Cultivating a sense of community
As the leaves change color and the rain begins to fall, inundating the soil and recycling the browned foliage back into the earth, the bustling of amatuer farmers at Luscher Farm begins to slow for the season.
The sights, smells and textures that characterize this bucolic scene make it hard to believe you're just a mere stone's throw from the heart of Lake Oswego. It's easy to get lost on the farm, and to pretend you're miles away from the stress of city life when you've got your hands in the soil or you're sitting on a bench, studying the most stylish scarecrow you've ever seen.
Life is easier out at Luscher Farm, and that rural spirit is a huge draw for the folks who work the community plots there or are seeking to become part of the coveted club. Whether it's a spiritual release with nature, a love for gardening or a self-sustaining commitment to the farm-to-table lifestyle, the plots have brought people together in the most elemental of ways.
Suzie Regan and Bruce Griswald knew that a community plot at Luscher Farm could be a huge benefit to Tucci, the pair's Italian restaurant in downtown Lake Oswego. Regan and Griswald lay claim to two of the 180 10-by-20-foot plots at Luscher Farm, and to them, those plots mean the world.
That's because the garden allows Regan and Griswald to provide customers with a unique experience of farm-fresh vegetables, herbs and spices, including a variety of beans and squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, oregano and much more. It might seem like a small plot wouldn't produce much, but Regan and Griswald say they have hauled as much as 900 pounds of tomatoes from their plots in some years, most of which goes into sauce.
"We were interested in doing as much as we could here for the restaurant, especially with tomatoes," Regan says.
Griswald's upbringing on an upstate New York farm meant he was already familiar with the farm lifestyle. He often wakes up early in the morning to come water, pull weeds and check on the plot's progress.
There's a calming silence at Luscher Farm early in the morning, he says, and that experience allows Griswald to connect with his roots in a way that he wasn't able to before they began their plot several years ago.
Regan also has a special connection to the plot: She has planted Romano beans there that were passed down through her family from generation to generation, beginning with her great-grandfather, Primo Matteucci, who brought them from Italy when he immigrated to the United States.
"It adds an extra level of love and family," Regan says. "He came here when he was 19 in 1919 and had a huge garden here in Oregon."
On the other side of Luscher Farm, Leon and Cindy Assael also use their plot to connect with family, but in a different way. The couple raised their now-adult children in a small town in Connecticut, and they say they were reminded of a community garden in the center of their town when they heard of the community plots at Luscher Farm.
"We've always liked public gardens for the obvious community connection," Leon says.
The Assaels are lucky. In the first year that they decided to enter the Lake Oswego Parks & Recreation Department's lottery for a community plot, their name was pulled. It's hard to quantify whether or not that's typical, but there are some who say they've waited multiple years to join the coveted club of amateur gardener-farmers at Luscher Farm.
That's one aspect of the community plots that Farm Coordinator Dawn Grunwald is happy to change. Beginning in 2018, instead of the lottery that Luscher Farm used in years past, the system will switch to an online wait list, allowing any Lake Oswego resident who's interested in leasing a plot to be notified when space is open. She's hoping the new format will ease headaches surrounding the fairness of the lottery's selection.
In the meantime, the Assaels have already gotten their whole family envolved.
"We're doing this with our daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren, so they've had a hand in planting, picking and weeding. The grandkids really love it," Cindy says.
The Assaels' plot produces a variety of vegetables, herbs, gourds, tomatoes and peppers. A few pumpkins sprawl throughout the plot, adding to the fall mood that is taking over the farm.
"We're really trying a lot of stuff we've never tried before, so that makes it more fun," Cindy says. "We use stuff from our garden in our cooking just about everyday. We've not needed to buy vegetables all summer."
For the Assaels, having a city that advocates growing your own food is a big part of why they've chosen to live Lake Oswego.
"It's essential," Leon says. "It's really important how a city builds its sense of community and how it can be more self-sufficient. It's all organic, no chemicals, so it's promoting the right kind of farming."
The right kind of farming is important not only to community members who partake in gardening at Luscher Farm, but also to the teenagers and other school-age kids who come out to the farm to study the art and science of agriculture.
Lake Oswego High School Sophomore Katie Freeman is just one of dozens of students participating in the second year of the Lake Oswego School District's "Farm Internship" program. Students visit Luscher Farm every other day to learn about best practices in farming and harvesting food in an organic way.
Less than 50 yards away from the Assael's plot, a group of teens work in teams to harvest their crops, tend their plots and learn a bit about plant identification and horticulture. When the teens descend on the farm, the silence is broken for a brief period of laughter, excited chatter and the soft melody of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" playing from a small bluetooth speaker.
The farm internship program provides valuable life skills and knowledge students can take with them to inform their consumption habits. That's especially important to Freeman, who says she's interested in becoming a nutritionist.
"It's a really fun class, and it's awesome to come out here and get some hands-on learning," Freeman says.
Junior Callie Miller says Luscher Farm's impact extends far beyond her community and provides a window into a nationwide epidemic of poor nutrition caused by processed foods.
"I think it's really cool they're pushing community farming, because it means people are becoming more aware of the kind of garbage that circulates in the food system in our country," Miller says. "It means more people are becoming educated to this type of living, which I think is really sweet."
Luscher Farm is located at 125 Rosemont Road. In addition to the community plots, the City-owned property includes the 47th Avenue Farm Community Supported Agriculture, the Rogerson Clematis Garden and a vast network of walking trails. For more information, go to www.ci.oswego.or.us/luscher or call 503-534-5284.