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Living off the land

Between hunting and gardening, Tigard couple never have to go to the store again (almost)

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tigard resident Lilly Caputo stands in the middle of corn stalks where she and her family grow vegetables in a garden near Alpenrose Dairy. The garden sustains the family year round, allowing the family to live almost entirely off the land.Lilly Caputo and her husband give new meaning to the term “locally grown.”

The Tigard family has embraced the process, growing nearly all the food it will need for the year on a small plot of land near Alpenrose Dairy. There’s also a few hunting and fishing trips each year.

“Anything that we eat, we grow ourselves,” said Caputo, 33. “You name it, we do it,”

Caputo’s husband, David, 46, is superintendent of a nursery not far from the dairy, and the couple have spent the past several years working a small vegetable garden on the land. They grow just about everything at their small operation: Eggplant, beans, radishes, beets, cucumbers, pears, blueberries, cauliflower, broccoli, strawberries, apples, snap peas, edamame, plums, blackberries, lettuce, squashes, peppers and pumpkins are all grown on the small plot of land.

Red chilies and other vegetables grow from Lilly Caputo's garden. 
All of it is canned, pickled or preserved, Caputo said.

During the hunting season, the Caputos head to Eastern Oregon a few weekends a year to hunt elk, antelope and deer, which is made into sausage or steaks. They make special trips to the coast to fish and catch crabs. They dig for clams and catch crawfish.

“We caught a 50-pound halibut once, that gave us about 30 pounds of meat,” Caputo said. “It was a lot. It took three hours to fillet and process.”

The Caputos share their bounty with friends and family, but Lilly Caputo said that the garden is the perfect size to grow everything the family will need for the year.

“We grow enough to feed us,” she said. “We know exactly what we need.”

At the end of the growing season, the family’s two large freezers are bursting, but it won’t last long, Caputo said. “This is it for the year,” she said. “Our goal is to harvest enough food for the year to get us through. By June, the freezers are lower and the shelves are emptier and there are lots of empty jars.”

Given their setup, the Caputos rarely need to get anything from the supermarket except bread and milk.

“We haven’t been able to make connections with dairy or bread,” she said.

'I knew nothing about gardening'

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Pumpkins, squash and beets are just some of the vegetables that Tigard resident Lilly Caputo grows in their garden.Living off the land may seem romantic to some, Caputo said, but the family’s lifestyle was born more of necessity rather than idealism. After the Caputos were married seven years ago, they struggled financially, which Caputo said prompted them to start growing their own food.

“We hit a financial crisis and we didn’t know what to do,” she said.

Unable to obtain public assistance, the couple found themselves eating potatoes every day to get by, Caputo said.

That’s when they decided to do something about it.

“It all started with the potatoes,” she said. “We were eating them every night and we said we could probably grow our own potatoes.”

David’s boss gave permission for him to use a small plot of the nursery to grow vegetables, friends in the nursery industry helped them start their garden and they began hunting more frequently.

“(My husband) did hunting as a hobby, but hunting and fishing have become a necessity for us,” she said.

The change has been a major one for Caputo, who grew up on military bases while her father was in the U.S. Navy.

“I always lived behind a wall with barbed wire on top of it,” she said. “I had no idea what the mountains were like, what dirt was like. I knew nothing about fishing.”

Taking care of the vegetables is Lilly Caputo’s full-time job during the growing season, which stretches from July to September. “Every day I have produce to deal with,” Caputo said. She usually works between six and seven hours a day harvesting and preparing food each day during the growing season.

The season starts every summer when the first strawberries ripen. “When strawberries come, that’s all I do,” she said.

At the end of this year’s growing season, Caputo is growing squash, pumpkins and peppers.

The past few years have been a series of trials and errors for the family. “I knew nothing about gardening, I don’t have a green thumb,” Caputo said.

They had to learn about things like crop rotation — not planting the same vegetables in the same place year after year, which reduces nitrogen and makes the soil less fertile.

“Each year, you learn something new,” Caputo said.

Their hard work is paying off in other ways, too, Caputo said. This summer the pair brought home several ribbons from the Oregon State Fair, winning awards for her apricots, tomato sauce and other preserves.

‘See ourselves expanding’

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Tigard resident Lilly Caputo walks along a row of a garden that  she maintains near Alpenrose Dairy. The couple said they rely on gardening and hunting for nearly all of their food.Caputo said she doesn’t think of her family as different from most families, just doing what they need to in order to get by.

“It is work, but I never thought that it was that different from how other people live,” she said. “Except in the summer I’m out (at the garden) twice a day watering in the morning and afternoon, and during harvesting season it’s probably five days a week.”

But she admits that most people in their situation probably wouldn’t be able to do what they’ve done.

“We are lucky that we have the opportunities that we have,” she said.

The Caputos are back on their feet, but Lilly Caputo said she can’t see giving up the garden.

“We see ourselves expanding,” she said. “We’re always asking ‘What else can we grow?’ Every year we think about what we can add.”

Caputo said it has given her a new respect for what she is able to do, when she puts her mind to it.

“When we could afford to go to the store I would wake up in the middle of the night and ask if we had potatoes, I was obsessed,” she said. “Now it’s a running joke. Yes, we have potatoes. We have 300 pounds of potatoes.”

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