By Gracie Schatz
People often ask me where my career in food began, assuming that I have a mother or grandmother who is a wonderful cook, whose apron I held onto as a child while picking up tips and tricks of the kitchen. This is not the case. I will not spend too much time recounting the nearly inedible meals my mother and grandmothers are famous for, because this is about where my true passion for food and cooking was ignited: The University of Oregon’s Urban Farm.
In 2006, as a freshman at the University of Oregon, I was told it was very unlikely that I would get into the Urban Farm class in my first term, but a stroke of luck and good timing allowed me to enroll.
On the first day of class, Harper Keeler, my group’s teacher and leader, brought his grill to school. In mid September, summer vegetables still abound but must be harvested and consumed or preserved quickly before the rains come. Keeler fired up a grill and plucked a couple of eggplants, zucchini and peppers off of plants and chopped them, tossed them with a little oil, garlic and salt and threw them on the grill.
The result was astounding. Never had I tasted such flavorful and delicious food. That moment is one I refer back to often, the simplicity of organic, fresh, local ingredients and how little it takes to prepare them — how truly simple great food can be.
My experience at the Urban Farm is not unique. Many local nonprofits, farms, restaurants and markets have been started by former students of the Urban Farm. Shelley Bowerman and Dan Schuler met and fell in love at the Urban Farm when they were students and ended up teaching. They went on to start Moondog’s Farm and Lane County Bounty, growing beautiful food in Marcola and providing an online farmers market with door to door delivery.
Claire Schechtmen went on to start the Whiteaker Community Market, where she features small producers and local farms and has provided a rich and diverse cultural haven for small business owners, artists, artisans and entrepreneurs.
Sophie Bello went on to be an integral part of Groundwork Organics. Tracy Gagnon went on to help grow the Oregon Food Bank and Luke Mauer started the Portland State University Learning Gardens. The list goes on. Even if you have never been to the Urban Farm or are not aware of its existence, you have likely enjoyed food grown or cooked by someone who has.
The Urban Farm was started in the mid-’70s by Richard Britz and a group of students deeply invested in creating self-sufficiency, ending the dependency on imported goods and testing the potential of how much food a city block could produce. Chickens, rabbits and a flourishing earthworm composting system helped to build soil fertility as well as the composting of food waste generated by restaurants and households.
A manual was published that documented the research. It was called the Edible City Resource Manual, and it spawned the creation of the Edible City Resource Center, which eventually became the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition, all the while maintaining the same goal: to promote sustainable food systems, responsible design and community-based activism.
The School Garden Project of Lane County was conceived and created by Urban Farm students who wanted to take what they were learning out into the community.
In 1983, Anne Bettman, who had been teaching for the Landscape Architecture program, took over leadership of the farm and started to establish perennial flower and orchard plantings as well as vegetable beds that would create a structure for the Urban Farm and drastically increase student interest. Bettman created the first Urban Farm course offerings, which provided the foundation of what the farm offers today.
The Riverfront Research Park threatened to develop over the farm in 1986, but Bettman joined members of the Landscape Architecture department to oppose the plan and was victorious in her efforts. She reminded the Research Park and the university that the farm was a kind of sacred site, and building upon it would violate the university planning directives.
It seems that the battle is not over and the university needs to be reminded, yet again, of the importance of the Urban Farm, the established orchard and the nutrient-dense soil that has been built and enriched year after year.
In 2023, the UO is planning to start construction on the second phase of the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact, which includes huge development around and on top of the Urban Farm. Students, staff and community members have been organizing to stop this development and preserve this wonderful outdoor classroom. The university is attempting to assuage the student outcry by promising that the farm can be relocated, that the Urban Farm program will still be offered to students and that the fruit trees (some of which are over 40 years old) can be transplanted.
Each year the Urban Farm has grown and established itself as a thriving and vibrant hub for students who seek to understand their environment and gain the foundational and life sustaining knowledge of how to grow their own food. Urban Farm has proven to be one of the most popular classes offered by the UO, filling its 140 openings in less than 24 hours of registration opening.
Students continue to arrive in droves to get their hands in the dirt, grow, connect and feast. It is time to step up as a community to show that we value this space, this classroom, this legacy and are willing to speak up and fight back to preserve it for the generations to come.
For more, follow @savetheurbanfarm on Instagram. A rally and events are at the Urban Farm 5:30 pm Friday, May 6. Contact Stephen Lorber, 262-902-4451, or go to SaveTheUrbanFarm.com. Gracie Schatz is the founder of Heart of Willamette Cooking School in Eugene.