Kneeling beside a row of kohlrabi, Dee Rogers tends to a field that may have once saved her life.
Rogers is a veteran of the Marine Corps who was once homeless and bouncing aimlessly about the Northwest. A few years back she ended up in a hospital on the coast.
"I was really sick," she says, matter-of-factly. "Drinking too much."
From that hospital visit she connected with veterans' services, which eventually brought her to Clark County's Heritage Farm where she got involved with the Partners in Careers program. The group helps veterans learn job skills in agriculture while giving them a serene place to heal.
It worked for Rogers, but she's no longer in the program. Now she's the program coordinator. Now she helps others heal.
"Some things that happen to you can make you feel dead inside," she says. "This is the opposite."
This spread was once called the Clark County Poor Farm, where the most vulnerable residents could go to get some work, make some money and earn a meal.
"I mean, just look at the history of this place," Rogers says. "It was for the sick and poor. And it still is. I mean, we're the sick and the poor. In a way, all of us are sick and poor."
Many faces of the farm
This place is all about potential.
Every time someone shows up at the Heritage Farm and learns a lesson, or plants a first seed, or harvests a first ear of sweet corn, it is a triumph.
And while there are many themes weaving their way about the 79 acres that make up the Heritage Farm, potential is definitely one of the linchpin tenants at this agricultural enclave surrounded on all sides by residential and commercial development.
"This could be a regional destination for agriculture," says Blair Wolfley, farm coordinator for the county. "Just a beehive of people working and learning. This could be the brain center for local production culture. It has so much potential. So much."
Wolfley spent a career in agriculture managing programs for Washington State University Extension, and he's been tending to the county's programs since around 2008.
Wolfley sees the success of one program as a success for the entire tapestry that makes up the farm. The farm currently houses dozens of nonprofit work spaces and research projects. It offers up 84 plots for community gardens, and fills greenhouses with the work of the Master Gardeners. It makes space for people such as Rogers to run a program where folks heal, and a spot for food to be grown for the local food pantries, all while connecting the many entities to work together.
Wolfley also sees room for more pieces to be added to the ever-changing puzzle. More than half the grounds at the Heritage Farm are still open space, just waiting for an idea.
"I see the opportunity for a labyrinth of different production methods," Wolfley says. "We could really be on the fringe of new technology here."
This farm has a long history of cobbled ideas and intentions. But for the most part, each plan occurred in a sequential order.
Established perhaps as early as 1873, shortly after Clark County was deeded the land from a private owner, the poor farm served as a social program before most social programs existed. It was a final homefor the down and out who had no other opportunities.
In 1943, Washington State College — later Washington State University — began to use the location as an experimental agricultural research facility. Scientists tested berry fields, melon crops and Christmas trees, among other efforts.
In 2008, as the university phased out its research efforts at the farm, the property was returned to the county. Now WSU's Clark County Extension programs and county work together at the location, along with nonprofits and community organizations.
"In the late '90s, it became pretty clear the university was ready to close it down," says Marc Boldt, the former county commissioner who worked to secure the land for the county. "I kinda grew up there, so I didn't want that. In the end we found a way to work together and keep it going."
If you walk the farm with Boldt, he can point out where they tested blueberries — an important project to him as a former blueberry farmer. He can tell you about days spent mowing the fields with a tractor, why certain uses work better at the farm and the location of the old graveyard, where they buried folks who died at the poor farm.
He says he's happy with the direction the farm is taking, but hopes that moving forward the county might consider reintroducing some of the research components.
"I think the farm has evolved because agriculture has evolved," Boldt said. "To some degree, it's on a community small-scale aspect now. Still, I hope that we can stay with the research component, and there has been some talk about what varieties of crops to put in, such as stuff with vineyards and such. But I really hope we get back into the research part."
That is one part of the farm's long-term goals. In 2010, the county developed a plan to merge the historic uses — the research and the community outreach — into one sprawling farm. The elements the farm works to incorporate into its long-term vision are agriculture, historic preservation, community access, sustainable design and education and research.
"The future here is dependent on partnerships, sponsors, volunteers and a passion for retaining the rich history," says Laura Pedersen, the county's program coordinator for the farm. "And really, the future is in starting a foundation that would be the fundraising arm."
Including the maintenance, operations and utilities at the location, the farm costs the county roughly $150,000 each year.
Pedersen estimates the expected return to the community in produce alone is around $200,000. In 2012, Partners in Careers donated 8,000 pounds of produce to local agencies; the Clark County Food Bank provided 33,000 pounds of carrots and 21,584 pounds of other vegetables to those in need; the 4-H Restorative Justice Community Service Food Bank Garden donated around 1,700 pounds to community groups; and the Master Gardener Foundation Organic Field donated more than 5,265 pounds of produce.
In all, the farm provided more than 61,000 pounds of food for the community in 2012.
Now, it hopes to grow larger.
"The big thing now is finding the partners who want to be out here," Wolfley says. "Who wants to invest in what we have here?"
The farm still has about 50 acres that are wide open. If Wolfley has his way, the next thing to come will be an expansion in education on agricultural techniques.
"I see 80 acres here of land that is used primarily for the education of growing food," Wolfley said. "We hear a lot today about grow local. I think the time is going to come when that is going to be even more important.
