Urban farmer rides bike, not tractor

If you like locally-grown and newly-picked produce, you won’t find it fresher than what comes from this fellow’s organically-grown ‘mini-farms’, scattered throughout SE Portland …

Kollibri Sonnenblume, the bike farmer, is weeding a garlic patch in one of his 18 SE Portland vegetable garden plots.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a proficient organic farmer. Throughout the growing season, dozens of families come to Sonnenblume every week, selecting newly-picked produce.

But, unlike traditional growers, Sonnenblume doesn’t own a tractor, nor does he raise his crops on the outskirts of town.

“I’m what you’d call an urban farmer,” said the soft-spoken Sonnenblume as he wiped soil from his hands after weeding a patch of winter crop. “And I like to get around by bicycle. I’m a bike-based urban farmer.”

He didn’t create the concept, Sonnenblume said. “Look at cities all over the world, and you’ll see the urban gardening is typical, rather than being the exception. And you’ll find they get around by bicycle. It may be odd here in the United States – but as oil prices keep going up, it seems very practical.”

Finds local ‘acreage’
Instead of farming acres of land out in the country, Sonnenblume’s “farm” is distributed throughout inner SE Portland. Homeowners allow him plant and care for a crop in a portion of their property in exchange for produce during the season.

“Right now I have 18 plots of different sizes going. The largest one is just under one third of an acre. The smallest one is, maybe, 5′ xk 10′. I tend my crops by going from plot to plot on my bicycle. I use a trailer attached to my bike to carry tools and supplies, and to carry harvested crops,” he said.

With the cost of fuel rising, Sonnenblume says bike-based farming makes more sense now than ever.

Community-Supported Agriculture proponent
He’s been a “bike farmer” in Portland since 2005; and this season is second year as a Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) producer.

“CSA started in Japan in the 1980s,” comments Sonnenblume, “and moved to Europe and the United States in the 1990s. With CSA, people in the community give resources – usually money – to a farmer in the spring, when most of the expenses are incurred for seeds and equipment, in exchange for a share of crops that are produced throughout the season.”

Instead of driving to a farm, or farmer’s market, “people come to my house right here in inner SE Portland. For many folks who purchased winter crop CSA shares that live close by, I make deliveries by bike.”

Web developer to farmer
Sonnenblume told us he’s always enjoyed gardening. “Even when I was in an apartment, I had a small garden on my porch.”

In his 20s, Sonnenblume recalled, he owned 75 neckties and “worked in tall glass buildings in the Bay Area. I made more money in Internet web design than I ever thought possible. But after the big Internet bust, I started looking around. I thought to myself ‘agriculture is a growth industry’. It is recession proof.”

Inspired by Katrina
What inspired him to become a full-time urban farmer, he stated, was watching events unfold after Hurricane Katrina.

“It occurred to me that we all need to be taking care of each other. We can’t count on help coming from the outside. There are lots of needs: Housing, clothing, medicine, and food. I’m doing food.”

Speaking before a packed house at People’s Co-op, Sonnenblume shares his experiences with a very receptive audience.

Shares his ‘secrets’
When we first met him, Sonnenblume was giving an illustrated talk about his vocation at Peoples’ Co-op, north of the Brooklyn neighborhood, on January 30. The store’s meeting room was packed with 58 people who peppered him with detailed questions. He looked happy to answer them all.

“There aren’t any trade secrets,” Sonnenblume said about the meeting. “I enjoy sharing this experience I’m having with everyone.”

Asked why he thought so many people showed up on a windy and rainy night – mostly on bicycle – he counted off three reasons. “Portlanders support local and organic agriculture. Secondly, people learning about the CSA model think it’s cool to have a personal relationship with their farmer. The third aspect is that people in Portland are fairly well-read and well-informed, and want to see different ways that we can do things.”

Pollinating SE Portland
After getting to know this “bike farmer”, we noted that he is doing more than growing crops – he’s also spreading a sustainable idea.

“In fact,” he replied, “my first name, Kollibri, is ‘hummingbird’ in Norwegian. Like they pollinate flowers, I definitely feel that part of my work is being an example, inspiring others. There’s room for a lot of other people in town to do and I’m doing.”

Season shares available
If you want fresh organically-grown produce all summer, grown just down the block from you, now is the time to buy a share and participate. Learn more by visiting his web site at www.trashfactory.net/sunrootgardens, e-mail him at Kollibri@riseup.net, or call him at (503) 686-5557.

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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