Mudbone Grown Farm started with a produce box and blossomed into a plant-based movement

August 7, 2019

Art Shaver and Shantae Johnson began with an idea to farm for their family, then launched a nonprofit to farm for their community.

Shantae Johnson emerged from the greenhouse at Mudbone Grown, her small, family-owned farm in east Multnomah County, and walked toward the summer interns sitting around the remnants of a campfire. Her brown Carhartt overalls were dirty at the knees. An easy smile crossed her face.

 She looked at her phone. It was 11:30 a.m. 

“Have you had enough of a break?” Johnson asked. The interns murmured affirmatives in the way only teenage boys can and made their way down a grassy hill, around a shed filled with shovels and toward neat rows of cabbage, kohlrabi and kale.

On their way, they passed Johnson’s husband, Arthur Shaver, who sat at the edge of a trench in the dusty Mudbone parking lot, surveilling damage done after a truck drove over the farm’s irrigation system. 

Shaver is surrounded by broken pieces of PVC and boxes of new parts. He drove to Canby that morning for a new pressure regulator, which set him back $160. Then he forgot a part and had to drive to Home Depot.

“This was not our game plan,” he said, and chuckled. 

Today is just another day in the life for farmers who are trying to grow more than food. 

Mudbone, owned by Johnson and Shaver, is at the center of a movement meant to showcase and support farmers of color — and, just as important —better connect communities of color with affordable, locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables.

The couple provides aspiring farmers of color with free land to till and a network of seasoned farmers of color from whom to learn. They do it with support from the Oregon Food Bank and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

They also teach young people of color how to plant and harvest fresh food, and help those youth earn wages through the SummerWorks internship program, which is partly funded by Multnomah County.

SummerWorks intern Charles Walker, 19, said he likes hearing people's stories on the farm

Mudbone’s relationship with the County is growing. The team supplies fresh produce to incarcerated teens, who are disproportionately people of color, in partnership with Multnomah County’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) program and Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Home.

And every week, they haul fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income families of color who are primary care patients at the Northeast Health Center. They’re even helping to shape a plant-based buy-local food procurement standard for governments like Multnomah County. 

“When we started our goal was to gain skills so we could live in a rural setting and homestead,” Johnson said. “As time went on, and communities began approaching us about gardening classes or field trips, we realized it was bigger than us. There was a community need to return back to the land.”

Before sinking every waking hour into dirt, seeds, weeds and blackberry brambles, Johnson worked as a doula supporting other women during and after childbirth, as a breastfeeding peer support counselor with Multnomah County’s Women, Infants and Children program and then as a nutrition policy specialist at REACH.

Nutrition policy specialist Helen Kidane, left, joins REACH manager Charlene McGee for a visit to Mudbone Grown, where they sit down with farmers Shantae Johnson and Art Shaver

Shaver worked as a firefighter and a leathersmith. When he worked as a dump-truck driver he would stop to snap photos of how people managed rural land. He and Johnson dreamed of a piece of land where they could grow their own food.

But they had moved into an apartment without space to garden, something they enjoyed when they lived in a house with a yard. 

“That was one thing we had done to escape everything,” Shaver said.  

So when Johnson said she wanted to drop everything and enroll in the County’s Beginning Urban Farm apprenticeship, Shaver said he would join her. They moved into a motorhome to save up for tuition. But they struggled in the course, which was costly. They were the only people of color and the only students who didn’t own land. 

What they did have was a dream of farming — and a growing determination to make farms and farming welcoming and accessible to people of color. 

In 2016, they partnered with Oregon Food Bank to launch the one-acre Mudbone Grown urban farm near the Portland airport. That year they also joined with other nonprofits and the Multnomah County Library and Health Department to establish the Black Food Sovereignty Council to strengthen community partnerships, promote health, encourage economic development and raise cultural awareness of racial equity in food policy.

In partnership with Multnomah County’s primary care clinics, they began a farm-share program at Northeast Portland Health Center to supply patients with organic produce for 18 weeks during the summer. 

They launched Boots 2 Roots to engage veterans in agriculture, through garden-based therapeutic horticulture and farming education. And they launched Pathways to Farming to support aspiring farmers of color who couldn’t afford to pay for formal courses or lease land.

And they began working closely with Multnomah County’s REACH to hone their advocacy on food equity for African American residents.

“It was better for us to focus on being culturally specific, and serving the community we’re part of,” Johnson said. 

In 2017, Mudbone was one of just 42 Oregon farms with a Black or African American principal producer. Across Oregon that year, those couple of dozen Black farmers managed 8,450 acres of farm and ranch land — compared to 36,799 white Oregon farmers who managed nearly 15 million acres.

“It’s mind boggling,” Johnson said. “When I think about those numbers, that’s why we are creating these programs.  Land is really everything. You can grow food. You can have animals. Even if you don’t have a very nice house, you can still sustain your family.”

The playing field has never been  level. Oregon’s 1850 Donation Land Act handed out up to 660 acres to white settlers only. And that monopoly grew over decades. Today,Johnson sits on the Board of the Oregon Department of Agriculture and attends workshops and fundraisers where she remains mostly surrounded by white farmers who own big plots of land.

“We saw a huge gap as we were doing farm tours and workshops. There was a great lack of black, indigenous and people of color in those spaces,” Johnson said. “I went to fundraisers and I would look around at tables at these families with farms going back five or six generations. And here we are and we don’t own anything.”

