Farmers, Friends, and Filberts: Exploring Flamingo Ridge Farm

SEEDS intern Emily Merfeld smells Charlie Harris's home-made, home-grown thai chili powder.

SEEDS intern Emily Merfeld smells Charlie Harris’s home-made, home-grown Thai chili powder.

On a warm, sunny, gorgeous October afternoon at Flamingo Ridge Farm out in Gaston, OR, I was surrounded by 25 Reed students, Reed College Executive Chef Jenny Nguyen, farm owners Charlie and Deva Harris, and a few of the farmers’ local foodie friends.

The afternoon and evening included a tour of the property, a discussion of sustainability and Bon Appétit, and a delicious farm-fresh meal prepared by Jenny. Emily Merfeld, a student intern from SEEDS (the Reed Community Service Center), Jenny, and Charlie all helped me put the different pieces of the event together.

Charlie and Deva Harris live and farm at Flamingo Ridge and almost exclusively grow romaine lettuce and tomatoes, switching between the two crops in their hoop houses depending on the season. Charlie firmly believes that the two things that bring people together are food and music, and they have a beautiful yurt on the property where they have yoga classes, meditation sessions, and live music. We were joined by a few of Charlie’s friends, including the owners of Hot Lips Pizza, who brought along their delicious house-made soda and shared some insight about the importance of the local food community and network in Portland.

We take a peek inside a hoop house filled with romaine lettuce.

We peek inside a hoop house filled with romaine lettuce.

During the tour, we heard the story of both the farm and the farmers.  They moved out to the property over 30 years ago, and Charlie has been farming full time ever since, building up a customer base of companies that care about high-quality, sustainably grown produce that’s large enough for him to make a good living as a farmer. Charlie wakes up at 3 am to do all of his own deliveries, bringing most of their produce to Zupan’s and about 10 Bon Appétit accounts.

Charlie has set up rain collection ponds on the property so that they are entirely self-sufficient in their water use, and most of the time they actually release a lot of surplus water to the nearby forest. However, with the severe shortage in rainfall that Oregon has had lately, surplus is out of the question. The ponds are dangerously low, something that makes Charlie nervous, although his positive energy never wavers, He gives off the impression that he will somehow figure it out, as he seems to have done any time he has encountered a problem in his many years of farming on this property.

Charlie Harris answers our questions as we wrap up the tour.

Charlie Harris answers our questions as we wrap up the tour.

When I asked Charlie if they had any issues with animals getting into their hoop houses and eating the crops, Charlie says that deer have posed a major threat. He used to try to control the deer without harming the animals, but nothing worked. Now, he has worked out a different deal. His neighbor, who is a hunter, shoots the deer — they donate half the meat to the food bank and split the other half for their families to eat.

With changes in the Organic Certification requirements, the farm can no longer be Certified Organic as it used to be because Charlie and Deva practice monocropping in their hoop houses. Why do they monocrop? “Because it works,” Charlie smiles. This is his response to many questions, a simple answer that is pretty hard to counter. As Deva put it, “We’re not paying for a label; we are living a life.” Aside from that, all of their practices are 100% organic: they use manure from a local dairy and local mushroom fertilizer to grow exceptionally tasty produce.

Executive Chef Jenny Nguyen tells the students about the farm fresh meal she has prepared for them.

Executive Chef Jenny Nguyen tells the students about the farm fresh meal she has prepared for them.

After the tour, Jenny used the farm’s outdoor kitchen and grill to prepare a delicious entrée salad featuring Charlie’s romaine, the four remaining tomatoes of the 150,000 pounds Charlie grew that season, fresh herbs from Deva’s garden, fresh corn and bread purchased from the farmers’ market, goat cheese Jenny had brought along, fresh pears brought by Charlie’s homeopathic doctor, and the freshest roasted hazelnuts (known as filberts to Oregonians) I have ever eaten! Charlie and Deva also shared their homemade, homegrown salsa, and their friends from Hot Lips brought some baklava for dessert. This perfect eclectic array of local food showed how a great chef can create delicious and beautiful food with the help of the right setting.

I closed the evening by offering an overview of Bon Appétit’s Farm to Fork program and a conversation with the students about our emphasis on sustainability and social justice in our different purchasing policies. And for those students wanting a more hands-on connection, Charlie challenged everyone on the visit to come back anytime — he said he pays well and is always looking for extra hands!