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Crossroads generation

By Erin Volheim

In the rural wilds of Southwest Oregon is a small river valley steeped in history. Here, wildlife, big and small, roam the surrounding public lands and occasionally cross paths with ranchers and farmers. The Little Applegate Valley is named for its river, that merges with the greater Applegate river and flows into the Rogue River on its run to the ocean.

The Oregon Territory was created in 1848. The Little Applegate Valley has had its share of outposts from that time within what was once less than a day’s horseback ride from each other: Crump, Sterlingville and Buncom. Today three remnant buildings of Buncom still stand as a crossroads ghost town. In 1854, gold miners moved into the Buncom area, long inhabited by the native Dakubetede tribe. After that the trappers came. Later came the loggers, farmers and ranchers.

Ironically, those of us who made a choice to return to our agricultural roots have had to work extra hard to reclaim the legacy that has been lost to us.

Almost 150 years later, the Little Applegate Valley still offers a place for a regenerative land-based life. As my neighbor, Reeve Hennion, who owns the land where Buncom once stood wrote, “Today, the memory of Buncom past -- of the strong, able and self-sufficient people who populated it -- is an always-present reminder of the importance of neighbors and community.” Here, one can learn from the past to gain perspective and insights into how to live as a more sustainable community in the present, with hope for the future.


The Little Applegate today

I’ve heard local old timers lament the loss of the rural way of life now replaced by urban refugees building fancy retirement homes on large lots. The fear is the Little Applegate will solely become a commuter neighborhood to nearby Medford or Ashland. While the Little Applegate does have its share of this constituency, in the past 10 years it has also seen an influx of “pioneering” Generation X’ers. These folks came at the end of the 1990s, in their late 20s and 30s, and have been working hard ever since to re-embody a rural way of life that most did not grow up in.


Generation -X farmers

Defining a generation is one way of earmarking the influences of culture on a population. Generation X was born roughly between 1964-1980.

Our reputation when we were younger was one of “slackers,” because we didn’t support the institutions our parents held sacred. Early on, we saw the failings of industrial culture. We valued life, friends and our families over jobs but our culture didn’t seem to support that.

We knew we wanted something different for the future, beyond the Mc Job. Regardless of our small generational size, we are so far considered the best-educated generation in U.S. history. In general, our ancestors left the rural way of life behind to build a better, more “civilized” life for our parents and their future grandchildren.

Ironically, those of us who made a choice to return to our agricultural roots have had to work extra hard to reclaim the legacy that has been lost to us. Educational experiences on established organic farms, agricultural programs and other ecological land projects have helped us regain the skills needed to redevelop a lost relationship with the land.


Meet the neighbors

Starting at Buncom, head six miles up Sterling Creek road, past the site of the Sterling Ditch Mine and the old cemetery for Sterlingville to the Siskiyou Crest Goat Dairy on Boone’s Farm. Michael “Mookie” Moss, 33, started this organic goat dairy in 2000 on 64 acres. It was a three and a half year process to become an Oregon Grade A Creamery. Today, the micro-creamery puts out the tastiest organic chevre and other handcrafted cheeses for the Siskiyou Sustainable Co-op CSA, and our local farmers’ markets.

Throughout the season the resident crew host educational workshops, tours and a summer apprenticeship for prospective young farmers. Besides working hard on the farm, Mookie is co-president of Friends of Family Farmers and is a rancher advocate for the protection of mountain lions in Oregon.

Head back down the road to Buncom, and turn left onto Little Applegate Road, you’ll pass the Weavers’ Soay Sheep Ranch on the way to Wolf Gulch Farm. Tom, 41, and Maud Powell, 36, have been working this land for over 10 years now. This once neglected ranch is now an Oregon Tilth certified organic family farm with 20 acres out of 180 in cultivation (see the Swale Well article, In Good Tilth, Volume 19: Issue 1). They grow food for and manage the Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative CSA while saving seeds under contract for companies like Seeds of Change. Like most small farmers these days, they hold down second jobs. Tom runs his own irrigation business and Maud works for the OSU Small Farm Program at the local Extension Center.

If you backtrack two miles, you’ll come to the merging point of Yale Creek and the Little Applegate River, which was once the settlement of Crump. Nearby Tim, 45, and Beth, 39, Franklin run Oregon Tilth-certified Yale Creek Ranch. The ranch comprises 85 acres of pasture and hayfields, gardens, oak savanna and diverse woodlands. They raise grass-fed beef, goat, pork and lamb, pastured eggs, vegetables, seed, and fresh-cut flowers. They are also members of the Siskiyou Sustainable Cooperative CSA and Salmon-Safe Farms. Tim’s second job is with the Applegate Watershed Council.

Continuing up Yale Creek Road you’ll find the 200-acre Full Bloom Farm, a new community land project with its emerging hexagon-shaped strawbale community building, future home of Rise Up! Bakery. Community member farmer Matt has also been raising food for the Siskiyou Co-op CSA the past couple of years.

On your way back to Buncom, you’ll pass the original red barn of the Circle G Ranch built in the late 1800s, where our neighbors at the Salant Family Ranch raise grass-fed beef and lamb. We are across the way at Wilding, a young permaculture homestead on 64 acres. This year our nonprofit rural education center will open along with As the Crow Flies, a neighborly grower’s market featuring food grown on all these farms and in our no-till gardens.

