Jun 18 2015

Harmony & Balance at The Croft

While early dusk settled across downtown Portland, the sun still shone brilliantly orange a mere fifteen minutes away, casting long and dappled light onto Sauvie Island. I’d returned to Sauvie for a second visit to The Croft, Greg Stamp and Vail Fletcher’s small farm and even smaller bed and breakfast about a mile past the Corten steel bridge that separates Route 30 from the agricultural island. The first time I’d met the couple – Greg, a former tea buyer for Tazo Tea, and Vail, a professor of communication studies with a focus on culture, conflict, and identity at the University of Portland – we’d sat and sipped tea inside their house, the windows open for a lovely cross breeze, the cool air and lingering clouds dictating our tea and conversation. I’d left that day with a plan to return to see the hay fields in front of their home kissed with golden sunset light, prompted by a feeling that seeing the property in the early evening would allow for a fuller understanding of the lifestyle the couple have consciously planned, laid out, and created.

And in fact, just a month later, the property did feel changed, as any farm might as it marches towards the longest and hottest days of the year. In the greenhouse, the basil starts that appear in some of these photos had transformed into harvestable basil plants. The greenhouse tomatoes now nearly scraped the structure’s ceiling. And outdoors, most plants had rapidly moved past the tiny transplant stage and were catching the light in a confident and, dare I say, boastful way.

It’s now been nearly three years since Greg and Vail made the deliberate, yet rather spur of the moment, decision to move from the established Portland neighborhoods of Ladd’s Addition and Skidmore to Sauvie Island, a nearby river island that’s known to many Portlanders as a place to bike, sunbathe, and pick berries. The 26,000 acre island is home to residents that include farmers, homesteaders, and architects, as well as wide swaths of farmland and plant nurseries with perfect views of Mount Hood and Mount St. Helen’s.

As Vail explains it, she and Greg had spent the years before meeting each other participating in a constant career upswing, often with days that featured less balance than each individually craved. Originally from Buffalo, New York, Vail has taught in a sweeping number of locations, from West Virginia to New Mexico and California. Greg hails from Somerset, England and moved to the Pacific Northwest to work for Tazo Tea. His former job included a good deal of travel, along with a level of uncertainty about scheduling, and even living location.

“I was buying basically all their tea for the last six or seven years and the job relocated to Switzerland,” Greg recounted. Faced with moving or staying in Portland, Greg decided to stay, reasoning that this change provided a push for him to see “the other side of agriculture” apart from buying and meeting with growers. Vail remembers the conversation “distinctly”. “I said, what do you know that you absolutely love? And he said, I love being outside, gardening. And I really like being my own boss,” Vail shared. Around that time, the couple took a road trip that found them driving through Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. Vail spent much of the trip gazing out upon wide open spaces and farmland, and in the car ride back, though she was in the passenger seat, she decided to press the gas pedal on what had been an abstract idea by scanning the internet for properties over two acres in Multnomah County.

“I kept coming back to the cliche of really wanting a strong work life balance,” she emphasized, a balance that was perfectly clear to me as we talked at their long dining table with views of the Croft’s property in every direction, as they both took time to share their home and lives before Vail drove away to teach a summer class at the local college and Greg returned to his farm tasks. An overarching concept of balance applies to their current management of their farm and its activities, and even applied to Vail’s original car-ride-search for property: she wanted to see if it was possible to maintain a slightly cosmopolitan lifestyle while living in a more rural locale. “I was not in favor of going off the grid. It was important for me to be plugged in,” she remembered. With those parameters in mind, twelve properties came up, and this Sauvie Island land was the largest acreage, and most appealing location, of the bunch. They looked in October 2012, negotiated for nearly half a year, and and started construction on their house in June 2013.

