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Local women grow organic produce and flowers for food pantries in Washington County.

GAZETTE PHOTO: BLAIR STENVICK - The North Forty Farmerette's garden is located off of Edy Road in Sherwood, and produced nearly 3,000 pounds of food and flowers for local food pantries last year.Bring up charitable food pantries, and a specific cuisine comes to mind: canned corn, mushy peas, squash sliced up and frozen into hockey pucks.

Not so at the North Forty Farmerettes' garden. Located off Edy Road, across the way from a winery, this garden produced 2,732 pounds of fresh, organic produce and flowers for local food pantries last year, and the women who work it are aiming for a higher total this season.

The North Forty Farmerettes are the brainchild of Cathy Bell, who lives at the site with her partner Steve. Cathy was a professional landscape designer for 30 years, working mostly on decorative landscapes, and got into edible landscaping in retirement. Steve had farming experience, and the two soon were producing more food than their friends and neighbors could eat.

"I felt like, what a waste," Cathy said. "There needs to be some place where this would be useful."

Cathy started donating her extra food to SCAT, the food pantry of St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Beaverton, and later to Willowbrook Food Pantry in Sherwood. She invited her friends, also retired, to join her, and soon the group was meeting three times per week during gardening season.

The club is named after the farmerettes of World Wars I and II: Female farmers who grew crops while their husbands were away.

"They became very integral to feeding the nation during the wars," Cathy said. "'North Forty' is a phrase my mom used to use — we're way in the north forty — and we're all over forty now, too."

Many of the Farmerettes grew up in Washington County and have known each other since grade school. Friendship, and knowing it's for a good cause, has kept the group going for four years now.

"We're a very tight-knit group, and most of us are retired, so we have that time available," Cathy said. "Wednesdays are also very fun, because we have food and wine after we harvest. We'll sit around and talk and chat for at least an hour after we harvest."

Touring the North Forty Farmerette's garden, it's difficult not to experience a bit of green thumb envy. Tomato vines stretch toward the sky, smoky from August wildfires; banana squash big as 40-pound dumbbells sit nestled under giant leaves; and the Farmerettes chat and joke as they pick their produce.

"Boy, it's food for my soul," Cathy said about gardening. "I'm very tactile, and I love touch the plants, and I will talk to my plants."

As harvesting winds down, it's time for the big weigh-in.

"I think we're all secretly competitive," Cathy said. "We want to beat last year's weight."

Get involved

The North Forty Farmerettes found the Willowbrook Food Pantry through AmpleHarvest.org, a website that connects gardeners with those in need. Whether you have a several-thousand pound surplus or just a few extra tomatoes, Cathy recommends checking it out.

"If you have two cucumbers," she said, "they can connect you with someone in your neighborhood who needs them."

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