In our fondest organic-bucolic fantasies, farmers start on a few pristine acres of land. Chef Stacey Givens, 35, started on a rooftop on East Burnside. While working at Rocket (now Noble Rot), the cook split her time between chef-owner Leather Storrs’s kitchen and the restaurant’s rooftop garden. Givens loved farming that rooftop so much that in 2009 she decided to start her own city farm … by basically begging people in Northeast Portland’s Cully neighborhood to let her plant crops on their open lots. Since then, The Side Yard Farm & Kitchen has become a go-to supplier for chefs—tomatoes and celtuce to shiso and fresh fennel pollen. The farm’s current one-acre lot, which she leases from neighbors, is also a destination for monthly outdoor brunches and dinners, bike-in movie nights, and grief groups. Just don’t expect to find her come Halloween. That’s when Givens and a coterie of chefs, brewers, and coffee roasters make their annual pilgrimage to Japan to try to convince the island’s young people that farming is, indeed, cool.
I’d heard about Cully, and how it was known for small houses with big, huge plots of land. So I started knocking door to door, asking if I could farm people’s side yards. And finally somebody said yes.
I wanted to create a place that could be a chef’s candy store. And we like to show how you can make three products out of one plant. I invite chefs we sell to to come out here and do a dinner with me, because they’ll get out here and say, “Oh shit, we’ve been cutting this part off the whole time! We didn’t know you could eat that. I’m gonna tell my cooks now not to throw that away.”
The vegetable trend we’ve been seeing in Portland has staying power. Portland was huge on pork and bacon. That was a huge thing forever, but I think it’s died off. With farms, we’re lucky to have them everywhere, not just urban farms. Any direction you drive you can get to a farm in 20 or 30 minutes, no joke.
I’m very choosy about who I sell to—and I’m not snobby about it, I promise. The group of chefs we sell to right now, you know, they care. It’s like family. I’ll go there and there’ll be high fives in the kitchen and they’ll be like, “Dude, we love your greens!” They do right by me and I do right by them, and we take care of each other.
In addition to our dinners and brunches, we do the Lost Table, which is a grief group. Everybody brings a dish and we all share, and we basically get together to support each other as we talk about our lost loved ones. I lost my dad six years ago. I hated going to grief groups in hospitals because they’re such triggering places, and I said, “Wait, I have a farm, dude. I’m gonna get some friends together to just talk and eat dinner.” And then I thought, “I should just invite strangers to come to dinner to just cry with me.” There’s nothing like knowing that you’re not alone. I think it’s one of the most important things we do.
I spend a lot of time in Japan—this’ll be my fifth trip this fall. The one thing I’ve heard over the last few years is that the older generation is starting to die. They’re the ones farming. None of the young people want to farm. They’re going to the big cities to get these big jobs to make their families proud. Farming isn’t viewed there the way it is here in Portland. When we’re over there, they say, “How do you make farming cool, and how can you do it successfully?” So we’ve been a model for a bunch of small towns all over Japan. We’ll probably be doing this tour forever, to be honest, because I love going there. It’s really about meeting these farmers and building community and doing an awesome dinner, Portland style mixed with Japanese vegetables.