Editor’s note: Call businesses before you go to make sure they are open; follow updated travel restrictions for your region; and practice social distancing measures while you are out.
Lovers of fresh-picked produce, locally raised meats, specially crafted spirits and award-winning wines now have a new way to explore Oregon’s ever-growing food scene: the Mid-Willamette Valley Food Trail. Started in March 2020, the self-guided trail includes 50 spots that dot the countryside along the Interstate 5 corridor — from Monmouth in the north to Monroe in the south and Alsea in the west to Sweet Home in the east. In addition to food and drink purveyors and restaurateurs, the trail includes food experiences and places to stay that draw visitors even closer to the sources of Oregon’s goodness.
Poetically named Lilliputopia is a tiny organic farm in Monroe founded by Eliza Mason in hopes of creating a model for sustainability, agricultural research and community building. Mason knows a thing or two about the science of farming. She holds a B.S. in molecular biology and a doctorate in microbiology. She conducts research at Lilliputopia in collaboration with Oregon State University on growing crops without irrigation, pesticides or chemical fertilizers. “I was intrigued by dry farming because it seemed antithetical to conventional agriculture yet was practiced by Native Americans before there was irrigation technology,” says Mason. “Upon analyzing this property, I realized that our well was not adequate for irrigation and the use of city water would be prohibitively expensive. Dry farming was perfect for this situation.”
Visitors to Lilliputopia may be surprised to learn that the tomatoes, watermelons, zucchini, corn and pumpkins grown here without irrigation actually taste different. “Dry-farmed produce has been shown to be more flavorful, nutritious and have a longer storage shelf life,” insists Mason. “Additionally, this practice greatly reduces labor, energy and infrastructure inputs.” Mason will be selling Lilliputopia’s harvest at a new farmstand on the property this year.
Getting Your Hands Dirty
Food-trail followers are welcome to schedule a tour, but Mason invites visitors to go a step further and volunteer through WWOOF, or Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms. In exchange for working a few hours on the farm (determined by the length of stay), Mason provides room and board along with her expertise in organic farming. Hands-on tasks may include anything from weeding, mulching, pruning and harvesting to plastering and cutting bottles for the farm’s bottle wall. The wall is an art display that showcases reused bottles in a stained-glass pattern for the farm’s greenhouse.
While Lilliputopia doesn’t allow children to stay overnight on the farm, it welcomes families for tours. Other farms — including Leaping Lamb Farm — encourage family stays and make a point to get kids involved in life on the farm: collecting eggs, brushing animals and bottle-feeding lambs. Farm owners always encourage parents to supervise their kids and be cautious around farm animals and equipment.
Beyond the Farm
After chores, would-be farmhands have plenty of time to explore other gems along the trail. Mason encourages folks to check out some of her favorites, including Bluebird Hill Cellars in Monroe, Gathering Together Farm in Philomath, and Caves Bier & Kitchen in Corvallis. “I think visitors will be surprised by the dedication to sustainability that most businesses here have. This region shows that agriculture is shifting to a more healthy, beautiful and community-driven system,” says Mason.
While you easily can navigate the Mid-Willamette Valley Food Trail on your own, guided tours are available. Both Best Oregon Tours and Oregon Traveling Tours can build customized itineraries that are sure to be delectable.