A flock of chickens roams free range outside the faded red barn at Converging Creeks Farm north Colton, Ore., while rows of spicy wasabi arugula mature in one of three nearby greenhouses.
It is a bucolic setting, surrounded by forested hillsides in the lush Willamette Valley, and precisely the vision Nathan McFall had when he decided to embrace subsistence farming coming out of the Peace Corps.
“I really need to be active and outside, having that relationship with the earth,” said McFall, who spent every dime he had to buy the farm in 2008. “This is much more of a lifestyle.”
The idea behind Converging Creeks Farm, however, is bigger than just one person. The roughly six acres of land is also a teaching grounds for the next generation of farmers, where they can learn hands-on how to grow, harvest and process their own food.
McFall and business partner Matt Brown have spun this concept into their own nonprofit organization, called Food|Waves. The goal, McFall said, is to perk interest in local, sustainable farming at a time the average age of American farmers is rising, and fewer people overall are engaged in food production.
According to a 2016 study by Oregon State University and Portland State University, the average age of Oregon farmers is now 60, up from 55 in 2002. At the same time, the American Farm Bureau Federation reports that farm and ranch families now make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population. By comparison, farmers made up 38 percent of the total workforce at the turn of the 20th century.
“That knowledge is being lost,” McFall said. “People need to know how to grow food, and we’re here to help.”
Food|Waves primarily serves communities in Clackamas County, Ore., with the vast majority of food sales coming at the Portland Farmers Market. Converging Creek Farms grows more than 30 types of vegetables, primarily specialty greens that are suited for the farm’s higher elevation and unique microclimate.
The farm also raises chickens for meat and eggs, goats for meat and milk, turkeys and pigs for meat and ducks for eggs.
“Our program is getting better as we find our niche,” McFall said. “In seven years, we’ve come pretty far.”
Growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, McFall did not become interested in growing his own food until he went away to college.
It was there, at Texas A&M University, that McFall took up hobby gardening. He then met a Peace Corps recruiter through the Texas Environmental Action Coalition who had previously served in Senegal, Africa. The meeting was a life-defining moment for McFall.
“I just thought, ‘I need to go there,’” he said.
McFall spent two years, from 1998 to 2000, in the small west African nation of Togo, teaching environmental education and organic farming techniques. Overpopulation had taxed much of their soil and natural resources, McFall said.
“It was really in Togo I decided I wanted to be a farmer,” McFall said. “Living for each other, subsistence living, really spoke to me.”
While in Africa, McFall also met Brown, and the two discussed their ambitions of forming a nonprofit. The men went their separate ways, with McFall ultimately managing a farm in northern California and Brown teaching high school science and horticulture near Los Angeles.
On Thanksgiving Day in 2008, with the global financial crisis looming, McFall pulled the trigger on buying Converging Creek Farm. One year later, he started his own construction business to support himself financially.
McFall reached out to Brown, and the two hit on the idea of a teaching farm. By 2010, a decade after they first met abroad, the duo formed Food|Waves, with Brown as executive director and McFall as farm management director.
Brown and his wife moved to Milwaukie, Ore. which now serves as the organization’s headquarters.
“Our mission is to teach people how to grow food,” McFall said. “There needs to be more facilities where young people can learn to farm.”
In seven seasons, more than 20 people have participated in internships through Food|Waves, from ages 15 to 40.
Alexandra Hagiepetros, 28, spent a full season living at the farm in 2017, from May 1 through Nov. 1. As a student, Hagiepetros attended baking and pastry school at the Art Institute of Portland, but had greater ambitions of working in local food systems.
During those six months, Hagiepetros said she learned how to do everything from handling seeds to customer relations. The farm also takes great pains in post-harvest preparation, hand washing each individual vegetable to boost its appearance and presentation.
Hagiepetros is now preparing for an apprenticeship at Carnation Farms in Carnation, Wash. She aims to start her own farm business within the next five years.
“Growing your own food is a very rewarding experience,” Hagiepetros said. “I think everyone should have that.”
That is where the other two programs offered by Food|Waves come in.
Brown, the organization’s executive director, said that when they aren’t busy farming, they do garden education trainings at schools, food pantries and churches around Clackamas County. In 2012, Food|Waves received a grant from the county health department to begin building demonstration gardens at local Head Start sites. Through a combination of grants, fundraising and donations, Brown said they have built more than 10 gardens in Colton, Gladstone, Estacada, Oregon City, Milwaukie and Sandy.
“The idea was to help families that may not be able to afford organic food, to give them these skills,” Brown said. “You don’t need a whole lot of money to grow a whole lot of food.”
For families who express further interest in gardening, Brown said Food|Waves will help them start their own garden at home, building one 6-foot-by-4-foot raised bed. That effort, known as Gift Garden for Healthy Harvest, has resulted in more than 60 new garden beds.
The mission, Brown said, is promoting fresh, nutritious, healthy and sustainable food systems in Oregon.
“We need to get people out there with the knowledge to train others,” Brown said.
Both Brown and McFall agree that Food|Waves is hitting its stride, and they will continue to work toward maintaining the programs they have in place. McFall said he expects 1-2 full-time interns and 3-5 part-timers this year, with farm work beginning in earnest by late May.
“Learning hands-on is the way to do it,” he said.