Publication Date: Winter 2021
Jeff Falen started Persephone Farm in 1985, and Elanor O’Brien joined him in 1990, initially as an apprentice, and later as a life partner, and full partner in the farm. Their 55 acre organic vegetable farm on the South Santiam River evolved over 36 years. In 2020, they grew over 30 vegetable crops for farmers markets, stores, buying clubs, home delivery services, restaurants, and wholesale.
In 2004, Jeff and Elanor accepted the Oregon Tilth Producer of the Year award. Their acceptance speech inspired a lot of reflection among participants at Tilth’s 30th Anniversary Conference (T-30) in Vancouver. The Conference was a collaboration between Washington Tilth Producers, and Oregon Tilth, Inc.
Their speech was originally printed by In Good Tilth (volume 16, number 1) on February 15, 2005. The original introduction in italics was written by Lacey Phillabaum, then editor of In Good Tilth. We retrieved the original article from the Oregon Tilth archive at the OSU Special Collections and Archives Research Center. Elanor shares some 2020 reflections at the end of this article.
In a crowded class of talented farmers, Jeff Falen and Elanor O’Brien were named the Oregon Tilth Producers of the year at the 2004 Tilth 30th Anniversary Conference. Tilth farmers are pioneers in many fields, and the award honors an outstanding Tilth farmer who best achieves biologically sound and socially equitable agriculture.
After a laudatory and self-congratulatory evening of award-giving and receiving, Falen and O’Brien accepted their award with a speech that shook things up. They urged the assembled audience not to be complacent with what has been achieved, but to forge new means and methods of sustainability in all sectors of the organic industry and beyond. Their speech was moving and roused the sleepy, overfed audience to jump to their feet in a standing ovation. Their speech is reprinted here with permission.
Jeff: So many people have helped Persephone Farm learn and grow over the years, whether by sharing knowledge or skills or providing sheer inspiration, that it would be impossible to thank everyone individually. But we are truly a collage, a reflection of many faces, from the Madras peppermint farmer who taught me to move irrigation pipe – eight hours a day, seven days a week – on his 100-acre spread, Jeff Falen, founder of Persephone Farm died on December 4, 2020 leaving a legacy of healthy soil, tight-knit community, inspiration and love Jeff inspects a field of leafy greens. Photo by Shawn Linehan Photography Jeff repairs an irrigation riser on the farm. Photo by Elanor O’Brien
to the Virginia farmers who taught me the joys of picking bush beans and tomatoes all day. From the founders of Organically Grown Co-op, who took a chance on the idea that farmers can work together, to the growers of OGC, inexperienced at first but determined as they shared missteps and successes. From David Lively, who gave me the address of Persephone Farm in 1989 when I was seeking a farm apprenticeship (who knew I’d become the apprentice who wouldn’t leave?), to Suzy Evans, who organized a midwinter growers conference which has borne so much fruit, we have been the recipients of extraordinary generosity as we strive to create a farm ecosystem that sustains us as well as people far into the future. We can only hope to give back a fraction of what we have received.
Jeff: We would also like to thank Tilth for the vital role it has played in advancing organic agriculture. We honor the work that has been done by the folks in this room, many of whom have been at it longer than we have. You have much to celebrate. But we would also like to challenge you.
Organic farming is largely about the health of the soil. This focus is commendable because the prosperity of future generations depends on how well we take care of the extraordinary ecosystem beneath our feet. Organics has brought a long-term view to agriculture that is at the root of true sustainability. Yet, while we feel Persephone Farm has made strides in creating a sustainable soil, when we look past the soil we see much, much more work to be done.
Our farming operation is wholly dependent on nonrenewable resources. We use about 700 gallons of gas, diesel and propane every year to power our tractors and heat our greenhouse, and another thousand or more in our vehicles. Our greenhouse is covered in non-recyclable plastic film. Our wholesale produce is packed with non-recyclable waxed boxes. We spread lime and gypsum in our fields, both of which are finite resources. The long-term viability of the gene pool we rely on is uncertain. The list goes on. In short, Persephone Farm is using limited resources as if there were no tomorrow.
At times, this dependence causes us great despair, but it is also a challenge, a challenge to make our farm a truly sustainable operation, one that is capable of feeding people healthy food for a thousand generations to come. We would like to offer the same challenge to Tilth and the organic community, that we broaden our focus, that we reach beyond ourselves and constantly strive to create a sustainable agriculture, with our thoughts on the future as much as the present.
