She answered the door with a skeptical look, shushing the dog. I was sure I’d annoyed her, sure I’d picked the wrong day to approach a reclusive stranger.
When I told her her farm’s website had indicated that Fridays were the best days to drop by, she dropped her guard a little. I said I’d just moved from the midwest, and was eager to learn everything I could about Pacific Northwest gardening, as I’d hoped someday to have a small farm just like hers.
She pushed her feet into muck boots, let her dog out to sniff me, and proceded to give me a tour of the farm. We fell quickly into talking, instantly riffing off each other as if we’d grown up in the same family. As it turns out, in many ways, we did.
Kelly’s farm, Amaranth Produce, is the product of her lifetime of work. She and her husband built the house on the property in the West Hills of Portland, and then she commenced clearing a flat-ish space (nothing’s truly flat in the West Hills) on which to establish a garden. The garden begat the chicken coop, which begat the barn full of goats, which begat a booth at farmer’s markets and a business was born. Twenty years into the endeavor, her small farm’s efficient process is a thing to behold. While her background in Classics contributes little beyond the charming animal names and whimsical notes left around the property, she is also a student of landscape architecture, and it shows in every corner.
Pleasing proportions and ingenious design are the hallmarks of the farm. The lucky owner of her own welding equipment, about which I am desperately jealous, she has created her own equipment when commercial offerings were insufficient. A bench that spans the width of the 4′ wide beds has been welded onto a dolly that rolls along both sides of the bed on 12″ tires, for ease of weeding and harvesting. The hops are grown on a two-story iron tower that is accessed through a simple pulley system. Everything in her shed has at least two purposes, and was usually designed for something other than what it’s being used for now. An industrial-sized potato masher has become the grain stirrer (among other things) in the barn. A protective “cone of shame” from the dog has been repurposed as a chicken-feeder-accessory. Election season yard-sign-stakes have found new life as supports for her pea trellis. With her resoursefulness, intelligence and creativity, I call her the Alton Brown of farming. (incidentally, she just published a book containing her ideas: http://www.powells.com/biblio/9781935484783 it’s both delightful and amazing!)
While I love her animals, her inventions are the star of the show, some the result of necessity, some merely the child of her fertile mind. The duck pond vacuum, Duck Vac 14(.2) is positively brilliant; she has repurposed a seed-broadcaster, typically used to seed a suburban lawn, to carry a shop vac that is also attached to a pump. The water from the pond goes in one hose, comes out filtered through another, straight into a watering can that gets emptied onto the vegetable beds, where the duck manure-water does the most good. The vac carries its own power source and has a kickstand, which was implemented with version .2 after she spent the weekend poring over the hardware store shelves seeking improvements to an already perfectly acceptable — but not perfect — duck pond vac.
For six months now, Kelly has been generous with both time and information. She taught me how to milk a goat, which I’ve done as a pinch-hitter on occasion. While I’ve been a gardener for almost 10 years, this is my first foray into farming, something I’ve wanted to do since I read the Little House books. It turns out that my instincts were right; I love this work. While it’s not my daily responsibility, and I’m told that over time, the charm wears off, I am thrilled to even have the chance.
But that, too, is part of who Kelly is. Gracious, funny, kind, thoughtful, and incredibly intelligent, she recognized my earnest curiosity and has graced me with the opportunity to pursue all trains of thought in the safety of her bucolic enclave. Without hesitation, she answers my questions, because while I understand basic vegetable gardening in the midwest, everything is different here. I have to take into account different soil composition, heat levels, moisture, exposure, and, for the first time, elevation. Kelly happily informs me on any subject I ask about, so I am careful not to ask too much all at once. I watch and listen and soak up as much as I can. And I get to dig in the dirt, which has long been one of my favorite activities.
The other day, while we were texting about upcoming schedules for farm work, she responded with “si tu veut”, which is French for “if you want.” She immediately apologized, saying “you don’t speak French, do you?” But I do! And we were off on an easy conversation in French — not a spectacularly verbose one, but French, nonetheless.
That’s the hallmark of spending time with Kelly; these odd turns lead down paths littered with subjects to be tossed back and forth, turned over and considered, sometimes saved for later, sometimes mined for deeper meaning, sometimes discarded altogether. By turns educational, entertaining and stimulating, interaction with Kelly has been a great joy.
For someone new to Portland and not especially good at making friends, she has been a gift from the universe, and I’m especially grateful.