These land projects are just a slice of the organic activity in the greater Applegate and Rogue valley in Southwest Oregon. The non-profit, Within Earthly Bounds (WEB) was formed as a way to coordinate and provide an educational format for the organic farming internships that were already happening at host farms in the Applegate Valley. We are all part of WEB’s network of educators throughout the growing season.


Getting from there to here

This winter, I interviewed some of my neighbor folk mentioned above, Maud, Tom, Tim and Mookie as Generation X Farmers. I wondered about the experiences that put them on their now steady course of working with the land and other animals. There was time when they were at the crossroads of pursuing white-collar careers or becoming full-time organic farmers. The conversations were about the art of mentoring and ultimately what being a “farmer” really means.


The guy with a pitchfork

The image of a farmer that most of us grew up with is the poor, uneducated, strong and proud guy in overalls. Tim grew up in Iowa with the idea that when you “get big, (you) get out. Only stupid kids stay on the farm.” Except for an uncle that he spent summers with, Tim didn’t have any other positive farming associations. He ended up getting a degree in Watershed Sciences.

“In our modern culture of specialization a farmer needs to be a generalist,” Maud pointed out. Today a small, organic farmer needs to be entrepreneurial and tech savvy, have a strong scientific and ecological foundation with a sense of the global political landscape. At heart, this is not any different than what was needed in the past, just in these times it is more complex.


Cultural convergence

A seed for many of these Gen-X farmers was farming in a developing nation’s culture, which helped them see the importance of reinvigorating that lifestyle in their own country. Maud and Tom’s life-changing experience was in their early to mid 20s. They participated in The Farm Project in Ladakh, Northern India, run by the International Society for Ecology and Culture founded by Helena Norberg-Hodge.

Ladakh at the time had only recently been open to Western influence. “This impact was equal, in a way, to the 200 years of colonial culture other countries had already experienced,” notes Tom. Life in Ladakh had been a sustainable society until this new influence, but now the kids were leaving the village to go work clerical jobs in the city. The Farm Project’s goals were twofold: help with the labor shortage on these mother-run farms, demonstrating that many young westerners actually craved the experience that Ladakhi teenagers were turning their back on. When Maud and Tom came back to the U.S., they knew that they wanted to run a CSA farm. They are still doing it a decade later.

Tim Franklin spent his 20s in Africa working on agroforestry and soil conservation projects with the Peace Corps. He continued working in Africa for many more years with pastoralists and small farmers there in an advisory role until 1995. He later took a job with the Applegate Watershed Council and created Yale Creek Ranch which takes a “farming with the wild” approach. “Through my sustainable farms research I discovered that my grandparents had once had a system on their farm, which is really like the one I’ve been trying to recreate for the past 10 years here.” Tim muses that “they had it altogether then, they just didn’t have a fancy label for it.”

Mookie grew up with activist parents in the Greenpeace office in Denver. In his sophomore year of college, he took a soul-searching break in British Columbia, where he got a urgent message from a friend whose family had just purchased 160 acres in upstate New York. That first season, they planted 13 acres, not knowing “their ass from a teakettle” and paid dearly, working 90-hour weeks to get through harvest.

Mookie remembers standing out in the field after only two months, looking at the crops and his dirty overalls thinking, “I’m a farmer,” which 13 years later makes him crack up. “Your scope of understanding of what the work means grows with the years. The longer you farm, the more you learn from this dialogue with the land.”

Soon Mookie returned to the West Coast and sought out organic farming mentors. This led him to another list of farms and mentors, including Northern California’s Occidental Arts and Ecology and Taylor Made Farms before he found Boone’s Farm in 2000.

In our conversation, Maud mentioned “When you think about the farmers that were pioneering what is now organic farming, they had to figure it all out. Nowadays there is so much more opportunity, support and resources especially online, even start-up funding. In a year, young farmers can be in a place that early on took us five years to get to.”


Generation X intersects with Generation Y

Our first potential summer intern of the year has come to check out Wilding. As we plant the spring chard, I question him on the topic of growing new farmers. Me, as Gen-X (38), and he, as a representative of Generation Y (or Millenials) at 24. He doesn’t know if he wants to be a farmer, but he knows that he wants to learn how to grow some of his own food, an ability once commonplace to almost everybody in the world.

Our conversation triggers a flashback to my own first experiences with growing food. I recall my neighbor’s pea patch when I was five, and the taste of that first pea out of the pod. I think of the cherry tomatoes from our vegetable garden we had in rural Germany where I lived as an Army brat at eight, and the strawberries from my first solo garden in the Washington suburbs when I was 15. The sweet beets (that I used to hate until my 20s), when I worked for several years at Alan Chadwick mentored organic gardens on Green Gulch Farm in Muir Beach, California. These are a few of the experiences that grew into what is now budding for me at Wilding, and I am now so grateful.

As a child of the 70s, the chomping of Pacman, TV and the green screens of the first computers governed my adolescence. Today, kids seem to grow up texting in their crib and downloading Sesame Street into Baby’s First iPod before they can walk. I realize as I sit in front of this computer (fighting the garden’s call) that most of us are still, and will continue to be, at a crossroads in one way or another.

Standing at the crossroads is always an opportunity, just as Gen-X farmers have with time learned to merge their dissatisfaction with the present with their new knowledge of old skills. The difference is that when Gen-Y comes to the crossroads, there will be a community of organic farmers to cross paths with.

Erin Volheim is the Outreach Caretaker at the Wilding Rural Education Center in Southern Oregon.

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