Fifth generation Rossi takes up family’s ‘tilth tradition’

See why this smart college graduate chooses to continue her family’s 135-year tradition of sustainable farming in Parkrose …

At the Montavilla Farmers Market, Gabrielle Rossi – fifth-generation grower at Rossi Farms – sells the potatoes she planted in May.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
For about a century, it’s been a common story – kids, raised on a working family farm, left for “big city” jobs and never returned. But that isn’t the case in the Rossi family, who, for 135 years, have farmed land in Parkrose, and then sold their produce to the community.

Fourth-generation grower Joe Rossi of Rossi Farms insisted that, after she graduated from high school 2008, his daughter Gabrielle would attend college.

And, following her father’s wishes, Gabrielle Rossi didn’t merely attend the University of Portland – she graduated in just three years, in 2011, with a degree in Business, Operations, and Technology Management.

Brother and sister Graham Rossi and Gabrielle Rossi check out the old family tractor before the evening’s potato dig.

“Yes, my dad strongly encouraged me to get a college education,” Gabrielle grinned, as the sun started to set after a warm August day. She was getting ready to warm up the family’s old International tractor in the field across from the red Rossi Farms’ barn on NE 122nd Avenue and Shaver Street.

“When I was in college, I started my own company doing field mowing,” Gabrielle told East Portland News. “Our family didn’t actively farm when I was in college. But, this work was hard on our equipment. After I graduated, I knew it was time to – at least – ‘get my feet wet’ farming our family land.”

Having farmed alongside his dad, the late Aldo Rossi, all of his life, Joe expressed doubts about his daughter’s vocational choice, and raised objections to the plan.

“My dad seriously tried talking me out of it, saying how hard it is,” reflected Gabrielle. “He took a hiatus from direct farming for a reason – because it’s hard work!

“So I asked him: If he were to plant just one crop, what it would be?” the fifth-generation Rossi farmer said. “I asked, ‘What was your best, most fun crop?’

“He said, ‘hands down, it was the potatoes’.”

With their landmark Rossi Farms red barn in the background, Gabrielle starts up the family tractor.

She didn’t need to attend an agricultural school to learn farming; she drew upon the accumulated wisdom of her family. “A couple of years ago, we planted a trial plot of potatoes, to see which varieties would grow best in our climate.

“Many of the varieties that we have are from agricultural test facilities,” Gabrielle explained. “No farms here in this area grow these varieties of potatoes; we did not know if we would have a crop failure.”

As it turned out, all of the potato varieties grew – some very well.

“In fact, I’d say they’re doing fantastic here. Our main variety is the Russian Banana fingerling potato. They are fully mature when harvested, and are not to be confused with ‘new potatoes’.

“We also have German Butterball – a round, heirloom russet with rich, sweet flavor,” Gabrielle said. “We’re also doing well with other small classes, such as the Amorosa, a pink-skinned potato with creamy, firm flesh. People also like a new variety of fingerling we’re growing called the Red Thumb; it has brilliant red skin and unusual red flesh.”

She also spoke with pride about what many chefs consider to be a new gourmet fingerling potato, the Ozette. Grown by the Makah Native American people for two centuries near Neah Bay, Washington, its classic pale gold skin and creamy yellow flesh give it a slightly earthy, nutty flavor, she pointed out.

The harvest of Red Thumb potatoes begins.

“It’s time to dig potatoes,” Gabrielle exclaimed as she started up the tractor – while her brother, Graham Rossi, helped set the depth on the implement to be dragged behind which turns the soil, exposing the tuberous crop without damaging it. This evening, they were digging Red Thumb potatoes.

Graham hopped in the farm pickup truck, and slowly towed a flat-bed trailer eastward in the field.

Joe Rossi pitches totes along the row of freshly-dug potatoes.

Joe stood on the trailer and tossed plastic totes down alongside the row being dug.

He paused and looked wistful, thinking about his father, who passed away in 2009 – and then said, “I remember so clearly doing when I was a kid, working in this field with my dad, Aldo. Now, here I am, farming with my kids.”

Oh, I love this row!” says Gabrielle Rossi as she looks at freshly dug Red Thumb potatoes. “These obviously did exceptionally well.”

Marketing before farming
After digging the row, the three family members look at the row that they’ve harvested: An abundance of Red Thumb spuds now cover the surface of the soil.

Picking one up, Gabrielle observed, “Not only are the Red Thumbs unique, they stack up pretty good nutritionally. The color means there is a lot of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in them.”

While she took marketing classes at the university, Gabrielle credited her father for having a “really good practical wisdom from years of experience. Some farmers grow crops that are inexpensive, or easier to produce.

“But, a successful grower looks to see what the market wants to buy, and grows those crops,” she said sagely. “For us, it’s fingerling potatoes.”

Watching buyers at the six regional farmers markets over the summer, Gabrielle said she saw how buyers browse. “The fingerlings are the most popular. Shoppers go for the bags of unique, mixed-variety, and colored potatoes. I’m glad to see that shoppers are choosing our heirloom potatoes, instead of the standard ‘round-and-brown’ varieties.”

Restaurant chefs take delight in the Red Thumb potato variety from Rossi Farm.

Chefs’ delight
Farmers market shoppers aren’t the only ones snapping up Rossi Farm potatoes; area restaurant chefs say they’re delighted with the locally-grown new varieties.

“They’re all distinctive and delicious – so it’s really hard to pick just one of their potato varieties as my favorite,” remarked Ringside East Restaurant Executive Chef Christopher Turk.

“But the Red Thumb is so unique,” Turk quickly added. “The deep red color is visually appealing, and the flavor is excellent, as is the buttery and creamy mouth feel to it. Look for it on our Happy Hour menu soon, where we’ll be showcasing it.”

The chef smiled, “I love the family, and the food they grow, right here in outer East Portland.”

Joe imparts the family’s accumulated knowledge to his daughter, Gabrielle.

Loving their land
Asked about becoming the “new face of Rossi Farms”, Gabrielle blushed and thought for a moment before replying.

“I just want to carry on the goodwill that our family built up over the years, and continue to ‘love our land’ that produces high-quality crops. You can’t be a productive 135-year-old farm without using sustainable practices.

“We’ve always really been careful about what we put into the soil. We don’t put in anything toxic that can ruin the soil structure. Instead, we use ‘best practices’, like plowing under nutrient-rich cover crops, and rotating crops that – once harvested – can be plowed in as what we call ‘green manure’. This returns nitrogen, minerals, and other elements back into the soil, without having to use harsh chemicals and fertilizers.”

It’s these farming practices, now handed down to the fifth generation, which has kept Rossi Farms’ fields productive for so many years, Gabrielle opined. “We expect to be farming here for another 100 years.”

Fifth-generation farmers Graham and Gabrielle Rossi say they love working on the farm with their dad, Joe.

Asked about the emotional feeling she gets from this admittedly laborious line of work, Gabrielle observed, “It makes me happy to work with my dad, and spend a lot of time with him.

“While I don’t know how long I’ll actively farm, I know I’ll smile when I look at the pictures of us planting and digging, along with my brother and my sister. This is a great family time we will share for years to come.”

But, it’s not all potatoes. As the sun sets, Gabrielle checks out her crop of “Jade” variety green beans, at Rossi Farms.

© 2014 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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