Historic farm teaches visitors about Oregon agriculture

Saerom Yoo / The Statesman Journal /

SALEM — A historic family farm that traces its first owners to settlers from the Oregon Trail in 1847 is connecting with city dwellers to keep alive its agricultural traditions.

For the past several months, GeerCrest Farm has been hosting open houses on the second Sunday of the month, allowing visitors to get an intimate look at life on the farm.

Here, goats, horses and sheep coexist in the field. Most of the meals eaten by the family are grown and raised on the farm. The chickens roam freely along the creek bed. The employees who help run the farm all live in one house on the property.

On an overcast Sunday, Adam McKinley, who manages the livestock, and Rebecca Zimbel, who manages the dairy, gave a tour to the Siegel family from Portland.

As the group walked away from a greenhouse full of vegetable starts, McKinley stooped down to pick a dandelion green and put it in his mouth. It’s good for the body, he said.

The mission of the farm as a learning center has been growing since 14 years ago, when Erika and Jim Toler agreed to eventually take over the farm. The previous owner, the last of the Geers, had struggled to keep the farm in the family, as she promised her father.

The Tolers, distant relatives of the Geers, stepped up.

Erika Toler said she thought hard about how the farm would stay alive with its traditions intact. The 20-acre farm isn’t viable as a commercial business. She came to the decision that it would become a nonprofit organization, making the farm available for educational programs and as a sanctuary.

The farm’s core will continue to be the family, Toler said, but a community is building around it.

The educational program started in 2002, hosting children overnight and teaching them through immersion about life on a farm. Public school classes go to the farm on field trips for a history lesson.

It has a strong connection to Portland-area Waldorf Schools. A Waldorf education is based on three developmental phases of a child and aims to teach the whole student through experiences, according to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.

This year, the Tolers officially are handing over operation of the farm to the nonprofit GeerCrest Farm and Historical Society, with a 99-year lease of the land. The organization is starting to work on establishing a donor base and writing grants.

The farm family now may not look like what the original Geers had imagined, but this is a new phase for the farm.

“We’re patching one together,” Toler said. “It’s not blood-related. It’s soul-related.”

When children participate in the overnight programs, it isn’t a vacation. They’re up at dawn with the rest of the farmers, milking goats, feeding the animals and cooking breakfast.

Cayla Catino, who manages educational programs for the farm, said there’s something about working for one’s own food that is satisfying, and it’s something she hopes to pass on to the students who visit.

“I think it’s really important for kids to know where their food comes from,” she said.

The second Sunday open house events are loosely structured, as people come and go at different times. There are themes planned for the day, but guests are free to experience and learn whatever sparks their curiosity at the time.

Lunch is served straight from the stove of the farmhouse kitchen, in its breakfast nook. A wood stove heats the well-populated areas of the home, while other parts are kept freezing cold in its original, insulation-free state.

At a time when small family farms are becoming a rare species, GeerCrest’s visitors bustling in and out of the kitchen are now the source of its new life.