Buying The Farm

Time running out for activists to purchase Try/on Life Community Farm.

A hand-painted sign at the end of a driveway on Southwest Boones Ferry Road urgently counts down the days left to "Save the Farm!"

That farm, Try/on Life Community Farm, has become a cause célèbre for Portland's back-to-the-Earth community. Residents face a Jan. 10 deadline to raise about $1.6 million to buy the property, or face eviction two days later.

Activists worry about developers, who view the seven-acre private parcel inside the urban growth boundary as prime real estate.

Surrounded on three sides by Tryon Creek State Park, the farm is both a private commune and environmental education nonprofit. The 16 adult members rent the land and its three buildings from owners Gisele Fitch and Karl Marlantes, a now-divorced couple who bought the land in 1977.

In a clearing surrounded by trees and blackberry brambles, residents and volunteers practice sustainable organic gardening and keep a small collection of chickens and goats.

They want the space to be a full-time laboratory for sustainable urban living. And last spring, farm residents bought developer Brownstone Homes out of its purch ase option for $125,000. That contract expires next month, and landowners recently denied residents' request for an extension, forcing activists to crank their proverbial amplifier to 11.

Using door-to-door canvassing, grassroots lobbying and aggressive fundraising, 27-year-old capital campaign coordinator Jenny Leis and others have raised between $1.1 million and $1.4 million in promised loans and cash, including a recent commitment from Commissioner Sam Adams of $100,000 in city money.

"We're very much a buzz happening right now," Leis says.

The buzz showed at the farm's recent winter-solstice party, where about 200 guests endured frigid temperatures to dance in the barn, share a bonfire outside and feel the vibe.

One exception to the mostly college-aged kids in homemade clothes was William "Billy Joe" Visnius, a middle-aged pipe fitter and self-described pagan from Hawkinson, Wash., who took his three kids to meet other solstice celebrants. While there, he donated $100 to the cause.

Farm residents are counting on last-minute help—to the tune of $100,000 each—from the City of Portland, Metro, and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.

The government money would buy a conservation easement to protect the property from development and require it stay open to the public. But with decisions proceeding at the speed of bureaucracy, the money may not arrive in time.

Despite concern over development, owners Fitch and Marlantes say it's not a certainty. Brownstone's plan for a 23-unit upscale development was scrapped when the developer sold its purchase option, and neither landowner will say whether others have come forward.

In fact, Fitch, 58, a self-described "eco-yogi" now living in Southern California, says she'll move back if residents can't raise the cash. "I would just like to be able to walk on the ground that I love and listen to what the land has to say," Fitch says.

But that's hardly a guarantee, since the landowners have sold development rights before. Besides, if the Try/on Lifers fall short, they'll have to return donations and find new homes.

"This entire year and a half,'' Leis says, "could absolutely just disappear in one day."

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