Hidden a mere 15-minute drive from downtown Portland, in the city’s North East, is the unexpected semi-rural neighbourhood of Cully, which is brimming with urban farmlets growing food, flowers and the deep roots of community. It’s a gem in this emerald city of America’s Pacific North West, which has wholeheartedly embraced the urban farming movement.
City neighbourhoods with a distinctly rural feel like this are as rare as hen’s teeth in Portland, one of the fastest growing cities in the US. Purportedly growing at a rate of 30 people a day, Portland’s clean, green and “weird” brand (think Portlandia) is attracting a huge influx of domestic migrants. Largely ½ acre lots in this neighbourhood support a plethora of mini commercial market gardens, CSAs (community supported agriculture), farm gate sales, community programs, and DIY workshop and event spaces.
I was lucky enough to be given a walking tour recently on a cool summer evening by a childhood friend of my husband who lives and works in the neighbourhood. Dena and her husband Noah live on a half-acre block that is both home and HQ for multiple businesses. Dena is a Waldorf preschool teacher and runs We Gather Together Preschool three days a week from her purpose-built basement. She also operates a sustainable flower farm and bee sanctuary called Sunblossom Farm where her customers can receive or pick their own bouquets each fortnight through a CSA model. Noah’s successful aviation software business operates in a modern, decentralised manner enabling him to also work a little from home. Their block is packed with features without seeming in the least bit cluttered. On the contrary, it feels whimsical, pretty and spacious with a practical, semi-rural charm.
Noah and Dena’s newly-renovated home is a stunning timber showcase of the talents of Noah’s craftsman father. His incredible workmanship has been utilised on everything from custom Cedar kitchen cabinetry and bespoke furniture, to doors, floors and more. Quirky, warm and unpretentious, this unique home also sports sleek mod cons managing to successfully combine a handcrafted yet modern aesthetic.
Head outside and there’s a wood-fired pizza oven and shed that share a space near the alfresco entertaining areas adjoining the house. Four goats (Rory, Barley, Finley and Lewis) live in pens alongside a flock of heritage chickens. A gorgeous landscaped stone water feature and pond sit beside an immaculate, custom built, gypsy-style tiny house to which they are adding the finishing touches in readiness for lucky friends and family, and perhaps Airbnb customers. Paths wind through in-ground beds of soft, colourful, ethereal flowers. Raspberry, blueberry and salmon berry canes laden with jewel-like fruit are interspersed among apple, pear and other fruit trees in the productive mini orchard. It’s a very pretty picture indeed.
On our stroll through the wider Cully neighbourhood, Dena took me to The Side Yard; a highly productive “urban farm, supper club and catering company” set on a ¾ acre and a shining example of the spirit of this community. Formerly a vacant block where Dena would graze her goats on their daily walk, the land has been leased since 2009 by chef and urban farmer, Stacey Givens. She has created a flourishing catering and supply business selling organic and hard-to-find vegetables to a swag of top Portland restaurants. She also holds workshops, cooking classes, and community events in the barn and communal tables and lives at the rear of the property in a yurt. A model of compact productivity, it never ceases to amaze and encourage me to see how much can be achieved on a small urban lot.
The Side Yard was one of several operations in the Cully area that are run in a variety of different ways: some as community not-for-profits, some as collective leases or ownership. Barter and trade is an accepted currency and is celebrated in an annual community barter day where anything goes.
A mix of demographics and socio-economic households gives this neighbourhood a unique colour and flavour. Tumble-down cottages reside next to modern, stately homes and eccentric garden art like the ever-changing Bathtub Museum adds delightful spice and creativity. Front yards are replete with flowers and edibles, and there are tiny book-swap libraries on the tree-lined streets where Dena’s young Waldorf students search for treasures and fairies on their weekly walks.
It was truly a delight to behold in such close proximity to the bustling city and proves that being an urban dweller and eating your own fresh, organic, healthy produce with zero food miles really is possible. Seeing such a wonderful example of urban agriculture and community collaboration is exciting and heartening in the context of an increasing global population, food security and social isolation. And even better, this is but one example in a global grassroots movement that’s taking hold from Melbourne to Portland.
It’s not a panacea for our modern ills, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction, on so many levels.