Art Poulos and Lucie Gouin welcome us warmly – pouring out heavy mugs of dark coffee swirled with cream from their Jersey cow. We sit around the table in their cozy kitchen and discuss farming. The story of their farm is a story of international romance: Art is Greek, Lucie is French-American; they found each other in Edinburgh, Scotland. For years they both felt the desire to find a way of life that was more connected to the natural world; weekends they spent traveling the UK and volunteering their labor at organic farms. In 2003, they were ready to make the change – changing their livelihood and their country as well. “Since English was our common language, and I had dual citizenship, we decided to look for land in the United States,” Lucie says. “We felt that in the US we were more likely to find others who shared our passion for food and farming and living their ideals.”
La Terra Vita (The Earth Life) comprises 76 acres in the foothills of the Cascades near Scio, selected out of hundreds of properties for its clean soil: free of organochlorine residues such as DDT. Art and Lucie raise vegetables, eggs, and milk to stringent standards, without the use of any pesticides or herbicides, even those approved as organic. They fertilize with compost and manure produced on the farm, plant cover crops and irrigate with the unpolluted waters of Thomas Creek. The health of the farm comes from the balance of vegetable, animal and human life: crops, livestock, pasture, woodlands, and wetlands working together as an integrated whole.
Art and Lucie grow 5 acres of organic vegetables- including spinach, mizuna, fingerling potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, asparagus, and French sorrel; they hope to expand to 10 acres next year. They sell their produce primarily through their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) membership, but also at the Portland and Salem farmer’s markets. Membership in their CSA gets you 20 weeks of seasonal vegetables and fruit delivered to pick-up locations in Portland, Salem, and Stayton. The cost is $495 for a full share (feeds two adults) and $275 for a half-share – less than $15 a week–for as much fresh, organic, local and sustainably grown produce as one person could possibly eat. Currently, they still have a few memberships available.
But, truthfully, it is La Terra Vita chickens and their eggs that have brought me here. I first fell in love with their eggs at the Salem Saturday market, three years ago. Try this: crack an ordinary supermarket egg – one produced by chickens kept in tiny cages under batteries of artificial lights – then crack a La Terra Vita egg. The shell of the supermarket egg is thin; you could put your thumb through it. The yolk is anemic pale yellow and the egg lies limp and runny in the dish. By contrast, the La Terra Vita egg shell is tough– full of calcium – and the yolk is a deep orange-gold, firm, domed and nutritionally rich.
Art takes us out to see the hens. He has built a mobile chicken coop on the base of a flat-bed trailer. The coop is parked in the middle of a green pasture thick with clover and fenced by electrified poultry netting. Even in the rain, the ladies -Rhode Island Red and Barred Rocks -are out in force, pecking around in the grass for greens, worms, and bugs, clucking companionably. A rooster stands guard, keeping an eye out for predators. These are chickens living the way chickens are meant to live. Every few weeks, Art hooks his tractor to the coop and moves it fence and all to another part of the pasture. Standing on a hill, we can see circles in the ground marking the past perimeters of the fence.
There is a large bare circle that the hens pecked to the dirt a few weeks ago; next to it another patch that is already re-growing vigorously, the pasture regenerating from its roots and fertilized by the chicken droppings. Next, a completely rejuvenated patch, already dark and lush after only a couple months. I’m captivated by this graphic demonstration of how the farm works: a cycle, balanced and self-perpetuating: nutrition taken from the soil and returned. Art and Lucie speak often of the meaning their small farm gives to their lives, and I can see it here embossed on the land itself. “Is a farm just a factory, or are we part of a bigger story?” Art philosophizes. “What is our place in the world? When you are operating a small farm, these questions are answered for you.”