By Ann Powers
For the TODAY
It’s a ton of hard work, but Ginger and Brigham Edwards love growing all sorts of healthy edibles on their small-scale farm in Tillamook County — like organic fruits, vegetables, herbs and teas.
It also takes a ton of money and support to do that, which they didn’t have about 10 years ago when first starting out. They needed a space for packing and washing their harvests, as well as a cold and dry storage area, renovations that came with a hefty price tag of about $12,000.
“It was a big capital expense,” said Ginger. “I was just focused on trying to make my farm work.”
About that same time, a local nonprofit was taking seed that spoke to the Edwards’ plight, as well as others like them. Founded in 2006, Food Roots set out to grow a robust food system on the North Oregon Coast by engaging the community, supporting farmers and entrepreneurs, and improving access to local food. The nonprofit was the brainchild of Shelly Bowe, who believed this kind of interactive approach would lead to a healthier community, a stronger economy and increased wellbeing throughout the area.
Bowe died in 2017 from ALS. But her vision lives on through Food Roots and has certainly helped growers and producers, like the Edwards, reap what they sow.
With Food Roots support, the Edwards received entrepreneurship training and matching funds through an Individual Development Account grant. The three-year program helped them write a business plan and make the needed renovations to their barn so they could continue to grow the crops they so passionately nurture.
Hence, what started out in 2007 as a small plot of hand-sown carrots and potatoes, has flourished into North Fork 53, a three-acre farm retreat center and bed and breakfast in Nehalem. This year they’ve even plowed ahead with tea gardens to become Oregon’s first tea farm. In keeping with that whole community vibe Food Roots cultivates so well, Ginger said they plan on calling their latest expansion “Communi-TEA.”
“It’s really exciting and it couldn’t have happened without Food Roots,” she said. “It’s a great thing and they’ve made a huge impact.”
And not just with farmers. Food Roots also impacts schools, restaurants, food banks, gardeners, social services and more.
“Food Roots is really connected to this place,” said Lauren Sorg, the nonprofit’s executive director. “It’s all of us. How do we lift each other up? So, the community piece is really what created Food Roots and keeps us alive. Without that, we wouldn’t be here.”
For example, the organization’s Farm to School program links students with the food they eat. Kids engage in hands-on planning, building and maintaining school gardens, go on farm field trips, participate in cooking demonstrations and study nutrition. Educators say many children are amazed to learn their carrot (or kohlrabi or tomato) had a whole other life before the grocery store. Educators say the kids get really excited about growing something from seed, pulling it out of the ground and then eating it.
“This is a different type of learning and I see kids light up and different students shine in this area,” said Karen Thenell, the principal of Tillamook’s South Prairie Elementary School. “Our kids get to go outside, get their hands dirty, they’re watching what they’re growing and it’s a very meaningful experience.”
It’s also laid some fertile soil for recruiting young farmers in an area. Sorg said the average age of an Oregon farmer is about 60 years old and they’re getting ready to retire.
“Farming is a valuable career,” she said, “and Food Roots really shows that connection as to why it’s important to retain those skills and have a healthy local food system.”
Hebo-based teenage beekeeper Annaliese Moeller agrees and hopes to make honey production a career. Now 15, she has been involved with Food Roots since she was seven and sells her raw honey through the organization’s direct consignment project called FarmTable. The program unites small-scale growers and local products with consumers by operating a year-round storefront, as well as a summer farm stand at the Tillamook Farmers Market.
In addition to FarmTable, Moeller’s honey (described by some as “liquid gold”) is sourced by the Pacific Restaurant in Tillamook and Nestucca Bay Creamery. Food Roots also helped her connect to the Individual Development Account grant program. Now, Moeller says her future is looking pretty sweet.
“My business would not be nearly as big as it is and it would’ve taken a lot longer,” she said. “By the time I graduate from high school, I’m hoping it will be a job.”
The FarmTable storefront stocks everything from Moeller’s honey to pasture-raised eggs, cheese, meat, herbal teas, vegetables, plants, specialty items and more. All of the products are grown, raised or produced in Tillamook County.
FarmTable also accepts SNAP/EBT benefits and Food Roots is working to raise funding to offer their Double Up Food Bucks program at the storefront, a program that they manage at all four Tillamook County farmers markets That means for every $1 spent through EBT up to $10, that customer gets an additional $1 to spend on healthy food at FarmTable for a total of $20.
Again, it’s all about that savory synergy Food Roots is planting in the community.
“It’s benefitting local farmers, it’s getting more economic growth to their businesses and it’s also benefitting local families by bringing more food to their tables,” said Allyson Gardener, Access to Local Food coordinator. “We all love food. It connects us all.”
The FarmTable storefront is located at 113 Main Avenue in Tillamook and is open from 9 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday.