Farming That Connects: CAMPO Collective
An agroecological, worker-owned farm in Washington County linking social and ecological values.
Written by Ashley Rood. Photography by Jamie Thrower.
It’s a familiar story emerging from the pandemic: when the COVID lockdown hit, Stoneboat Farm’s restaurant customers disappeared overnight. A pivot to increasing Community Supported Agriculture customers provided a good solution for distribution. But this is where the familiar story ends, and a new story is taking shape—the space created by COVID offered an opportunity to foster a different farming experience on a piece of unused land at the farm. Today, CAMPO Collective is a cooperatively owned farm that grows annual and perennial crops and livestock, including mixed vegetables, berries, fruits, culinary herbs, chickens, and goats, while building healthy soil. As they put it, “we are building a socially and environmentally healthier agriculture from the ground up.”
“We are building a socially and environmentally healthier agriculture from the ground up.”
Jesse Nichols (shown right), one of Stoneboat’s founding brothers, has run a Spanish language internship program on the farm for several years. His undergrad research on ag workers' rights in Oregon, and learning about the Via Campesina movement in Latin America, are part of what brought him to farming. The internship program was a natural outgrowth of this work, and in 2018, it was formalized as the nonprofit CAMPO - a move that allowed them to secure grant funding for developing a curriculum and creating a more educational experience.
Jesse also ran the restaurant side of Stoneboat Farm. When his job radically changed in 2020, he had space to talk with his interns at the time, Jade Novarino and Margarita Reyes, about what was needed, what goals they wanted to work towards. Inspired by Latin American farming principles and sovereignty movements, they looked to a piece of land that had been cover cropped but left unused before, and turned it into a workshop for developing those agroecological and social practices.
Incremental growth is an important throughline of CAMPO. They started with 1.5 acres in 2021, added a half-acre in 2022, added another half-acre in 2023—learning from the land, and each other, every step of the way. As of 2023, they have 125 permanent no-till beds, 5 greenhouses, and a team of 5 worker-owners.
Jade Novarino brings her experience in permaculture and sustainable agriculture. She designed and implemented CAMPO’s first fruit tree row, and continues to help plan the integration of perennials into the farm’s crop mix.
Zeferina Luna grew up on a farm in Puebla, Mexico and has worked on multiple vegetable farms in Oregon. Her hometown practiced many forms of community collaboration, and she brings that collaborative experience to CAMPO’s developing cooperative.
Margarita Reyes has been involved in agriculture her whole life, first farming in Oaxaca and then moving to Oregon, working primarily in the berry fields. She has farmed independently and participated in programs with Adelante Mujers to teach and promote sustainable agriculture within the Latin American community in Washington County.
Marisela Martinez is from the Triqui region of Oaxaca, and brings her experience growing plants and raising animals there. She often teaches CAMPO’s members Triqui words for plants and agricultural practices. She joined CAMPO this year, recruited by Margarita after they connected in the strawberry fields.
Uriel De Leon grew up on his family’s farm in Guatemala. He spent 3 years growing independently with his family on a farm in Beaverton, and is in his second year of collaborating with CAMPO. He brings a degree in agronomy alongside his farming experience.
The Difference An Ecological Experience Makes
Walking the mulched pathways at CAMPO feels good. It feels human scale, like a garden, and that’s intentional. The same details that make the farm beautiful also make it more productive. Colorful flowers intercropped with vegetables deter pests and encourage pollinators. The thickly mulched hillside on the edge of the farm beams a deep green. Once you get closer, you learn that it’s a thriving strawberry patch on a slope with a different soil type that doesn’t work well for annual crops.
Several greenhouses extend the growing season and protect crops from rollercoaster weather swings. In the salad greenhouse Jesse observes, “I’m seeing something I’ve rarely seen, and hadn’t seen on the no till plots yet: slugs crawling around on the leaves and very little slug damage. I’ve rarely seen so little slug damage with so much slug presence.”
"I’ve rarely seen so little slug damage with so much slug presence.”
The soil is covered everywhere. Living roots in the ground take priority, and it’s a constant practice figuring out how to make this a reality. The collective is experimenting with setting down buckwheat seed if even just a half row is harvested, because they’ve observed the soil quality declines as soon as nothing is growing in the bed. Everywhere else, you’ll see thick mulch of wood or straw.
Near the top of the farm, you pass a hedgerow of perennials and young fruit trees. Many were transplanted from another garden where a farmworker had been promised access to land by the owner, only to have it taken away again. A couple of goats linger in the shade of a tree, a hint of what’s to come: more livestock integration into the farm.
If you dug into the soil, you would find it very much alive. “The thing I love so much about the no till beds compared to the tilled beds is all the soil life you can see,” Jesse says. “When we were planting today, there were worms everywhere. The insect life is visible - good indicators that your smaller, invisible microbiology is there too.”