Their home, designed by the couple in collaboration with Brennan Conaway and Michael McHugh, and constructed by noted Portland eco-builder Green Hammer, nestles perfectly into the land. The roof is constructed from the same steel (Corten) as the Sauvie Island bridge, an “intentional design” that provides a thrilling connection to the wider world, especially in the winter when Vail and Greg have a perfect view of the bridge from their front deck. The house was designed with the concepts of “clean lines” and “sunshine”, and as such, the windows are the most noticeable feature, as well as the ideal use of space in each room, including smaller living spaces and larger communal areas. Even the house’s interior is meticulously and thoughtfully decorated, with JuJu wallpaper in the bathroom and interesting vintage touches throughout.

Lifestyle and career changes are always fascinating to an outside observer. For me, visiting two years after they first broke ground on this house, I saw an enviable finished product: a plot of land, a design, and a lifestyle that are all equally craveable. In fact, if they had asked me to farm sit that day, I’d have happily said yes. But it’s easy to swoop in after the construction haze, challenging decisions, and general life uprooting, and miss the details – and work – behind such a monumental decision. A mere two years into this reality, the Croft is as well situated and connected as it is because of the strength and compatibility of Greg and Vail’s personalities, skills, and interests.

As you might have guessed from Vail’s car ride property search, Vail is “all gas” while Greg “taps on the brake a little”. When I first met Vail, we immediately connected over a new cookbook she was thumbing through – Huckleberry. The book just happens to be my house’s go-to resource for pancakes, and she eagerly asked about favorite recipes, explaining that the book was a thoughtful gift in honor of Greg and Vail’s newest addition to their farm family – their baby boy named Huckleberry. She shared openly and kindly, allowing the conversation to proceed comfortably, while alternating between that fun cookbook conversation and more serious topics on eating meat and the role of animals in diet and on a farm.

After Greg thoughtfully prepared a pot of a tea (an oolong), he joined into the conversation gently, quickly showing his depth of knowledge of the land and the larger ecosystems at play, yet presenting answers and ideas in a humble manner. He appears as comfortable as can be in this new life, a perfectionist who remains approachable, able to alternate between rote tasks such as tying Irish Spring soap around the plethora of young trees on the property and methodically checking for caterpillars, weeding, and transplanting, yet still taking the time to notice the various birds all these new trees have attracted and to pick up and nuzzle with a gimpy and impossibly cute rescue rooster who hobbles around the chicken and bunny coop cockadoodle-doing with neighbor roosters, including the rooster that nearly killed him.

Vail and Greg, self-proclaimed “gas” and “brake”, have set up a series of redundancies and a wide network of opportunities to ensure the Croft is both financially successfully and still provides the lifestyle balance both so eagerly sought. As a professor with a focus in cultural studies and interpersonal relationships, Vail has pushed to connect the Croft to the Sauvie Island community and Portland’s agricultural scene, as well as to outside visitors, casting an ever expanding net of connection. And Greg, as a lifelong gardener and a tea buyer whose career immersed him in agriculture and taste, seems to innately understand the delicate balance between perfection and quality, the amount of attention products need, and the market openings and opportunities those products provide.

The Croft is many things to many people: a CSA, an Airbnb, a honey operation, a future cider orchard, a current and future animal sanctuary, and a gathering space. A week ago, Greg harvested the first CSA share for its thirty members, vegetables that he drives into Portland, misting them if the car gets too hot during what can sometimes be a three and a half hour roundtrip journey depending on traffic and distance between drop-off locations. Greg – or as Vail calls him for his interest in cultivating natural ecosystems at the Croft, “Pasture Greg” – has enjoyed the transition from gardener to farmer, though of course, “scaling up has a learning curve to it.” “Gardening is high scrutiny,” Greg explained. “Farming, you have to plant and leave it alone. You have to automate everything and that process has been fun because you work things out and [what used to take me] two hours now only [takes] half an hour.”

Another change from gardener to farmer seems basic, at first: what to grow. Gardeners grow what they want to eat, what they find pretty, what will grow in their specific plot. Greg is still learning to balance what he wants to grow with what members want to eat. Consider eggplant. “To me, eggplants are works of art. The ones with the violet striations, they’re amazing,” Greg gushed as we stood in the greenhouse. Yet, “I had a lot of people say, yeah, I didn’t really know what to do with the eggplant. A couple of people were like, I don’t know how to cook eggplant,” Greg remembered. “These are the pride and joy of my season!” he half-joked. So, once again, the concept of balance is applied to this annual decision, with Greg and Vail debating: do members want staples (Vail) or do members want to try new things (Greg)?

When Greg and Vail originally conceptualized how to create and maintain a sustainable, and balanced, farming lifestyle, they decided on two main angles: a cider orchard and a bed and breakfast. The bed and breakfast, via Airbnb, was both a known quantity, and a slight risk. Their decision to plant a cider orchard was based on market research and interest in the resulting beverage, while recognizing that the trees wouldn’t provide a cent of income for up to five years after planting.

Thankfully, the Airbnb, known as the “Casita”, has proven to be a successful in ways that extend beyond the financial. When Vail lived in Ladd’s Addition, she’d run an Airbnb that attracted a certain kind of visitor, one that took the TriMet Max line in from the airport and walked or biked everywhere – a visitor that craved an urban experience. She thought the same Airbnb model could apply on Sauvie Island, especially if the couple could attract another kind of visitor to the Portland area, one who sought a calmer environment without sacrificing access.

The couple hadn’t planned for the attraction to the Casita from actual Portland residents seeking a rural staycation. They’re booked almost every night; even random Tuesday nights are reserved by nearby residents who want a night in the country, but don’t want to fly somewhere for the peace and solitude they seek. The Casita is connected via a deck to Greg and Vail’s home, but feels entirely private, with a large sliding glass door that look onto the vegetable garden, a bathroom window that stares into the hay field, and a side bedroom window view of the vegetables and greenhouse. Because the Croft has a constant swirl of visitors and new faces, the farm feels connected to the broader world, even on days when Greg and Vail don’t leave the property.

The cider apple trees – one hundred forty five in total, comprised of seven different varietals – were planted behind the greenhouse. Another income stream, bee hives maintained by local organization Bee Local, sit in that orchard. As we stared at the active bees and the tiny trees, nearly dwarfed by tall grass, Vail mentioned that because they’re hoping to harvest a light crop next year, she’s already put out feelers for clients, including a potential connection with New Deal Distillery for a future apple brandy.

As the couple continue to plan for the future, their next construction project is a large barn that will serve several purposes. Besides dry storage, they envision a space that will host workshops and events, and perhaps even house a market stand. Vail sees endless possibilities, all designed to expand community and facilitate conversations. “A place you could have friends and family over for hot cocoa in January,” she imagined. “We could do small retreats.”

Vail and Greg registered the Croft as a rescue animal nonprofit (known as “The Barn at the Croft”), and though currently a small sanctuary, they have already provided a safe home for half a dozen fowl and two rabbits that would otherwise have been slaughtered. They plan to break ground on the barn this fall, and once completed, they want to expand their rescue operation to include goats and donkeys. Vail told me that she’s rescued animals for several decades, and when we talked about animals and eating meat, she expressed strong views on ethical meat eating and proper animal care. The chickens, ducks, and rabbits, and even the gimpy rooster, are content as can be in their large coop and run, and the couple hopes to extend that goodwill to more animals in the future.

As Greg and Vail enter into the heart of their CSA season and plan for these future projects, they’ll continue navigating via the push and pull each partner provides, striving for balance in each decision. Ultimately, the specific discussion surrounding the future animal sanctuary reflects the management of their entire property. Ideally the Croft will one day provide a home to more rescued animals, yet even if those plans had to come to a screeching halt, the couple could still honestly apply the word sanctuary to the Croft. They’ve created a space that nurtures and attracts existing communities of frogs, birds and bees, that warmly envelops stressed or anxious travelers, that stimulates conversations, and that changes the pace of movement and thoughts. Wounded animals or not, the Croft is already a sanctuary, as Greg and Vail build their dream while never forgetting that connections are not just about ecologies and land, but about people.