just ask Elaine Daggett, a recent OSU graduate in botany. Over by the garden beds, she slips off her green Crocs and begins turning the soil in a row where basil will be planted. She’s whistling. “I’m so much happier now that I am associating with these guys,” she says. “It’s good to be outside. This is the real world.”
A few minutes later, James Cassidy walks over, wearing a shirt emblazoned with the slogan Pitchfork Revolution. Cassidy is an OSU soil science instructor and the club’s adviser. He sends out slightly subversive weekly e-mails reminding his “green soldiers” of what needs to be done at the farm and issuing calls to action like “Bring a bowl and a spoon and a readiness to garden organic!! … Save the world – one tomato plant at a time!!! … Don’t forget where you came from – stay in touch with the SOIL.”
At the other end of the planting beds, three students struggle to untangle a rat’s nest of wire that they’ll string along T-posts to trellis hop plants. “We’re going to see how much hops we can grow here; it should yield enough for some beer,” says David Philbin, who’s studying enology and viticulture at OSU.
Cassidy pulls a drip irrigation line over to the hops with help from Sean Wintroath, a student in environmental science. A self-described city kid, Wintroath joined the club to learn to grow his own food. In turn, he’s interested in teaching low-income people how to farm.
This evening’s quiet is suddenly interrupted by a loud, frantic squawk from a nearby mobile chicken coop.
“Oh no, chicken escape! Chicken escape!” Daggett says and joins the scramble to contain the chickens.
Meanwhile, over in the vegetable beds, six people are on their knees, pulling quackgrass and chatting about phytonutrients, sudan grass, and black currant juice. One of them is Sonya Springstead, a transcriber for OSU’s Disability Access Services. She transcribed Cassidy’s soil class and became a convert of what she calls his “soil cult.” She now volunteers at the farm because she enjoys the people. “You meet fascinating people who have dreams and ideals about what they want to do,” she says. “They’re students who want to go out in the world and change things.”
Work continues until bellies start to rumble. Everyone gathers at a picnic table next to Cassidy’s old Volkswagen Vanagon for the weekly communal dinner. It’s Cassidy’s turn in the kitchen, so he’s made a stew of potatoes, beans, spices, hot chilies, roasted vegetables, and garlic for the group to share. He has wrapped the pot in a sleeping bag to keep it warm. Standing next to a compost pile with a sign stuck in it that says “Compost the Man,” the workers talk about a range of topics, from pizza to voles. In the distance, cars rumble by on the highway, chickens cluck, and birds sing their bedtime lullabies. Wheelbarrows and shovels sit idly. The setting sun bathes the farm in a warm glow.
“We got a lot of work done,” Cassidy says. “The farm looks pretty darn good.”