CAMPO is trying out different distribution channels connected to the ecology of place. Through an innovative grant program with the Oregon Food Bank, this year they are providing between 1/3 to 1/2 of what they produce to the Western Farm Workers Association’s food distribution in Hillsboro.
As Jesse notes, “It’s a perfect fit to our collaborative, educational production model for the food we produce to go to communities facing hunger and food insecurity, many of whom are farmworker families in the area working for large corporate farms.” The grant program is set up to serve farmers’ needs as well. CAMPO received half of the money up front, much like a CSA program, to support all the season startup costs, with the second half of the money arriving halfway through the year.
The farm and its practices stand in stark contrast to the surrounding landscape. Beyond this patchwork of vibrant life are blocks of monochromatic, monoculture grass seed farms and large-scale berry farms. Labor standards tend to be awful. There are industrial decorative tree farms, tied to the real estate industry, grown fast with chemicals, and transplanted just to be pulled out of the ground again when a property sells. You can see large tracts of barren soil nearby. Funnel clouds on the horizon evoke an instinct of dread - it takes a moment to register that it’s soil following a tractor’s wake. The dread stays. And yet, these industrial farms make better neighbors than the data farms that are a real threat to farmland in the region.
As Jesse puts it, “it’s a very disposable form of agriculture.” But for the team at CAMPO Collective, “land is not just an asset; land is where we come from.”
“Land is not just an asset; land is where we come from.”
It's Not Magic
“The longer that we work collectively with the people involved, the more we realize how different the environment is, how much you can be yourself as a member of a cooperative,” Jesse reflects. “It’s much more of an understanding that we all work together to get the best out of what we’re doing, not just for our income but our experiences, the food we eat ourselves, and the environment we get to experience. I feel that means a lot more. It takes time to develop, and it’s becoming more of a reality each year we do it.”
Over time, the collective has developed a playbook of agroecological techniques that fit their farm. Developing no till beds is a lot of work up front, and the learning curve is steep. But in the long run, they save time and labor. Building the beds has “been a whole lot of lasagna,” says Jesse. First they put down cardboard, followed by several inches of compost and sometimes straw on top of that. They use a microbial and inoculant soil drench that helps with a transition to soil that’s more biologically appropriate for no till. Ultimately, they’ve found they use less fertilizer because there’s less leaching in the no till beds. Jesse describes the learning process: “We weren’t good enough at always having living roots and maintaining enough mulch. We really underestimated how much you must keep mulching and adding compost. It’s a struggle to get these conditions working across the whole farm, but you start to know it when you see it.”
They do soil tests two or three times per year, but those don’t always reveal the full picture. Plant observation, soil texture, and soil observation are just as important as the soil tests. Jesse says, “we also do foliar feeding when we notice in the plant certain deficiencies or certain excesses – stuff in the greenhouse now has nitrogen imbalance because we had the chickens in there, so now we have a micronutrient foliar feed that helps balance that out a little bit, and we have side dressed with azomite which can help with that as well.”
Elements of Agroecological Farming at CAMPO
No till beds
Maximize living roots in the ground
Compost and other mulching
Diversification and intercropping
The collective’s style of farming and business structure create a unique experience on the farm. Jesse loves working towards a cooperative model. “Working together, you can be yourself, such a different dynamic than a more typical boss and employee relationship.” They leverage everyone’s strengths, and each worker-owner brings strong agricultural skills, knowledge, and experience to the team. “We are our best teachers,” says Jesse. In addition to academic and applied knowledge of farming, the collective brings in culturally important crops, like different chayote and bean varieties. The team shares similar time values, including the importance of flexible schedules and taking breaks when needed. Most of all, they are working to exemplify what prioritizing the health of the earth can look like.
CAMPO Collective's Vision for the Future
Diversification! The team is looking to diversify on the farm, from different compost types to expanding livestock integration, adding more perennials, and creating a cover cropping strategy.
Continued food distribution to those in need: CAMPO is interested in continuing to get financial support through grants like the Oregon Food Bank project to provide healthy food to those who need it most in their community.
Building Community: “We’re doing things on a very small scale to address some very large problems. We can’t just have these little beacons of biodiversity, it has to be much bigger than just a few people, it has to be some sort of systemic change. Deep down, we want to see a world in which a lot more people can do this kind of work, building a healthier reality for us all.”
Scheduled visitors are welcome at the farm!
Contact CAMPO to set up a time to visit.
The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm - book by Daniel Mays
Singing Frogs Farm - a no-tilll vegetable farm in Sonoma County, CA
Resources for farming and ranching in a changing climate in Spanish
Recursos en español acerca del trabajo agrícola y ranchero en un clima cambiante