Two families provide land

It's fairly well-known that Birch Community Services provides many programs to struggling families. The nonprofit's 22,500-square-foot warehouse holds tons of groceries and household products that families have access to by being in need and volunteering for the organization.

Birch serves about 550 working poor families each week in the Gresham area and shares extra donations each month with more than 10,000 people in need through 60 partner agencies.

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: BEVERLY CORBELL - Visitors tour the community garden at the Sunderland home in Gresham where people can grow their own food.Thanks to land made accessible by the Baker family in northeast Portland and the Sunderland family in Gresham, many families can grow food they harvest themselves and share with other families in need through BCS.

Birch volunteers, friends and staff got a chance to tour Brian and Julie Sunderland's garden last week when on Aug. 21 BCS hosted a celebration with food from the gardens and warehouse and with bluegrass music provided free by Dinkins Mill. About 80 people attended and toured the grounds.Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: BEVERLY CORBELL - Bluegrass band Dinkins Mill performed at an event at the Sunderland home for Birch Community Services.

Birch spokesman Ray Keen said more than 4,000 pounds of food has been harvested from both gardens in just the last year.

“Families pick the produce and bring it to the warehouse and weigh it,” he said. “We also have a teaching garden at the Baker home” which uses permaculture gardening techniques.

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: BEVERLY CORBELL - Ray Keen, development manager for Birch Community Services, chats with Anne McLaughlin of Annie's Graphic Arts at a BCS party Aug. 21.“It's low cost and high yield,” Keen said. “We mix crops together to reduce pests, and as time goes on, we will have higher yields.”

Crops at the Baker garden include grapes, asparagus, persimmons, apples, figs, many kinds of berries and a variety of vegetables.

BCS also teaches classes so people can grow things at home, Keen said. At a recent class on growing garlic, for example, families learned how to grow it and then got clippings to take with them.

“We want families to grow more in their own homes or a community garden,” Keen said. “We want to help families grow as much of their own food as possible and it doesn't have to be time consuming or expensive.”

Julie Sunderland said it is a joy to see her family's land put to such good use.

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: BEVERLY CORBELL - Birch Community Services garden manager Matt Takahashi looks at crops at the Sunderland community garden.“The property has been in the family for three generations and at one time had 80 acres of strawberries,” she said. “The hill had been used as a garden for years, but (in recent years) it was just a sliding hill for the winter.”

Sunderland said she and her husband are friends with Angela and Casey Baker, and decided they also should donate land to be used for a community garden.

“It's a blessing to see faces come and go and see how it came about,” she said. “It helps teach families urban gardening. It's people helping themselves.”

Photo Credit: OUTLOOK PHOTO: BEVERLY CORBELL - Cherry tomatoes are one of many crops grown at the Sunderland home in Gresham for Birch Community Services families.With 20 raised beds, the 734-square-foot Sunderland garden uses square-foot gardening techniques on the hillside garden that contains fruit trees, tomatoes, garlic, cabbage, onions, apples, broccoli, kale, lettuce, strawberries, carrots and other veggies.

“We focus on trying to be as organic as possible and don't use pesticides,” Keen said.

Executive director Suzanne Birch, who founded BCS with her husband Barry, agreed that the gardens are a blessing.

“We are really thankful for the Sunderlands and it's an adventure we never would have started on our own” she said.

In addition to the garden, Birch said, garden manager Matthew Takahashi got his construction class students from Mt. Hood Community College to build a shed for tools that also functions as a greenhouse, affectionately named the Sunderland Dream Shed.

“The Dream Shed is a place to plant seeds and is symbolic to people who come here,” Sunderland said. “Folks come to Birch Community Services to learn about and now six other organizations, using our model as a template, have sprung up across the country."

If the gardening program grows the way BCS food distribution has, many more are sure to follow suit, Keen said.

“We gave away 7.1 million pounds of food and household items through Birch Community Services in 2013,” Keen said.

To learn more about the work of Birch Community Services, call 503-251-5431 or log onto

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