"I visualize this place being somewhat of a destination park where people come for workshops and classes and tours to see all different types of food production. The fruits, the vegetables, I see us here with demonstration orchards, demonstration vineyards, vegetable gardens, greenhouses, so people can come here and see what can I do with the land that I have to produce food for me and my family in an urban setting."
Wolfley has a grand plan to one day see this place have self-led tours through an interpretive trail. Then folks could sign up for the classes on things they discover along the path. And more greenhouses would be nice, as those extend the growing season. He even notes that one area of the farm is sort of built in a way that would make a nice amphitheater -- but perhaps that's a bit of a stretch, he admits.
Still, it's all about ideas. It's all about potential.
"I think we're going to be limited primarily by our ability to find partners who want to help with the funding, to make an investment," Wolfley says. "And then our imagination to think about, OK, what else could we do here."
What's at the farm?
Without the Master Gardeners there may not be much at the Heritage Farm.
Consider them a group of green thumbs nearly 200 strong who mentor other programs while operating projects of their own.
"We try and help support everyone on the property," says Nancy Funk, one of the many master gardeners in the program. "We mentor and assist in any way we can."
When not talking with others about their community garden plots or offering up supplies to one of the other agencies, the gardeners tend to fields of their own.
Their greenhouses are filled with nonfruiting plants to be offered for sale to benefit the group. They've got a field of certified organic produce they tend to. And they even operate a few demonstration gardens on the property to give others ideas on how and what to plant.
Partners in Careers
Dee Rogers' story is exactly what Partners in Careers has strived for in its effort to help veterans pick up job skills and heal from the stresses of life after service.
"I know it sounds kind of hippie," Rogers says. "But it works. I tell people who come out here, just keep working. Just keep going at it. There is something tactile in working it."
Take a straw poll of folks at the Heritage Farm as to who the hardest worker is, and anyone who knows Rogers is quick to cast her name into the hat.
She also gets praise for how she now welcomes other veterans to the program. As she puts it, this is a place for "the sick and poor. And it still is.
"I can say I've been there. I can say this works. This should be a program that is everywhere for veterans. Or for people with mental health issues, or other problems."
The Clark County Juvenile Court partners with Clark County 4-H Youth Development and the Food $ense Nutrition Education program to provide garden plots at the Heritage Farm where juvenile offenders serve their sentence by tending to the good earth.
The concept is to teach the youths skills such as teamwork, leadership and accountability through the agriculture work.
Further, the program donates the bounty from the gardens to local food pantries, offering a chance to learn the value of community service.
The program recently did a survey of those who went through the program. Results showed that 88 percent believed they learned how to make healthy food choices; 90 percent said science can be fun; and 99 percent said they did something important and made the community a better place.
The Community Gardens offer 84 plots measuring 20-by-20 feet. For $60 a year anyone can lease a spot.
There's room to expand, too, if demand gets high enough.
"This has been an exciting year for the gardens as the mentors have really gotten involved," says Willy Wyffels, a member of the Master Gardeners who helps folks at the gardens. "The Master Gardener Foundation took this on over a year ago and it has been great."
Wyffels points to the variety of methods and plants growing in the adjacent plots. Sunflowers, artichokes, flowers and corn are scattered across the land. Even a few lawn chairs are among the hodgepodge of agriculture.
"Some just like to come out here and sit," Wyffels says.
As Wyffels explains the benefit of square-foot gardening, Jess and Bernice Robins tend to their crop.
"I really hope the county understands what they've got out here," Bernice says. "I hope they understand the importance of open space. We just don't want the county to give up outhere."
Jess says the reason to keep this going is simple: "It's your farm and it's just a few miles from home."
Clark County Food Bank
Each year, some 800 volunteers work the 10 acres of land the Clark County Food Bank fills with produce.
And last year those volunteers pulled more than 45,000 pounds of produce from the ground.
That all goes to the food bank, which distributes it to Clark County's hungry through its organization and other food pantries in the area.
Larry Grell is a coordinator with Churches in Partnership, an organization that helps staff volunteers at the field. He says the group finds more than just church groups to volunteer.
"It says Churches in Partnership, but we just get it going. Everyone is welcome here," Grell says. "And no matter what the group is, we put 'em to work pulling weeds or pulling vegetables. And it all goes to Clark County."
Grell says local businesses often allow their staff to donate time. And he says that appears to be a popular program.
"They don't feel like they're working," he says, smiling.
That's not all
Programs extend well beyond what you can see growing out of the ground at the Heritage Farm.
This place is still used for research. Greenhouses are filled with rotting fruit in an attempt to identify patterns in insects. Different types of bug-catching methods are being employed. There's even talk of a bee project to supply local farmers with queens.
The best way to see the farm is to get out there. And the farm is opening to the public for Harvest Farm Day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sept. 28.
Harvest Farm Day offers up events for all ages with scarecrow making, pumpkin decorating and animal exhibits. Representatives from the organizations at the site will also be on hand to answer questions and give tours.
"What's really cool is kidscan come out and pick the produce," says Laura Pedersen, the county's program coordinator for the farm.
The farm is at 1919 N.E. 78th St., Vancouver.
Erik Hidle: 360-735-4547; email@example.com; Twitter: col_clarkgov.