The late-life vision of one man has become a daily labor of love for a family.
From the often dense bamboo forest to three handsome rescue pigs, as well as gardens and fruit orchards everywhere, the result of the vision and labor is a sprawling and still developing 28-acre community farm outside of Coburg, the nonprofit Parker Learning Gardens.
It was once called Rivers Turn Farm, and it evolved into one of the first organic farms in the area after John and Marsha Sundquist bought it in 1983. Now, as Parker Learning Gardens, it features classes, demonstration gardens and clubs as well as community plots, all the dream of environmental and social activist John Sundquist before he died July 7, 2021, of heart disease at age 73.
Marsha, who was married to John for 42 years, notes that, after starting the Hoedads Cooperative with Jerry Rust in the early 1970s, her husband’s goal always was to teach organic farming to new generations.
“John’s basic thing was education for the kids,” Marsha says.
The Tilley family was intrigued with the farm’s objective and jumped in full-time after John Sundquist’s passing. Nate and Jenna Tilley have picked up the baton, with help from 13-year-old Mia and 11-month-old dynamo Ronan, to teach children who come by the busloads to learn about the science of microbiological life, soil restoration and organic farming.
“That lines up with what we’re passionate about,” Jenna Tilley says. “You can incorporate those things in everyday life.” The Tilleys ran Agrarian Ales until it closed in 2019.
Parker Learning Gardens was already a nonprofit as of 2019, and Tilley says that after John Sundquist died, she and Nate took on the responsibility to flesh out curriculum for an array of classes for kids — and even adults — to touch the soil and get their hands dirty.
There’s the After School Garden Club and the Mom and Me Garden Club, just for starters. There are 11 demonstration gardens that range from the Children’s Wonder Garden, the Science Garden, the Herbalist Adventure Garden and the Sensory Pollination Garden.
Additionally, and just in time for autumn, the Tilleys have planted a variety of maize on an acre next to a plot that will have a wide variety of pumpkins, and the 3-acre bamboo forest — with an estimated 40 varieties of bamboo — will be made into a haunted bamboo forest.
Also in the fall is the Soil Regeneration with Biochar Creation class. Nate demonstrates, with Jenna at the ready with a water hose, how burning biomass in a low-oxygen container creates a carbon rich substance that is a key to soil rejuvenation. Nate and Jenna agree they could talk about this for hours.
Jenna Tilley’s favorite class, though, involves the pigs. The Garden Pig class stars Blossom, Boots and Scout, the three rescue pigs who happily get dirty (even muddy) to show the class how pigs can help regenerate the soil and be used as an organic means to reduce pests and diseases.
“I have a way with animals,” says Tilley, who grew up on a 120-acre farm near Philomath. “I am comfortable with animals.”
Nate was raised next door to the Sundquist’s property, but he did not know the Sundquist family well. It would not be until recently that he and Jenna would learn of John Sundquist’s advocacy work, including the reduction in the use of herbicides and pesticides, a topic he wrote about frequently in letters and Viewpoints for Eugene Weekly and The Register-Guard.
“That was one of his major concentrations,” Marsha Sunquist says.
Teaching was the other focal point. Marsha, herself a retired middle school teacher from the Springfield School District, recalls her husband teaching a captive audience of small children about micro organisms in the dirt, and not being sure if the kids understood the topic.
“He was trying to teach them how dirt was just not dirt,” she says with a chuckle. “They got enough out of it.”
The teaching and planning for Parker Learning Gardens continued with Nate and Jenna Tilley when they would venture to the Sundquist home on a 5-acre parcel adjacent to the gardens for the Friday pancake breakfast. Those pancakes came complete with fresh apples or pears from the orchards and heated maple syrup.
“Those were the best pancakes,” Jenna Tilley says. “It was almost a gourmet breakfast.”
Tilley remembers that John was on the tractor working at Parker Learning Gardens until a short time before he died, which, Marsha adds, was in keeping with her late husband’s legacy.
“He didn’t like to go on vacations,” Marsha Sunquist says. “He wanted to work on the farm.”
And, Tilley says, teach the kids.
“He cared so much about future generations.”
More information about Parker Learning Gardens — including classes, clubs and community plots as well as donation and volunteer information — is at ParkerLearningGardens.org. The nonprofit has established a GoFundMe account, and the fundraiser will culminate noon to 5 pm, August 27, at the gardens, 31241 Lane Turns Road.