Bonnie Hildebrand lives on 43.5 picturesque acres in the North Plains countryside just 18 miles West of Portland, Oregon. She currently grows all of her beautiful veganic produce and flowers on a 1/2 acre plot. Bonnie shares her home with eight furry friends: Meowgi (the cat) Munch (the pug), and 6 rescue goats: Violet, Earl, Alexa and Alexa’s three babies, Tonk, Pluto and Chrystalia. Violet and Earl were first rescued by Out to Pasture Animal Sanctuary before joining Bonnie at Spoke and Leaf Farm. The others were rescued by Harmony New Beginnings Animal Rescue prior to joining the gang. Two stray cats have recently made an appearance and both are available for adoption!
What inspired you to become a farmer?
I think it’s just been an adult life of learning about food and where it comes from and how it’s handled and where it’s grown and I started getting serious about it in 2010. I went to a permaculture conference and it opened my eyes further. And I was gardening; I was growing stuff here and there with moderate success. Then I heard about the Beginning Urban Farmer Apprenticeship. That first year I wasn’t able to go because I was working full time, but fortunately I got laid off from my job and was able to apply to the second class of 2012. I was accepted and went through an eight month intensive urban farming program and that really did it. I did an internship with them in 2013 and worked for another farmer in 2014. And then when my dad bought some property and he said, “come start your farm,” so it gave me the opportunity in 2015 to start my farm.
How did you come up with the name, “Spoke and Leaf”?
I was actually having a really hard time coming up with a name and I was driving somewhere out in my area and it just popped into my head. I put it on the list of potential names and then, with three other people, workshopped that list. Spoke and Leaf was the one we ended up choosing. I like it because it represents two things that are important to me: the leaf representing farming, food and that kind of thing and spoke, representing bikes.
What exactly is veganic farming? How is it different from organic farming?
So let’s look at it from the standpoint of USDA Organic, because more people are familiar with what that means. Veganic is organic as most people understand it under the USDA guidelines, but without using any animal-based input. I don’t use manure, I don’t use feather meal, blood meal, fish meal, or fish emulsion as fertilizers, which are the really common fertilizers in organic farming. Since synthetic inputs are generally not allowed, that’s where most organic farmers turn for sources of nitrogen and other nutrients. I don’t use any of those; I try to provide nutrients through plant matter. And it’s extremely difficult to find veganic compost. So I’m working on making my own.
This last year, 2015, was your first year as a farmer. What was that experience like? What has surprised you the most?
It was a great experience and also, as expected, very challenging. Just trying to manage it and make all the plans on my own instead of being under someone’s direction and just giving input. I think the most surprising thing was trying to deal with the heat waves that we had [in 2015]. That was really hard. I didn’t have a plan for that and I lost a lot of crops because of the non-stop 100 degree days. Lettuce doesn’t like that kind of heat — at all. It was also really challenging to be at a really small farmer’s market and just not get the clientele you think are going to be there. Because people don’t know about it or they don’t feel like it’s affordable for them. Or as often was the case, vegetables that I think of as being very common that customers were just not familiar with.
Rainbow chard comes to mind. Lemon cucumbers. Basil! Yellow crookneck summer squash. Kale — people thought it was spinach.
What are some of the farmers markets you were selling at?
North Plains has a small farmers market and I was at that one and then I did a pop up that was just me at the Vegan Mini Mall [in Portland]. A big shout out to Food Fight for being great supporters.
What are some of the challenges of veganic farming?
Nutrient management is probably the biggest challenge; making sure that you can provide plant-based nutrients to the soil in a timely enough manner so that the plants you’re growing for food will have those nutrients as well. Nitrogen is a big issue. Not specifically related to veganics, but for me because of where I am. The pH in my soil is low, so getting the pH to a point that most vegetable plants like (which is between a 6 or a 7) is challenging. My soil’s not there yet, so some things are not terribly happy about it. Also, doing my rotations of where I plant to accommodate for that.
According to the USDA Agricultural Census, women comprise between 30-45% of farmers from state to state, and yet control only 7% of US Farmland and account for a mere 3% of sales. Why do you think that is?
I think a big part of it is that women are often in partnership with a husband or spouse, a male partner. The land is likely in the man’s name, so land ownership and sales get attributed to the male in the partnership. There’s also — and I’ve heard this from other [women] farmers or potential farmers — the question, are they going to farm if they plan on having children? Especially if they don’t have a partner, because there are a lot of obligations in raising children. And women just don’t earn as much as men. so they just don’t have as much money going into it to put into the farm to get it started.
What’s happening at Spoke and Leaf Farm this month?
For January it’s planning, planning, planning. Planning for my crop plan, planning for the CSA that I’m starting — that’s a big one. Planning a CSA is super challenging. I have to figure out how many weeks the CSA should run based on my climate and what I feel like I can produce, and how to price it. So it’s still a lot of planning and I’m doing some seed starting already. There are a lot of flowers that want to get started and some really early vegetables. I overwintered some kale and some really hardy bitter greens that will be ready early in the spring. Despite the goats and gophers eating their fair share of things.
Where can people learn more about your farm?
Facebook or Instagram. There are lots of pictures of the goats on Instagram
All photos by Iris de Lis of Portland Pictures.