By Taylor Starr
One great thing about farming is that it prepares you for surprises. There is always a late frost or a freak thunderstorm or an unexpected pest to throw a farmer a curveball when you least expect it. Well, 2020 provided us all with surprises just about every day! Thankfully, we at White Oak Farm were able to adapt and meet the challenges while still providing support to our local community in new and exciting ways. Between COVID-19 cancelations of school visits and overnight camps; wildfire impacts on farmers markets and air quality; and endless uncertainty, it has been a challenging year to say the least. Here at the Farm we are extremely privileged to work from home, with a dedicated staff, in our relatively isolated rural community, and to have years of farming successes and failures to help prepare us for resilience in this time of upheaval.
Last spring, as we were gearing up for our biggest season ever of farm field trips and programs in the schools, it quickly became clear that we were going to need a major change of plans due to the escalating pandemic. In March, we tossed our original schedule out the window and pivoted to new education programs. This became a theme for the year: seeing opportunities in the chaos, and looking for new ways to do good work whenever possible. We adapted our School Partnership Program, putting more energy into improving the gardens at our local schools; providing online content for the students that encouraged outdoor adventures, creativity, and healthy eating; offering garden-based education to small groups of students when it was safe to do so; and providing free produce boxes for eligible school families. We also adapted our summer Farmstay, by dividing the group of twenty campers in two and hosting two weeks of day camp – each with ten students. This allowed the kids to spend time at the Farm (and with each other) in a safe manner for all.
On the Farm, 2020 provided some exciting opportunities as well. Demand for our seed crops grew due to the pandemic-inspired interest in gardening. We had already been slowly expanding our seed production, and this year gave us the ability to make a big leap, producing crops of mustard greens, delicata squash, tomatoes, zinnias, nasturtiums, sunflowers, corn, and two species of milkweed. We also adapted our marketing of produce this year after COVID-19, wildfires and smoke impacted our farmers markets, offering a weekly contactless produce pickup for our loyal customers. Thanks to funds from the State of Oregon and generous donations from local folks, we greatly expanded our free CSA program to provide weekly produce to 40 school families. The boxes included recipes and activities and were designed to encourage kids to try new healthy foods. We were also able to donate thousands of pounds of winter squash, apples, pears, and greens to local schools, food banks, and fire victims this year, doing our small part to provide organic food to the many families struggling to eat in these challenging times.
A new and growing aspect of our work on the Farm is our restoration program. This year we expanded our native plant nursery, growing over 30,000 plants for riparian restoration projects and native landscaping throughout Southern Oregon. This fall, in partnership with our former Intern Josh Weber and funding from NRCS we are also embarking on 16 acres of restoration for forest health and wildfire safety in our woods. This work seeks to make the Farm more fire safe in a time of escalating wildfires, and also to develop and demonstrate carbon-friendly forestry techniques and practices. This is the beginning of a two-year project that will also lead to more trails, signage, and educational opportunities in our woods.
As 2020 comes to an end, we are busy planning for next year’s programs. We are looking forward to continuing our work in the schools, providing free food to local families, growing seeds and native plants, working to make our woods healthier and more resilient, and hopefully welcoming students back to the Farm for educational programs. Whatever the new year brings, we are ready to change and adapt! With the rapidly worsening climate crisis, an ongoing pandemic, and a fractured society, I believe we are living through a period where upheaval will be the norm, and resilience will be the best strategy for coping and even thriving. Life is not going to be easy, and so we are all going to have to work as hard as possible to approach each new situation with intelligence, flexibility, and compassion. We are inspired daily by the incredible efforts of young people across the country to stand up and demand racial justice, human rights, and an aggressive response to the climate crisis. Their example shows us that together, we have the collective ability to create a society that is in balance with nature and that celebrates and values all life. We continue to be hopeful for this future, and inspired to be a part of doing the work to get there with all of you!