Client Highlight: Winter Green Farm
Mindful Farming on a Wet Spring Day: A Visit to Winter Green Farm
It was a rainy Thursday morning when we met Chris Overbach at Winter Green Farm, located 30 minutes west of Eugene, Oregon.
“You guys are lucky,” he half-joked. “If it was sunny you would be chasing me around on my tractor all morning.”
Compared to the past few years, it has been an unusually wet and cold spring in the Willamette Valley. Being beholden to the uncertainty of the weather is nothing new to farmers, and this year has been no different. If we had visited the same time last year, the tomatoes would have been twice as high and more fields would have been full of vegetables. Yet Winter Green Farm makes do, as they have always done throughout the years.
Jack Gray and Mary Jo Wade founded Winter Green in 1980, and first became certified organic in 1984. Chris came to the farm fresh out of college in 1995, and started learning about farming in the best way possible – by working hard and getting his hands dirty. When we asked him why he got started in agriculture, the answer was pretty simple: “I wanted a job that I felt good about doing.”
In the early days, Chris started working closely with burdock (when Winter Green was focused on medicinal herb production), moved up to laying irrigation pipe (which, according to Chris, is the best way to get your farm chops), and gradually assumed more responsibilities around the operation.
Chris met his wife and business partner Shannon in 1999 when she was an intern at nearby Horton Road Organics. Chris recalls being impressed with Shannon’s shoveling abilities. They got married on the farm in 2003, and in 2008 they became partners with the other owners of the farm. Finally, in 2016 they bought all of the assets to run the vegetable-producing side of the business. The farm has played host to different ownership structures over the years – currently, Chris and Shannon operate vegetable production, while long-time employee Kevin Melia and partner Courtney Moore own the cattle herd and organic beef business.
It certainly has been a long and circuitous road that led them to where they are today, but in speaking to Chris and Shannon, it is clear that these many years working the land have given them a deep-rooted, sustainably-minded approach to farming.
“Mindful farming” is what Shannon called it. This ‘mindful farming’ philosophy encompasses so much – from the way that they follow organic and biodynamic practices; to sustainability efforts on the farm; to engaging with community through education and CSA programs; giving back through donations to local food banks and women’s shelters – the list goes on and on.
Chris and Shannon work with about 50 certified organic acres on Winter Green Farm, and they mainly run a diverse mixed-vegetable operation (although they also have sheep). The majority of their sales are direct to consumer – either through their 525 CSA shares, at farmers markets in Portland and Eugene, or straight to their customers at a local farm stand. They also sell through Organically Grown Company, and a few other avenues.
Connecting directly to consumers and community is an important part of Winter Green’s approach, and is one main reason why they do what they do. Feeding people organic and local food – it sounds simple, but Shannon says this can be so impactful. “You are going to feel it in your body. You’re going to feel the aliveness of what this food is – you truly are. That’s why we’re passionate about what we do. It’s feeding the people and educating the people too”.
This idea around the necessity of education also ties into their long-standing experience with Oregon Tilth. “Tilth has been a great organization because they’re pioneers of what we do. They show folks the world of growing organically and regeneratively” said Chris, who handles most of the administrative certification duties.
This commitment to organics led Winter Green Farm to win a “Producer of the Year” award from Oregon Tilth in 2002, and the Crop Farm Award for Excellence from the Oregon Organic Coalition in 2009.
When we asked about any advice for the next generation who wants to get into organic farming, Shannon passed down some age-old wisdom, which she learned during her time at Horton Road Organics: “Start small. You can always get bigger, but if you start too big, you’re gonna lose your shirt. I’ve seen that over the years. Just do things that you know, that you can be good at. Do them well and be mindful about them.”
There are always challenges with farming – for Chris and Shannon, the biggest difficulty right now is finding labor (and, of course, the weather). But, if our rainy morning spent at Winter Green Farm is any indication, they will make do. Chris sums up their purpose nicely: “We’re doing this for the livelihood – we want to have a good life, but we also want to sustain people’s lives, and sustain the earth for the future generations.”
Winter Green Farm has a lot more going on than we were able to cover in this piece – we encourage you to learn more by checking out their website or (if you’re in Eugene or Portland) visiting them at the farmers market.
Note: this is the first in an ongoing series of Tilth Client Stories, highlighting the diverse and impactful work our clients are doing in the field of organics. If you or someone you know would like to be highlighted in this series, please write to Franklin at firstname.lastname@example.org