Published in PQ Monthly on December 18, 2014
When asked what I love most about my job, the answer is quick and always the same, “the great variety of people I meet!” Sure, the 10PM call when there is midnight contingency deadline is both annoying and usually 100% avoidable if someone hadn’t dropped the ball. But when the deal closes, and anyone needing to be talked off a proverbial ledge is now calm, I can’t envision doing anything else for a career.
We tend to typecast white collar professional gay guys—urban, stylish house, some type of fun car—probably foreign, and the relaxing trips to Palm Springs or Hawaii each winter. I love meeting people who defy these stereotypes and happily chart their own course. Which leads me to this story.
Mark Schmidt and Dan Sapp work at Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research, and Brian Winner works at Wells Fargo as a Financial Crimes Manager. Mark and Dan met in Michigan about 14 years ago, then moved to Oregon in the past decade. About five years ago they met Brian, and in getting to know each other found their lifestyle values were very much aligned.
Owning a home in North Portland, they developed an interest in farming, and over a period of time an original small garden grew to cover most of the property. Fruit trees were added. And of course, there had to be chickens (sorry, I didn’t ask their names or provenance). The guys began canning vegetables too. The goal really became about growing as much food for themselves as they could in this urban homestead. Neither Mark nor Dan grew up on a farm, but rather the suburbs of Detroit; Brian’s grandma had a 10-acre farm near Cottage Grove on which he used to help occasionally. So it was an evolutionary process for all of them.
About four years ago, by then running out of urban farm space, they decided to pursue this passion further, and began looking for a farm within a 90-minute radius of Portland. After exploring lots of areas, scouring the consumer and foreclosure websites, they honed in on Puget Island and the town of Cathlamet. If you’re like me, I needed a little geography lesson when we all first met; picture the drive from Portland to Astoria and it’s a little more than half-way between the two cities.
I asked why they chose Cathlamet and it was for totally objective reasons—water rights, close to Portland, but far enough out to be affordable. Imagine Sauvie Island West without the beach. The big unknown was the subjective part. How would a rural community react to three gay dudes buying a farm together? And here was the pleasant surprise—they felt the community itself was very progressive and they met other transplants from Portland, Seattle and the Bay Area. Moreover, Mark, Dan, and Brian were excited by the community of talented artists and professional types, dedicated to agricultural and environmental stewardship, who have all created their own paths to coalesce here. As far as any other LGBT population, they’re still getting settled and getting to know people—having just sold their home in Portland and closed on the farm (called Blue Skies Farm of Puget Island) in the past year. But they were already impressed and have heard great things about the local PFLAG chapter.
When talking about the logistics of the move, we chatted about what else they’d have to consider because of taking this plunge. And here it boiled down to the old adage “don’t quit your day job.” This is a labor of love and a long-term commitment, not a get-rich scheme. Working an established farm is hard; creating a farm is even harder. There are significant barriers for entry into farming—land acquisition, and money for capital expenses such as equipment and greenhouses (hence the desire to sell the Portland home). They’ll keep a small condo in Portland and maintain their careers. But it boils down to envisioning the type of world they want to live in, then doing their part in a little corner of the world to make it so.
Final thoughts from the guys? First, was recalling a unique contingency from the purchase of the farm—requesting that the seller remove four inches of goat poop covering the front porch, which had accumulated while the property sat vacant.
But in a more pleasant memory, Mark recalled when they got their first batch of honey and realized “Wow, we can do this!”
Steve Strode is a broker with Meadows Group in Portland. He serves on the Global Leadership team of the National Association of Realtors, and also learned about sustainable and organic farming practices in Cuba this past Spring. He can be reached at email@example.com.