In outer southeast Portland lies Zenger Farm. Purchased in 1918, it was run as a commercial dairy farm for several decades. Inherited in the 1950s, Zenger, Jr. was not interested in commercial farming; but he had an enduring love of the land on which he grew up, and the strong desire to maintain it agriculturally with the education of future generations in mind; he would not see it turned over to developers.
He lived on the farm for the rest of his life, spending the next several years looking at ways in which he could secure and maintain the future of the farm. With the help of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services, a plan was laid to oversee the farmland and adjacent wetland area, preserving its integrity and following the dream of the Zengers.
By the mid-1990s it was once again a working farm, thanks to the efforts of Marc Boucher-Colbert and Urban Bounty Farm; additionally it opened its doors to school classes and community events, bringing it closer to the original vision of Zenger, Jr. and the BES. The farm partnered with Portland State University, Environmental Middle School and others to create “outdoor classroom” activities that promoted land stewardship, plant knowledge and the experience of growing fresh food.
In 1999 this educational involvement had expanded to such a degree that it dictated a need to solidify the farm’s mission, long-range goals and funding support. Thus began The Friends of Zenger Farm, formed to oversee the caretaking of the ever-expanding Zenger Farm project and help propel it into the next century. They obtained a 50-year lease from the city; the farm was now, finally and officially, a sustainable public entity.
Jump ahead to the present: Zenger Farm now operates several free, year-round activities geared for single or multiple visits by school-age children from kindergarten through 12th grade – everything from wetland ecology to a growing and eating farm fresh food, with lots of hands-on-get-dirty explorations into compost, bugs and soil. They emphasize knowledge of farming and the integral connection between growing food and care of the land, and invite local chefs to teach them how to cook what they have grown.
They set aside a portion of the total acreage for local economic development, to allow recently immigrated farmers to use the land to grow food indigenous to their homeland -- providing them with familiar fresh and nutritious food and with a surplus that they can then sell at local farmers markets.
47th Avenue Farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) also utilizes a portion of Zenger Farm as one of its sites where fresh organic produce is grown for their subscribers, and Friends of Zenger Farm provides financial aid to low income families who want but can’t afford to participate in the CSA – in this way it encourages the families to eat fresh, seasonal food as well as helping to support local farmers.
If all this wasn’t enough: Recently the farmhouse that housed the Zenger family underwent a major transformation, including fitting it with solar panels that will eventually mean the annual energy bill will be reduced to zero. It will serve as an important real-life example of sustainability to educate the public, children and adults alike.
There are even more plans for the future. Zenger Farm is alive and vibrant and is an important, functioning example of people-land connectedness, interdependence and sustainability.
Corina Reynolds Stearns, Portland Nursery Community Outreach Director