Under a cold gray sky on the first day of spring, Jeremy O’Leary apologizes for the appearance of his backyard garden. “It looks about as good as you can have it after spreading three yards of compost,” says O’Leary, a Multnomah County employee who is involved with Transition PDX and also helped the City of Portland develop its Peak Oil plan. In his Centennial neighborhood backyard, O’Leary applies permaculture gardening to create as sustainable a food system as possible.

For most, the definition of permaculture is to maximize yield out of soil, according to O’Leary. “But I’m also interested in the broader sense of permaculture; of how do we organize society that’s a bit less energy intensive.”

To efficiently use the amount of energy demanded to grow food in his backyard, O’Leary uses the permaculture concept of “stacking” functions. O’Leary points out a pear tree that ripens in the summer next to another that ripens in the fall. Sandwiched between sits a nitrogen-fixing shrub, which feeds both trees.

The term “locavore” is used quite often, but O’Leary might fit the definition of a “hyper-locavore.” In peak season, O’Leary’s meals are primarily the outputs from his garden. The yields of his fruit trees provide fresh fruit for half of the year. “When you consider permaculture yield,” O’Leary explains, “it’s not about the number of times, but about the timing.”

Growing Gardens Helps Keep Portland Green, Affordably

Growing Gardens can help Portlanders supplement their diet with homegrown food.
Growing Gardens can help Portlanders supplement their diet with homegrown food.

O’Leary readily admits that he benefits from the part of town he lives in, having purposefully bought a house with a large yard so that he would have increased options. Not everyone can be a backyard permaculturalist—it requires money, resources and land. But, organizations like Growing Gardens assist Portland residents seeking to start budget-conscious gardens to supplement their diets with homegrown food.

Founded in 1996 as the Portland Home Garden Project, Growing Gardens provides three-year support to home gardeners, offering supplies, seeds and starts, and mentoring. The organization also holds public workshops—most of which are “pay what you can,” allowing for increased access—including a Grow Anywhere Container Gardening class for those who only have a third-floor balcony.

The impact of Growing Gardens on Portland residents can be quantified. The organization’s website shows survey results in which a plurality claimed to have saved money, shared extra produce outside their home, and increased their daily fruit and vegetable consumption as a result of their garden. The organization also has nearly 700 volunteers, according to executive director Deb Lippoldt. This is astonishing, considering most nonprofits struggle to find volunteers. “It’s gardening, it’s food,” Lippoldt explains. “It’s straightforward. It feels good.”

It’s The Land-Use Policy That Does It

Regional urban-rural reserves map.
Regional urban-rural reserves map.

While home gardens provide the freshest, most direct option for one’s meal, gardens alone are unable to provide the capacity needed to feed all Portland residents. Industrial-sized, large-scale farms ring the metropolitan area, providing produce, dairy and meat to your neighborhood grocery store. The success of these local farms is due to the combination of certain factors, which benefit of palates of Willamette Valley residents.

“There are two factors that have resulted in incredible land available for local agriculture purposes,” says Dick Benner, a senior attorney for Metro who also serves as the board president for the Portland Farmers Market. “First is the land-use planning required by the state, which has resulted to ensure a supply of agricultural land close to urban areas. The second is the requirement of urban growth boundaries, which requires the protection of farmland. These two factors don’t exist anywhere in the country as they do here.”

Benner is well-versed in land-use planning—including Metro’s contentious urban-rural reserves. “There are two motivations for the reserves process,” Benner explains. “First, by targeting 50 years out, it provides a longer range than the 20 years mandated by the urban-growth boundary (UGB). It also provides Metro with long-term plans, opposed to investigating potential expansion of the UGB every five years. Within the current UGB, there are 265,000 acres. The area’s population is expected to increase by 1.5 million in the next 50 years, but there are only 27,000 acres of urban reserves identified outside the current UGB. In other words, while the population will increase by 55 percent, there will be only an 11 percent increase in the region’s footprint, preserving valuable farmland.”

There is a common political argument that resurfaces in ballot measures that confronts Benner’s notion of “valuable farmland.” The film Portland: Quest for the Livable City does an excellent job of capturing the issues raised during the heated Measure 37 “property rights” debate during the 2004 election. In Benner’s view, the Measure 37 battle occurs when individual versus societal perspectives of value don’t mesh. Benner cites a study which shows that a $50,000 investment in Willamette Valley farmland in 1964 rose to $696,500 in 2004, while a $50,000 investment in stocks in 1964 rose to $605,800 in 2004.

“Besides,” Benner says, “the only way value is added to private land is if the public extends services. Private land only gains value if the public invests in it, through zoning, provisions, etc.” Benner also points out that rural landowners also receive incentives to keep their land undeveloped through subsidized tax rates. “We don’t tax farmland at agricultural market value. We tax at the rental value.” 

This reduction has resulted in $3.8 billion in subsidies provided to rural landowners—an amount that urban taxpayers have paid. In short, this shows that urban residents are willing to pay a tax premium to preserve rural agricultural land.

Is It All Enough?

Community gardens are another input into the local food system.
Community gardens are another input into the local food system.

Innovative backyard permaculturalists, home gardens helped by Growing Gardens, and decades worth of smart land-use planning all play key parts in the local food system. Yet, the larger your perspective of the local food system is, the less sustainable it becomes. 

Anita Yap is the co-chair of the Portland Food Policy Council who recently completed a USDA-funded research project regarding the local five-county foodshed. When pressed about the most interesting thing she discovered about the local food system, Yap responds, “There really is no regional vision for the local food system—who should develop that? How should it be convened? Who should own it?” 

Growing Gardens is just one of numerous organizations in the metro area helping provide access to fresh and healthy food, and according to Yap, “There are a ton of people doing a lot of awesome work—some great collaboration, but also duplication of efforts and an unawareness of what others are doing.”

A system consists of inputs and outputs, and a backyard food system like Jeremy O’Leary’s allows for efficient use of inputs to maximize output. But the larger the food system, the more likely the inputs will be used inefficiently with diminished outputs, resulting in wasted food and hungry people. Certain components of the local food system should be celebrated, but steps need to be taken to address the system’s weaknesses. A truly sustainable food system, after all, would be one in which hunger does not exist.