We live in dark times, when the national leadership cares nothing for the next generation, let alone the next thousand generations. Yet, even if we had enlightened leadership, the task of achieving sustainability is so monumental that it requires major effort on the part of every inhabitant of the planet, and especially in America where we consume so much. Humanity can go on drilling, mining and consuming until the Earth stops giving, or we can use our ingenuity, our vast wealth, and a sense of what is right to create a truly sustainable culture so that those who come after us will not have to live in a depleted world.
Elanor: It is well to celebrate 30 years of changing our relationship with the soil. But, as we celebrate, let’s also see the last 30 years as a starting point. It is up to us to keep pushing the frontier toward a sustainable culture. If we push hard enough perhaps our leaders will follow. Jeff and Elanor taught numerous apprentices and other farmers about the art and science of organic and sustainable farming. Photo by Elanor O’Brien
Rest in peace dear friend. Jeff Falen, 1957-2020.
Some reflections on the last 15 years from Elanor O’Brien:
Well folks, in rereading what we wrote 15 years ago, which was itself a reflection on our first 20 years of farming, I would have to say, “Same stuff different day.” We are still living and farming as if there is no tomorrow. If our speech at T-30 “shook things up,” I haven’t seen it. I speak from the inside out; change begins with me. Any strides Persephone has made in an ecologically sane direction have been stumbling and accompanied by setbacks.
For example, over the past 15 years we have installed over twenty kw of solar arrays which power all of the farm’s annual electrical needs, but why does it take so many kilowatts to power our farm? Why did we not focus more on efficiency? Why are we still using the same old inefficient, leaky walk-in cooler? In 2006 we added an electric, Allis Chalmers Model “G” cultivating tractor to our retinue, but our second model G as well as our “Drangen” lay down harvest tractor is still powered by gasoline. We have added lots of habitat for beneficial insects, pollinators, and wildlife, and decades of cover cropping have allowed us to reduce the off-farm fertilizers we apply, but we still disrupt soil strata many times a year with our meddling. We now use hot water and much less propane to warm the tiny seedlings in our propagation greenhouse, but we still burn diesel while trucking our produce up and down I-5.
We have trained many farmers and farmers-to-be, but Jeff and I failed to design a business model which would outlive our ability to farm. Persephone Farm’s 36th season will be its last: one indication that attempting to grow truly seasonal produce outside in the sun, wind and rain is something only a couple of freaks like Jeff and Elanor would attempt.
I miss my partner in freakdom. Where else could I find someone who is willing to limit driving speeds to 55 mph*, or who agrees with me that heating the outdoors with propane blowers is insane? Despite my cranky pessimism I have a lot of love and appreciation for farmers everywhere who observe and listen carefully, who are thoughtful, careful and deliberate, who are always thinking and rethinking and rethinking again, who love the place which is their farm. There is a culture of cooperation rather than competition, a culture of generosity and sharing among Pacific Northwest farms which can’t be beat. Persephone would not have lived as long as it did without the help of many friends. Lots of our farms grew up together, and we had the pleasure to get to know newer growers as well. These connections have fed us for decades and are still feeding me and helping me through several tough transitions right now.
As fumbling as our efforts to farm as if the future matters have been, we could not have done any of it without this community, so that part of the message we wrote 15 years ago is timeless. May it ever be so.
*At 65 mph, vehicles burn about 15% more fuel per mile than they do at 55 mph. This results in about 15% more carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) emissions per mile. In addition, EPA test data shows that average speeds of 65 mph result in the following emissions increases, compared to 55 mph, on a per mile basis: carbon monoxide 153%, nitrous oxide 9%, volatile organic compounds 55%. Can you imagine what a different world we would live in if each of us made a commitment to “drive 55”? Cleaner air for all and a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions? It is such a simple act but so few are willing to do it. If you want to honor Jeff’s memory, consider slowing down to 55 mph for the sake of all beings sharing this world, and for their descendants.
Acknowledgements: Thank you to the OSU Special Collections and Archives Research Center for maintaining the Oregon Tilth archives, and finding this issue of In Good Tilth: http://scarc.library.oregonstate.edu/ findingaids/?p=collections/findingaid&id=3094. Thanks to Oregon Tilth, Inc., and Lacey Phillabaum for documenting the original text of the speech in 2005, and writing the original introduction. Thanks also to Shawn Linehan Photography for permission to use her photographs. Thank you to Nick Andrews, Organic Vegetable Extension agent, for encouraging and supporting farmers everywhere, and facilitating this article.