Gardening for life

Urban Farm School teaches people how to love their gardens

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STORY BY JESSICA SWANSON

Kendra Pearce and Toree Hiebert met in 2000. As soon as Kendra saw freshly canned foods stacked floor to ceiling in Toree’s house, she knew they were kindred spirits.

Both women moved to large acreages with their families, Toree to La Center and Kendra to Amboy and were farming and gardening for pleasure and food; pretty soon they had partnered up on a little Community Supported Agriculture operation, where they sold small shares of food they were growing. Eventually the two moved back toward the city, Toree to Vancouver and Kendra to downtown Ridgefield, where they continued to raise vegetables and ornamentals.

“We couldn’t give it up,” said Toree. “We had to do what we could in the
space we had.”

Toree worked as an elementary school teacher, while Kendra did environmental education for the Naturally Beautiful Backyards Program at Clark County.

“One day, I approached her and said ‘I had an epiphany,’” said Toree. “I was trying to find a way to bring everything together. I’m a teacher. I’m a mom who likes to grow good food for my kinds. I’m a farm girl at heart.”

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That epiphany is now known as Urban Farm School.

Complementing each other’s styles and interests, the two women have formed a company that capitalizes, if unintentionally, on a back-to-the-land trend among Americans that appears particularly strong in Southwest Washington. UFS offers more than 40 different hands-on workshops throughout the year, including classes on canning, extending the garden harvest, freezing and drying, different kinds of composting, basic garden design, seed saving and converting grass to food production. The classes are nearly all full in the summer and popular year round.

In addition, the women teach a series of family-oriented classes, lead local field trips and organize springtime and harvest sales and
seed exchanges.

Toree offers in-home garden consultations, mainly in the spring. She also offers ongoing tutorials, which begin with a one-hour consultation for $50 and continue weekly at $25 for a half-hour. Toree’s service bridges the gap between self-teaching and hiring a landscape designer, which can be much more costly. That said, the two are thinking about pursuing a landscape design certification for Toree to continue to add value to the company.

Kendra handles the organization’s outreach, including its website and blog, marketing and administration. For her, it is full-time work from her 100-year-old home and small urban lot in Ridgefield. In her spare time, Kendra cultivates an ever-expanding food garden and has started dabbling in ornamentals, with Toree’s encouragement.toreekendraatcsa

Urban Farm School’s “GardenforLife” parties are a particularly innovative offering. GardenforLife parties are privately commissioned garden parties hosted at a home or other place of the client’s choosing. Kendra and Toree offer activities and teaching on a theme. Friends, family or colleagues are invited to learn a new skill over the space of two hours. Some party themes include Fabulous Fruits, Container Gardening, Healthy Soil, Healthy Food, Preservation Basics and From Lawn to Food: Starting your Vegetable Garden. Hosts are also welcome to come up with their own ideas. Each party costs $200 for a two-hour session that includes instruction, educational materials, door prizes and a host gift, and is limited to 15 guests.

“It’s like a Pampered Chef party without all the crap,” joked Kendra. Instead, she said, it’s about learning a skill with family and friends, “and keeping it for a lifetime.”

Kendra and Toree are passionate about creating a connection between food production and consumption. Too often, they hear kids saying food “comes from the store.” But they don’t bring their politics into the classroom. Kendra said their typical student is a mom who wants to get the most out of a little garden to feed her family, someone who says, “I want to do this, but I don’t know where to start.”

“We see that often this stuff builds community,” said Toree, who watches her students sharing ideas and stories after class. Some of these casual relationships turn into friendships.

Kendra has seen it at work in her own life.

“No one (in my neighborhood) talked to me until I put in the garden,” said Kendra. “Now, I know all my neighbors.”

Urban Farm School recently began offering brown bag lunches and intends to reach out to corporations and other organizations interested in bringing these kinds of skills to their employees. Each of the women is working on building a community garden in a different part of the county, and a dream of theirs is for Urban Farm School to have its own location, with a demonstration garden, classrooms and community space.

Students often wonder where the “school” is, said Toree, “as if they picture a little old one-room schoolhouse.”

She smiles as she says it, as if she can picture it too.

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