Where Learning Takes Root
The story of JEAN’s Urban Forest Farm reflects the history of agricultural development along the banks of Johnson Creek in southeast Portland. As the city grew, the lowland and floodplain areas were logged for the use in construction, and farms replaced the forests that had converged at the creek. Farmers initially encouraged limited flooding of the creek in order to enrich their top soil with silt eroded from upland portions of the watershed. Over time, many farms along Johnson Creek have, in turn, disappeared from the reaches of the creek, to be replaced by residences and commercial property.
Tideman and Olavia Johnson immigrated from Norway and moved west in the 1870‘s. They bought eighty acres that included the property that is now JEAN’s Farm in 1880, because their desire to reconnect with the land. During and after World War II, neighbors created victory gardens on the property. Their crops included grapes and berries. Later, the land was sold and used as a horse pasture.
In the late 1970’s, Walt Johnson, a grandson of Tideman, purchased it and let it go fallow. Although it was back under family ownership, the land quickly turned into a bramble of blackberries. It stayed that way until the 1993, when Urban Bounty, under Marc Boucher-Colbert, leased, cleared and used the land to grow produce for one of the first community-supported agriculture enterprises in Portland. Laura Masterson later assumed the lease and ran her own CSA on the site as extension of 47th Street Farm.
Steve Johnson, a descendent and the current owner of the farm property, has dedicated a great deal of his life both to the stewardship of the family property and the Johnson Creek watershed. He has successfully helped to protect a mile of the creek and 100 acres of urban wilderness in this small canyon. Steve is a professor of urban planning, and, over the years of his stewardship, has come to recognize that in order to care for this place long-term and preserve it within urban boundaries, community investment is essential.
As part of this investment, Steve wanted the property to continue to be used for local food production while offering opportunities for organizations to use the land for educational purposes. In 2004, Dilafruz Williams, a fellow professor at Portland State University and member of the Portland School Board, created a unique partnership between PSU, Portland Public Schools and the Johnson family, which led to the creation of an educational program that would promoted a place-based model of environmental, cultural and agricultural learning on the Johnson property.
Dilafruz’s proposal emerged out of her close friendship with Steve’s mother, Jean Johnson. When Jean died in 2003, it was agreed that the memory of Jean’s spirit should be associated with this venture. Hence the name, JEAN’s Farm, or the Johnson Environmental And Nutrition Farm.
According to Steve, there have been over 6000 visitors to the property from over 30 countries and every state of the USA over the years. That number doesn’t include the hundreds of students who have learned first-hand about the local environment and agriculture. Sunnyside and Lewis Schools began field trips to the farm site in 2005. Sunnyside continues them to this day.