It all started two years ago when West Linn-Wilsonville Superintendent Roger Woehl drove by the district's 25-acre property at Southwest Stafford and Boeckman Creek roads.
The land was sitting fallow. Though the district had tried to sell it, but the multi-million dollar deal had fallen through, and the real estate market was tanking.
Woehl thought, why not use this land to grow produce for the schools? It would give students a chance to connect to the land and get the community involved.
'Sometimes serendipity just reaches out and grabs us,' Woehl wrote in his proposal.
Originally, the 25-acre parcel was purchased with 1997 bond dollars as a potential school site. But a final five-acre plot was needed for the project, and that was to be bought with the 2002 capital bond.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, before the district could buy the five acres, the parcel was brought into the Urban Growth Boundary. This sent the property value soaring, and the district could no longer afford those five acres. The district chose instead to buy the 40-acre parcel on Advance Road and declared the 25 acres as surplus.
Empty land? What an opportunity. Why not use it to grow stuff? Fresh local vegetables and fruit for every school?
'Roger turned to me to see if we could make this work,' said Bob Carlson, CREST (Center for Research in Environmental Sciences) director. 'Starting a new program in a time of budgetary crisis is not easy. But we are finding ways to do it on a shoestring.'
Carlson contacted the Oregon State University Extension Service and, with the assistance of Beret Halverson, the master plan for phase one, which uses 10 acres of land for CREST Farm-to-School, was born. (The other 15 acres are maintained and harvested for hay, and that is how they remain for the time being.)
First thing? Hire a farmer.
At the beginning of this month, the district hired David Knaus, a professional farmer and horticulture instructor at Willamette University and Clark College.
Knaus is working 20 hours a week on the farm in exchange for living in the house on the property and receiving healthcare benefits.
'We are starting with one acre, and will be growing primarily salad bar vegetables like cukes, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, beans, peas, broccoli, cauliflower and ground cherries,' Knaus said. 'Ground cherries? They are a fun tomatillo that taste like pineapple Dum Dums.'
Knaus has begun propagating the veggie starts at the CREST greenhouse and will be planting in April.
'This has been such a wet spring. I am so anxious to get the growing started,' he said.
Getting the kids involved
The goal is for the students from the district to participate in the planning, planting, care, harvesting and preparation of the farm products. The students will eventually have their own produce stand, both on site and at the local farmers markets.
Pritha Golden, a CREST AmeriCorps member, is offering farm field trips this spring for all WL-WV district schools. Her lessons will include a tour of the farm, planting and a feast of fresh vegetables. She will also be supervising middle school and high school student interns who are interested in working on the farm.
High schoolers have an opportunity to actually get credit at a proficiency-based credit course that will be offered during summer school. Interested students at West Linn High School can find an application on file with Dr. Erickson at the school library.
Running the farm 'on a shoestring'
The National Farm to School Program (NFSP), created in 2007, and Oregon Farm to School program of 2008 help to support the CREST farm.
Plus, there is more potential legislation on the books. On March 10, lawmakers in Salem heard a $22.6 million proposal to reimburse schools that use local produce.
But even with government help, the farm is looking for additional assistance to cover upfront costs; at least until it reaches a place where it will pay for itself.
'We have applied for four grants,' Carlson said. 'We haven't heard yet, but we are optimistic.
'And so far, the community has been amazing. We've had several farmers step up and give us free services. Then we've had donations of soil, amendments, seeds and PVC piping. But we could really use some lumber and farming and gardening equipment.'
Knaus added, 'We actually had an anonymous donor give us a huge greenhouse worth about $10,000. It is incredible. Because the schools need their produce in the off-season, we need to find ways to extend our growing season. We're going to need a few more greenhouses.'
But the most valuable donation to the farm? Volunteers.