Working Theory Farm sprouts produce, community in Hillsboro
On a field off Davis Road in South Hillsboro, Working Theory Farm is growing more than just produce and pigs — it's growing a sense of community for teenagers and connection with the needy families of Washington County.
The nonprofit's operations are a case study in the ways that urbanization has impacted farming, and also how historically marginalized communities have rallied around community resources.
This field used to be on the outskirts of Hillsboro. Now, it's in the middle of suburban development. The Witch Hazel and Meadow Oaks neighborhoods are some of the fastest-growing parts of the city.
Program manager Henney Sullivan says the farm has seen both the negative and positive impacts of this urbanization.
"Gentrification has impacted the families of the youth we work with," he said, "and we've had some impacts to our waterways from the nearby construction."
Just a few years ago, the field down the street from South Meadows Middle School was surrounded by mostly open fields. Now, there are new homes and a large apartment complex across the street.
"None of this development was here," Sullivan said, pointing around to the residential properties that surround the fields. "The suburbs are rapidly rising all around us."
On the positive side, Sullivan says the growth has brought more interested customers to the farm. One of the farm's neighbors is a family from Cameroon, for example, who brought over seeds for West African produce to be grown on the farm and become a provider of produce for others in the West African diaspora who may not be able to find those vegetables elsewhere.
Those families sometimes bring some of those traditional dishes to share with farm employees. They're a big hit with the youth who work at the farm, he added.
The youth component has become a very big part of Working Theory Farm's business, too.
Kids in middle school, high school and immediately post-graduation work on the farm through partnerships with Washington County's juvenile justice program — including the Harkins House youth shelter — and HomePlate Youth Services in Beaverton.
Justin Green got the idea for Working Theory Farm while he was a teacher, first in the San Francisco Bay Area and then in Portland at Open Meadow Alternative Schools. He saw many students struggle to engage with the typical classroom environment.
"I was a high school teacher by profession and working with kids who were struggling in various ways and not connecting with the traditional education experience," Green said.
He started a gardening elective for kids to learn how to grow simple produce and work outdoors. He noticed that the kids who underperformed inside of a classroom were often the ones that thrived in the outdoor, hands-on environment.
Green felt like kids should have a program where they could work and play outdoors, learning about agriculture in the process. He started the farm in 2012 and turned it into a nonprofit in 2019 — with the aim of providing youth with transitional employment.
It's not a totally unique business model in Washington County. Supa Fresh Youth Farm in Metzger also puts teens and young adults to work for what it calls a social purpose enterprise, contributing produce and flowers to local schools and fellow nonprofits.
At Working Theory Farm in Hillsboro, some youths are hired part-time to work at the farm, while others work for community service credit. The farm is even preparing an internship through the Hillsboro School District, where students can earn class credit for working there.
One such worker is Shirley Lopez-Tomas, who graduated high school in 2019 and started at Working Theory Farm last summer. She came to the farm through its partnership with HomePlate, the Beaverton-based nonprofit. She says farm work appealed to her.
"I didn't want to work in an office environment," Lopez-Tomas said. "I was always told to go out and work in the fields."
The youth component also helps the farm maintain its other primary function: being a pipeline for donated produce that goes to needy families.
Most of Working Theory Farm's produce goes to Centro Cultural de Washington County's Free Food Mercado, a space where low-income families can "shop with dignity" for whatever they need, as though strolling through a regular grocery store — though it's free of charge.
"Centro has one of the most impressive, well-thought-out community food distribution hubs in the region," said Green. "They've been a tremendous partner for us … and help for us getting our food back out into the community."
That support for food-insecure families, especially among the local Latino population, has become the main part of Working Theory Farm's business model.
"Over the last three years, we've donated about 30,000 pounds of produce," said Sullivan. "We're so new to the area … that our partnership with Centro has just been incredible and helpful."
While the farm started out by selling some of its produce and animal-based products to retailers like New Seasons Market, the nonprofit has transitioned to a community resource as opposed to a traditional agricultural farm, Sullivan explained.
Through its SOPA program (Sustainable Organic Produce for All), Working Theory has focused on supporting food insecure families within Hillsboro's Latino population.
Providing community, not labor
Lopez-Tomas is a second-generation immigrant. Her family migrated from Guatemala when her older brother was still young.
She said that, even though her family always stressed agricultural work over office work, her mom was "initially hesitant" to let her work on the farm.
"There is so much colorism that can happen, and I think she was worried about us being taken advantage of," Lopez-Tomas said. "The migrant farms were so much about … working so hard for so little pay."
Despite not having generational ties to this area, her family has heard stories about this area's history of migrant farmworkers living in squalid conditions and being worked to the bone.
It's not all the past, either. While the last of the most visible migrant camp shelters — historically in areas around North Plains and south of Hillsboro — have largely been torn down, a degree of distrust among the Latino population toward farm employers remains. They want to be employed, but they don't want to be exploited.
"It's still in the present tense for people," Sullivan said of farm work and the conditions that come with it.
That's one thing Working Theory strives to do differently. It's less about pushing the kids to work and more about providing them with a place to feel connected to the earth and to each other.
"Every day we get to work and walk on this land is a privilege," Sullivan said. "Especially as this area changes more into the sameness of suburbia."
Sullivan said he's heard from numerous youth workers about how crucial this is. Lopez-Tomas said she enjoys the "tranquility" of being on the farm.
Not only has this partnership with groups like Centro Cultural provided Working Theory Farm with local connections, but their efforts to feed needy families have also garnered the attention of national nonprofits and state organizations.
The farm secured a $15,000 grant from the national nonprofit Simply Organic earlier this year to bolster its SOPA program. The extra cash essentially allowed the program to continue producing the same level of donated food as it did during the earliest months of the pandemic — when food insecurity was at its highest levels in decades.
"That SOPA grant was really about sustaining that same level of donation and production," Sullivan said.
Working Theory Farm has also received grants from the Oregon Community Foundation and the Oregon Department of Education.
The business is also supported through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) model, where customers can essentially buy shares of the farm to get free seasonal produce in return for their part-ownership.
Customers pay at the beginning of the planting season and then can pick up a box of seasonal produce every week throughout the harvesting season. Sullivan noted that there are still shares of the farm available for purchase.
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