Humans of the Urban Farm
written by mara welty
photographed by savannah mendoza
In 1996 Lauren Bilbao wanted an escape — and she found that refuge at the Urban Farm.In an attempt to find relief from the scientific and bookish classes offered by her graduate program at the time, Bilbao found a home within the lush vines and gritty dirt of the Urban Farm — 21 years later, she still calls it her “farm-ily.”
Draped in a maroon shawl that contrasts the stark yellow canopy of leaves she sits beneath, Bilbao is now one of eight professors for the Urban Farm class, which is offered during the spring, summer, and fall terms of the University of Oregon school year.
“I have a relentless stream of enthusiastic college students just parading through my life,” Bilbao said. “And because I am who I am, I find something to love about everybody. And sometimes students pick me back and sometimes those relationships last for a long time. They become part of my farm-ily.”
For her, “farm-ily” duties sometimes include performing wedding ceremonies or attending the birth of her past students’ children.
But they also include getting down and dirty. Students scatter the yard, shovels and rakes in hand, as they rip weeds from the dense soil and meticulously inspect budding plants to cultivate their gardens.
She teaches her students the basics: how to grow and cook food in a small-scale urban environment — along with food preservation, soil ecology, and sustainable environmental practices. The class looks at the whole food production system, she says, from the social, environmental, and health perspective.
Major: Environmental Studies
Inspiration behind urban farming: “I’ve taken a food class on sustainability last term, so I got interested in the whole food scene and I wanted to take this class to immerse myself deeper into the concept and the culture.”
The farming experience: “We learn plant identification and the inner workings of the Urban Farm and sustainability — like not planting the same plant in the same plant family, things that I wouldn’t think about.”
Plans for the future: “I could definitely see myself in the agriculture industry, I don’t know if I could see myself being a farmer, but the world needs more farmers and they need more organic farmers so I wouldn’t say it’s out of reach, but I’m very intrigued by this class to say the least. It’s eye opening.
But even gardening comes with its difficulties — the inflexible academic calendar is superimposed on top of the farm calendar making it difficult to coordinate growing cycles. It’s backwards, she says. At a time when the most food production is possible, there are the fewest number of people to maintain and manage the garden.
Nevertheless, she looks at the farm fondly, even after a long day of teaching.
“There’s a whiskey toddy just calling my name right now,” she chuckled as she unlocked her car under the leafy yellow awning.
Major: Public Relations
Inspiration behind urban farming: “I wanted to learn everything about putting together and maintaining a garden or a farm. I think over spring break when I’m home in California I’m gonna get some pots and try to get a tomato, strawberry, and cucumber plant and try to grow and harvest them over the summer.”
The farming experience: There’s eight groups with ten people or so and and the teachers teach us about their section of the farm. They all have different backgrounds in agriculture and different specialties. Then we usually break off in the beginning and work on the garden, we’re all doing it together, but everyone’s section has something unique to it.”
Plans for the future: “I already know I want to do PR, so this has definitely opened my eyes to what I could do within the public relations industry and how I would be able to incorporate agriculture into that.”