This year Johnson and Shaver expanded Mudbone by adding a second, much larger spread of land, leasing 19 acres in the hills outside Corbett. The couple moved into a manufactured home on the Corbett property in February and cleared the fields of tall grass, blackberry thickets and barbed wire, using a brush hog, snips and machetes. A “K” Line shipping container functions as an office, complete with water cooler, and, on a recent summer workday, a tub of potato salad. The couple  put up a greenhouse, laid irrigation lines and began to farm.

Aspiring farmer Chris Hamilton joined the Mudbone Grown farming apprenticeship, which gives him free access to his own plot of land.

Down the hill behind the greenhouse, six plots, each 50 by 80 feet, are etched out for aspiring farmers of color who are part of Mudbone’s Pathways to Farming program. 

Web designer and stay-at-home dad Chris Hamilton crouched between rows of lettuce and tomatoes, pulling clumps of weeds.

He met Shaver and Johnson last year at a farm stand, where they were handing out free plants. He signed up for the Mudbone Grown newsletter and learned all about the farming program. 

“I had been freelancing, field marketing and wireframing websites. Then I saw this,” he said. “I see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Hamilton settled on a name for his aspiring business — Cultivating Roots — and began spending his days on the farm. He usually brings along his five-year-old daughter, Mia, who plays with the farmers’ 6-year-old daughter, Mone Auset.

“I like seeing the youth out here, connecting with the land. Now my daughter asks, ‘When can we go to the farm?’” he said. “When I joined the program, I feel like I joined a whole new family.”

This season Hamilton is growing chives, eggplants, cucumbers and peppers, testing his skills as a vendor at popup farm stands and the Juneteenth Celebration in Gresham.

“I’ve learned so much since I’ve been in this program,” Hamilton said. “Leti from Flying Dogheart Farm gives me advice on irrigation. Boots 2 Roots teaches me how to trim my tomato plants. It makes for a rich environment for plants — and for people.”

While one side of the fledgling Mudbone enterprise supports these new farms, the other supports Mudbone Grown’s partnership with Multnomah County’s REACH program. 

Long rows of produce will be cut and washed for sale to the Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Home. More will be provided at steep discounts to lower-income Black residents in east County and Northeast Portland as part of a growing investment in Community Supported Agriculture boxes, commonly referred to as a CSA.

REACH-sponsored CSAs come laden with produce traditionally used in African American cooking, such as collard greens, mustard greens and turnips. Johnson is also trying to grow okra, a plant that’s tough to produce in Oregon. Johnson also includes some less common plants in the REACH CSA, things like kohlrabi, tomatillos, edible flowers and microgreens.

SummerWorks interns Mucai Mutumbi, left, and Anthony Telles on a busy morning at Mudbone Grown Farm.

“We want to introduce people to new things, let people stretch,” Johnson said. “We’re trying out different things, too, to see what people might like.”

Johnson and Shaver have a team of interns helping harvest for those CSAs. Five interns from the SummerWorks program travel from Portland each morning, gathering at the Gateway MAX stop for a ride to the farm. They work for eight weeks during the season, for a total of 180 hours each. 

On a recent morning they packed emmanuel lettuce, Russian kale, mint, hot peppers and summer squash for the CSA site at the East County Community Center.

Charles Walker, 19, had worked in construction before this, but likes farming better. “You get to see your work. You improve communication skills, outside talking to people — people coming from different backgrounds,” he said. “Everyone has a story. You get to hear about that while you’re pulling roots, pulling weeds.”

Anthony Telles, 20, just started the job, he said, and, four hours in, he’s thrilled. His caseworker at the state Department of Human Services suggested he apply for SummerWorks, and Telles jumped at the chance to work at Mudbone. He said he dreams of becoming a farmer.

For Mucai Mutumbi, 19, this is his second season working with Mudbone Grown through SummerWorks. 

“I like farming,” he said. “It’s peaceful. I’m outside.”

And there’s always the perk of produce; last week he brought his parents turnips, mint and lettuce.

Down in Mudbone’s parking lot, Shaver continued shifting through boxes of PVC until Johnson stopped by to check in. Just then, they spotted their son, Shakai.

“Are you ready for lunch?” Johnson called out.

Shaver raised a section of PVC to his lips, like a megaphone, and hollers, “I got pizza.”

Meanwhile, under the awning of the nearby greenhouse, farmer Leticia Martinez steadily sorts through a bin of fresh trimmings — cilantro, mint, basil, onions and sage. Nearby they have piled freshly washed red and purple potatoes slated for sale at weekly CSA farm shares at Multnomah County’s North Portland Health Center and La Clínica de Buena Salud.

Leticia Martinez spends long days on her plot of land at Mudbone Grown. She supplies CSA produce for the North Portland Clinic and La Clinica de Buena Salud.

Martinez, who grows medicinal herbs for their Flying Dogheart Farm, completed Mudbone’s farmers of color apprenticeship last year and enrolled in the Pathways program. During the winter they mulled over their crop plan, and this spring planted more greens, herbs, potatoes and green beans. These days they spend upwards of 40 hours a week on their 50-by-80-foot plot. 

Matinez has served in the Navy. They worked for the Cascade AIDS Project. They walked dogs. The dogs, and now the plants, they said, have taught them how to live.

“Plants teach us to slow down,” they said. “It’s about tending the soil, planning ahead, paying attention. Maintaining and achieving balance. This is what keeps me going.”