Farming for the Future

The four farmers who make up Eugene’s Ant Farm Collective grow staple crops and produce, selling them to local markets and restaurants as part of a burgeoning “new farmers movement” that is using small-scale, sustainable farming to revitalize local food systems. But unlike other beginning farmers who rent or borrow money to buy land, Shelley Bowerman, BA ’09, and her partners rely on shares or work exchanges arranged with landholders. 

The “Collective” part of the Ant Farm, in other words, refers to the seven different sites on which the group of farmers grows food. The ant farmers—Bowerman and partners Lauren Bilbao, Claire Schechtman, BA ’13, and Dan Schuler—each live on different sites and have their own kitchen gardens, but share the work in the common plots that produce the market goods: many hundreds of pounds of tomatoes, potatoes, onions, winter squash, and other hearty, nutrient-dense food.

This arrangement speaks not only to the resourcefulness that is the hallmark of the American farmer, but more subtly to the revolutionary nature of Bowerman’s project as a postindustrial model of food production and distribution. By sharing both labor and available land, there is less need for capital outlay and a greater potential for a profitable venture than with the average small family farm. The farmers can dedicate time to farming instead of part-time jobs, which, according to USDA data, most small farmers rely on to make ends meet. And Bowerman has discovered that many Eugenians are happy to have their acreage tended by industrious farmers. As the Ant Farm Collective’s website states, there is “no lack of land for those who dedicate themselves to the soil.”

Keith Walton from Nettle Edge Farm in Eugene is one of those who shares land with the collective, about a third of an acre on Nettle Edge’s 50-acre spread. When he started working with Bowerman and her team, the farmer, who is in his 60s, found himself impressed with the next generation. “It’s been fun to work with them,” he says. “I admire their tenaciousness in working together to raise appropriate crops in the area. It resonates with our experience in the 1970s and ’80s with people getting together to work with organic farming.”

Bowerman’s motivation to farm stems from a family interest in horticulture and her experience with several programs at the University of Oregon, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in international studies. Her heart set on a career employing grassroots activism, she started growing food on the lot of her quarter-acre rental house. Soon the grassroots grew into advocacy projects closer to home, including the Ant Farm, which started in 2008 when Bowerman and partners expanded into her neighbor’s backyard. 

“I saw that it was my duty,” she says, “to look within and around to create localized change instead of flying across the world to do it.” 

And localizing change meant working on the southern Willamette Valley food shed, close to home. Instead of taking the path of most resistance to protest inequities in the industrial food system, Bowerman began working with fellow students to invent alternatives. She was transformed by the thought of creating new possibilities.

One idea, borne from a desire to bring more local food to the UO dorms, led to Project Tomato. Now in its seventh year, Project Tomato builds networks among new freshmen, who bicycle to local farms and pick and process tomatoes that become pizza sauce in the Carson dining hall. After she graduated, Bowerman was hired by the UO’s Office of Sustainability to help administer Project Tomato, working there until farming success enabled her to move on last year.

The activist impulse has remained strong within Bowerman in the years since graduation. She has taught promising new farmers at the UO Urban Farm since 2013, and hosts weekly work parties in season at the Ant Farm, where anyone can come for an introduction to farming and take part in the “sustainability cooperative” to build a sense of community around local food. Bowerman feels a strong need to marry her work within the food movement to issues of food justice and equity, because, as she says, “if my work and the good life I’m living is not accessible to all, then I need to address it.”

Bowerman and her fellow ant farmers plan to grow more staples for self-sufficient living in the future, increase restaurant and retail sales, and host farm catering events with their produce. “We have to be the future of farming,” she notes, “and if we want to see a healthful life for our generation and those beyond ours, we need to have a direct impact on it. That doesn’t just mean supporting farmers, but being a farmer.”

—By Jennifer Burns Bright

Jennifer Burns Bright teaches English and comparative literature at the UO and is a freelance food journalist.