How Italy Convinced One Oregon Farmer to Simplify
If you’ve ever felt lukewarm about tomatoes, go sit next to Evan Gregoire.
The Oregon-based farmer can talk excitedly for hours about the differences between varietals — telling you which ones are good for sauce versus which ones are good for eating raw out of hand — convincing even the most skeptical vegetable eater to slurp smooth passatta from a paper cup before the end of the day.
Evan wasn’t always this passionate about tomatoes — but he’s always been this passionate about food.
The LA native was originally working in marketing when he made the move to Oregon and completed a Master Gardeners course at Oregon State University in 2007. He started farming with Rachel Kornstein in Eugene, Oregon at a spot they called Boondockers Farm and Evan dove right in.
They both had a passion for heirloom varieties and heritage breeds and in addition growing vegetables they began raising Ancona and Saxony ducks. Evan’s energy and desire to learn knew no bounds and before long they had added chickens, Great Pyrenees dogs, pigs and a strong education component.
The farm grew so much they moved to Beavercreek, a small community just south of Portland and the bigger space meant more opportunities for farm tours and teaching people about the importance of raising heritage breeds.
But the downside of Evan’s enthusiasm was time and money. A bigger farm meant bigger expenses, a bigger time commitment and a feeling they were stretched too thin. This was the fall of 2014 and he was preparing to go to Terra Madre, the bi-annual international Slow Food conference that takes place in Turin, Italy. In addition to attending the five day conference, he had plans to visit farmers all over Italy to gather seeds and learn new growing techniques.
And so he went, he saw, he collected hundreds of seed varietals and tons invaluable knowledge and came back with an overwhelming feeling to simplify and focus his enthusiasm to something that felt more manageable.
“We just did too many things. It’s hard to keep track of cows and pigs, but then you add crops and jam and seeds and ducks and eggs and meat,” he says.
“Chefs want to see farms focus on what they’re good at, a primal focus. I feel like I saw that in Italy.”
So he took some time to think about what he was really good at — what his primal focus would be and he came back to vegetables and seed saving. In 2015 he started the wheels of simplification in motion.
He started with tomatoes, growing all his newly found Italian tomato varietals, holding tomato tastings to see which types not only grew the best in his PNW region, but also which tasted the best.
He and Rachel ended their partnership and he moved to a five acre piece of property in neighboring Clackamas, farming 3/4 of an acre that first year and 1.5 acres now. She still raises the animals, while he has turned his focus to plants.
“I cut out all the eggs and the meat. I have a couple of dogs and a couple of ducks for management, but the primary component is vegetables,” he says.
He’s even simplifying what he grows — focusing mainly on Italian vegetables, with tomatoes, dandelion greens and cucumber melons being the bulk of his cultivation.
Of course — Evan’s enthusiasm has caused him to wheedle out of his new niche already. Recently he discovered a new passion for heritage flint corn and is currently trialing a dozen varieties to see which ones will perform the best.
Enthusiasm — like fire — is catching and in addition to chefs and wholesalers nabbing up his vegetables and seeds, some are going as far as wanting Evan to create urban restaurant gardens. He’s designed and put in the work on a 50’ x 70’ space at Portland’s Pizza Jerk, cultivating a culinary garden for the pizza cooks to harvest for menu items throughout the summer.
“It’s a place of gathering and they’re eating back there, kids are playing back there and it’s really fun and wonderful. It’s great community building,” he says.
Most importantly, he’s given his dream and newfound focus a name — The Portland Seedhouse. He’s also kept his commitment to Slow Food, contributing seeds to a demonstration garden and helping fundraise for delegates heading to Terra Madre this year.
“There’s a lot of stuff and history and a lot of work to be done on those products. That is our culture and we should respect what was grown and brought here and how this area was created eventually. That’s the special part.”
See what Evan’s up to at the Portland Seedhouse on Instagram. His shots of the farm and the food he’s been growing are sure to make you hungry.