Getting down to earth

Scott Swanson

Samantha Franks carefully and deftly sliced into the stem of a cider apple as Miranda Justus and her son Sawyer, of Lebanon, watched closely.

Franks, of Elmira, was one of more than a dozen volunteers who participated in a Spring Propagation Fair held Sunday afternoon, March 20, at the Sweet Home Charter School by the Agrarian Sharing Network. She was about to graft the apple stem to rootstock to form a tree for the Justuses.

This was the fourth annual fair held by the network, said organizer Heather Wright of Wright Family Farm in Sweet Home, a regular participant in the local Farmers Market.

Around her, visitors picked through buckets full of scions – young shoots cut for grafting of rooting – from common fruits such as pears and apples, ranging to more unique varieties – Asian pears, medlars, quince and even a (male) kiwi.

Wright said an estimated “several hundred” people showed up to the event, including some from Jefferson, Scio and the coast.

“At the peak of it, it was crazy,” she said. “This is by far our largest one. I think there is a definite desire to grow your own food.”

The Network has held several fairs in the Willamette Valley and southern Oregon, and will hold another from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, March 26, at the Lively Swim Park, 6100 Thurston Road, Springfield.

The Agrarian Sharing Network is a loose, collaborative network of farmers and growers from the Willamette Valley and southern Oregon whose goal is to spread the wealth of what Wright called “heritage and homestead varieties” – fruits that in the past were popular but are not what shoppers tend to find now in a grocery store.

“Joe Brocard (of the Antique Apple Orchard located just west of The Narrows on Highway 20) is very generous and has donated lots of scions that we’ve gone out and collected,” she said. “We’ve gotten them from other older orchards, so we’re trying to keep those older varieties going.”

Visitors to the fair could choose free scions they wanted grafted into rootstock – all provided, to form trees, and then, for $3, they could have them grafted by experts such as Franks, who was one of approximately a dozen volunteers sitting behind a table and performing grafts, explaining the process as they went.

Nick Routledge, of the Eugene area, who has been involved in regenerative, charitable farming ventures for decades, said the effort to distribute the plants is “as much about the people as it is about the plants.”

“What we basically find is that the type of work that’s involved (in the agrarian network), which is essentially all about supporting healthy foods, or what we would say ‘regenerative foods,’ is really a sort of activity that pulls us into connection with people doing similar work all over the bio-region. The way it goes is, you do the good work, you meet the good people.”

Similar efforts are in progress around the nation, he said, but “one of the things that makes us a little unusual” is “what we have in Oregon is ready proximity.”

“Oregon is essentially one of the world’s foremost producers of rootstock,” Routledge said. “So what that means is that we also have access to two of the largest fruit collections in the world.”

Those, he said, are the USDA Horticultural Crops Research Unit in Corvallis, which possesses thousands of cultivars, and the Temperate Orchard Conservancy in Yoncalla, which has thousands of trees as well.

“So what that means is that even though we’re really sort of grass-roots, folksy, we can still bring an enormous amount of ecological sophistication and power simply because of our proximity to these resources.”

Wright said volunteers gathered after the event to debrief on Sunday afternoon, and she was impressed with the expertise present in the room.

“We have some really great resources,” she said. “Just listening to what some of these people have in their heads. They’re just working together to encourage people to grow their own.”

Some of the fruit varieties available at the propagation fair are thousands of years old and some are “very modern,” Routledge said.

“It’s the future that we’re interested in,” he said. “What are the varieties that are going to hold steady as times get difficult in terms of climate change and everything else? We’re looking for stuff that thoroughly has the vigor, the strength to go through.”

Wright said volunteers counted 320 rootstocks – future trees – exiting the building during the event.

“That is super exciting,” she said. “I think, with the economy right now, some of the uncertainties, people want to grow their own food.”