Oregon Farm Profile: Planting Seeds at Dancing Roots Farm

Profile by Craig Beebe. Photos by Shawn Linehan. All rights reserved.

Just east of the Sandy River, on a bluff called Cabbage Hill, Shari Sirkin and Bryan Dickerson run Dancing Roots Farm.

It’s a small farm at just ten acres, plus two leased acres nearby. But Dancing Roots epitomizes the growing interest Oregonians have in their food and the people who grow it. Sit down at any one of several of wide array of restaurants in the Portland area, and there’s a decent chance the vegetables on your plate came from their thriving rows of peppers, tomatoes, arugula, and more.

On this rolling site within view of the Portland Metro urban growth boundary, Shari, Bryan, and their three employees intensively work the land and connect its rewards to consumers and kitchens throughout the region.

The small size is common for Oregon farms. Over 60 percent of Oregon’s farms are less than 50 acres, and over 95 percent are family-owned, like Dancing Roots.

For the Shari and Bryan, farming is more than inputs and outputs. It’s an expression of values.

When she first decided to become a farmer, Shari had been working for years as a schoolteacher and environmental advocate. But she realized she could make a more productive impact by, well, becoming a producer.

“I wanted to be for something,” she says. “My work is now my activism.”

She notes that farming also allowed her to continue educating; subscribers to her Community Supported Agriculture program (CSA) can visit and volunteer at the farm, and often bring their kids. “I do a lot education in the program,” she says, noting that each week’s box provides an opportunity to teach her subscribers about what’s in season, what can be done with it, and why recent weather matters. “I’m sort of a food coach,” she laughs.

On a more personal level, Sirkin says that she loves the way farming has allowed her to dig deeper into the values of sustainable living she and Bryan share, by expressing them in the work they do every day.

On a walkabout of her farm one sunny, windy morning in October, Sirkin certainly has much to express as she guides photographer Shawn Linehan and me through several thriving vegetable rows, pausing frequently to pick peppers and tomatoes and exuberantly hand them to us for tastes.

Within a few dozen yards, our hands are full of a wide range of peppers, from green “gigante” padrones, to the sweet red Jimmy Nardello. Soon, she’s passing over handfuls of lemon drop cherry tomatoes, which look and taste exactly as their name would suggest. Later, in a greenhouse, she will share several prize Golden Marconis, a huge yellow pepper that’s delicious and almost ridiculous in its girth.

This is just a sampling. In a little over an hour in the fields, Shari handed us at least eight kinds of pepper or tomato or bean. Many of the crops Dancing Roots grows are heritage varieties; several are listed on Slow Food USA's Ark of Taste.

Shari’s a believer in preserving rare vegetable varieties—she saves seeds of many crops to replant them. “A healthy world depends on biodiversity,” she notes.

But she also finds it really fun. In a small office in the 1916 farmhouse Shari and Bryan are currently renovating, Shari pores over several seed catalogs as if they were entertainment magazines. She excitedly reads descriptions aloud, including a poem about a cress variety called “wrinkle crinkle.”

It’s sharing these varieties with eaters—whether a CSA subscriber or a customer at a fine restaurant—that truly excites Sirkin. She has numerous stories about introducing an unusual vegetable with a skeptical chef, who then often later comes back with requests for more after discovering it’s a hit with customers.

Dancing Roots has become particularly well known for a wide variety of quality squashes, somewhat surprisingly to Shari, who is particularly fond of eggplant. “I wanted to be the eggplant lady,” she laughs. “But somehow I became known for squash.” A Portland brewery, Hair of the Dog, even makes a beer with her squash—named “Greg” for pioneering Portland chef Greg Higgins.

She has worked with many of Portland’s top chefs, from longtime veterans like Higgins, Vitaly Paley, and Genoa’s David Anderson, to emerging chefs like Irving Street Kitchen’s Sarah Schafer, Natural Selection’s Aaron Woo, and Lucca’s Lissa Kane. Shari often supplies these restaurants directly, from the farm’s little yellow truck.

Occasionally, she and Bryan treat themselves to a meal at one of the restaurants—often, she recounts with clear gratitude, it’s on the house.

Shari and Bryan see their work and its impact in a holistic picture. They are feeding people directly, but they are also fueling their local economy. They estimate they spend around $100,000 a year on equipment, inputs, and their employees: Gary, Melissa, Emily, and part-timer Matt (all of whom commute from Portland). “Just about everything we buy is local,” Bryan says.

They recently added two greenhouses, largely to grow arugula, which is their number one crop. This brings their total to four—each of which was built with supplies from local hardware stores, using local labor.

“We’re plowing money back into our farm, and into our community,” Shari says; she estimates that about 90 percent of their expenses are spent locally. Even many of their seeds come from local companies, including Frank Morton’s Wild Garden Seed of Corvallis.

Every Oregon farm plays a role in the economic vitality of its community and region. This “multiplier effect” is a key reason that Oregon agriculture is so important to the whole state’s economy—Oregon farmers spend $3.4 billion on their businesses each year, and the Oregon Department of Agriculture estimates that one in eight Oregon jobs is agriculture-related. The output from farms like Dancing Roots also supports jobs in the city, from distribution company workers to line chefs and dishwashers. This is true throughout Oregon.

Shari and Bryan also believe that a healthy farming community depends on farmers working together. So they collaborate with fellow agricultural professionals through the Northwest Farmer to Farmer Exchange, a listserve and an annual conference to talk farming practices, business strategies, and other issues.  Shari is also a board member of Friends of Family Farmers and is on the Advisory Committee with the Portland Area CSA Coaltion.

The success of Oregon farming depends on thousands of dedicated, hardworking people like Shari and Bryan. While most of their produce stays in the local area, other farmers in the state have a much more national, and even global, orientation. A full 80 percent of Oregon agricultural products are exported out of state, and 40 percent leave the country altogether.

Standing at Dancing Roots, with its sweeping views across the Sandy River canyon just twenty minutes from downtown Portland, it’s hard not to think that in many states, land this beautiful and close to the city might be covered in gated subdivisions.

But thanks Oregon’s leadership in land use planning, that hasn’t happened. A huge percentage of Oregon’s farming still happens right in the backyards of the state’s largest cities. Like Dancing Roots, Oregon farms aren’t all located in some far-off rural place far from Oregon’s cities. In fact, five of the top ten agriculture counties in the state are considered “urban” by the US Census Bureau. 

It’s a remarkable statistic worth celebrating.

But it’s more important that we celebrate the work of farmers like Shari and Bryan whenever we sit down for a fresh meal in Oregon. This Thanksgiving, we’re raising a toast to them all.

See more photos of our visit, and read photographer Shawn Linehan's memories of the day, on her blog. Many thanks to Shawn for joining us and donating these photos!