I've never really thought much of parsnips—to me the vegetable tastes like a carrot that's been through a divorce—but this one is different. Sweet and crisp, it's got layers of earthy flavor a carrot never heard of. To say this parsnip is local would be a huge understatement. It was farmed on Southeast Schiller Street inside the I-5 loop.
The man responsible for that parsnip is Kollibri terre Sonnenblume, who runs Sunroot Gardens, a local community-supported agriculture project in its second year. He's changing the way Portland eats, one vegetable at a time. That's because his neo-organic farming operation, whose price and production schedule are competitive with other CSAs in Oregon, is run within the city of Portland, almost entirely without petroleum.
How does he pull that off? He grows the food in people's yards. And he does it all by bike.
"You know those bumper stickers, the 'Keep Portland Weird' ones?" Sonnenblume asks as he eats his breakfast, a steaming bowlful of steel-cut oats mixed with raisins and sunflower seeds. "When I hitched up that big cart on my bike two years ago, I was like, yep, that's it, I'm weird."
Here's how the operation works: Sonnenblume currently has farming agreements with 17 landowners in Portland. He uses 14 of the plots (front yards, back yards, sidewalk strips) to grow vegetables and greens, and the other three to grow herbs. His arrangements with his landlords take many shapes: some ask for produce in exchange for the right to farm; others ask that Sonnenblume pay the water bill. Some ask only that he be respectful.
"I just want someone who's gonna use the property, and he does," says Meg Caskey, who lets Sonnenblume farm her Hawthorne-area yard. "I think it's wonderful that he uses the land to feed people."
The base of operations for Sunroot Gardens is a low-ceilinged, closet-sized room in the house Sonnenblume rents with several roommates in the Creston-Kenilworth neighborhood. Here in "The Office"—which doubles as his bedroom, an agricultural library and storage for an impressive seed collection—Sonnenblume keeps fastidious electronic records of his budget and the varieties of seed he has on hand.
Sonnenblume, a former freelance writer and temp worker, chafed at the collar of—as he puts it—the "corporate ruling class," so he moved to Portland from the Midwest in 2001, changing his name (it means "hummingbird earth sunflower" in Norwegian, French and German) and his way of life. He cuts a striking profile—especially in such cramped quarters. When fully extended, the tips of Sonnenblume's tousled hair reach to 6'4", and the dim light reflects off his round mad-scientist spectacles. One by one, he removes the lids of plastic containers, reviewing the seeds within.
"Angelica, St. John's wort, radishes like you've never seen…hmmm…don't know what that one is. We'll plant it and see, eh?"
All of Sonnenblume's plots are within five miles of one another, and none is more than three miles from his home. That means, with the exception of a tiller he occasionally borrows, he can farm the whole thing by bike—in his case a rusty brown Diamondback.
As I follow behind him on my own bike, Sonnenblume leads me to a plot adjoining a weathered, vinyl-sided house at Southeast 28th Avenue near Holgate Boulevard. What's striking about these gardens is their size. By the standards of industrial agriculture, these plots are microscopic. A child could throw a football across the largest of them.
But a bigger surprise is their mid-winter abundance. It turns out that farming in the city not only requires less gas—it's also easier. The microclimate of Portland—less wind-prone than that of surrounding areas—is also substantially warmer. So even though it's February, Sonnenblume and I are able to pluck and taste crisp salad greens like sorrel, chickweed, lemon balm and the shoots of Austrian field peas. If you've never had fresh pea shoots, you're missing out.
"Ever since I can remember, I've been growing things. I would sneak out into my parents' garden, pull up a carrot, wipe it on my pants and eat it right there," he says, rolling a cigarette with American Spirit tobacco and homegrown mullein. "Since then I've grown vegetables on fire escapes and front porches, but Portland was my first opportunity to move out onto open ground."
Sonnenblume hadn't always planned to farm by bike in back yards—in fact, it was kind of a last-minute thing. When he sold last year's CSA shares, he had an agreement with a friend to farm on her property in North Plains. But a last-minute business dispute left Sonnenblume, who had already cashed his checks, with 18 families to feed and nowhere to grow food.
The obvious answer—obvious to Sonnenblume, anyway—was farming in nearby yards. Although he's committed to sustainable agriculture, he doesn't have a driver's license and can't afford a car. So he knocked on doors, met friends through friends, and cajoled and bartered until he had his 17 plots.
Sometimes Sonnenblume located land just a few days ahead of the seeds sprouting in his greenhouse. In spite of these worries, he amply fed his customers on more than 100 kinds of veggies and turned a small profit, besides.
This year, a full share (enough to feed three to four people) of Sunroot Gardens will get you 25 weeks' worth of produce for $625. That's about $25 a week, in the upper-middle price range for Portland-area CSAs. But are city-raised, bike-farmed vegetables worth the extra cash?
"Absolutely," says Linda Hendrickson, who split a share of Sunroot with her husband last summer. "The quality was unbelievable. When we picked up the produce, that was the best day of the week for us."
Sarah Buckmaster, a part-time caterer, divided a share with two friends. She says the produce arrived like clockwork, and the quality was superb: "With farmers markets, you have to arrive early or all the good stuff is gone. But with Kollibri, it's like being first in line at the farmers market every time."
This year, Sonnenblume is expanding his operation in two important directions. First, he's teaming up with another full time bike-based urban farmer, Melanie Plies. (Yes, there are two of them.) Plies has been doing the same thing in Southwest Portland since 2007. They will divide labor and produce on each of their plots, which together total about two-thirds of an acre. "I feel really good about working with Kollibri," says Plies. "I can't imagine picking all the peas by myself. Also tomatoes."
Sonnenblume is also launching a Staple Foods Project, planting grains and protein-rich foods like soy, oats, quinoa and sunflowers on two acres of honest-to-God farmland he's leased in Carver, about 15 miles outside Portland.
How is he getting there? He's quick to answer: "Biking, of course."
Find more information about Sunroot Gardens at trashfactory.net/sunrootgardens. If you're interested in a CSA share (the season runs April-October) or donating yard space, contact Sonnenblume at 686-5557 or sunrootCSA@riseup.net.