What's Growing in John Day

One rural Oregon town’s plan for the future starts in the greenhouse.

The former site of the Oregon Pine lumber mill in John Day is somewhat forlorn. Weeds surround the defunct planer and sawmill sheds; very few cars pass by. But amid the derelict buildings sit three translucent industrial structures with gabled roofs. These hydroponic greenhouses are part of the John Day Innovation Gateway Area Plan, an ambitious vision spearheaded by City Manager Nick Green to rebrand a declining timber town as a thriving rural community that attracts digital workers, young families, retirees, and tourists. 

A rendering of the reimagined site shows the forgotten brownfield transformed into a hopeful scene. The planer shed has been converted into a pavilion, the sawmill into an event center. People are everywhere—on the sidewalks, seated at picnic tables, and mingling on a green lawn. But for now, it’s just the greenhouses—past and future juxtaposed.

On a gray fall day, the climate inside the greenhouses is pleasantly humid. Below the steady whir of fans is a feast of green. Cucumbers and scarlet-red tomatoes nestle among the vining plants. The delicate leaves of tender butter lettuce unfold in head after perfect head.

Hydroponic agriculture requires no soil; instead, nutrients are added to irrigation water and delivered straight to plant roots. The greenhouses produce between eighteen and twenty different crops: lettuces, cucumbers, melons, basil, and about two hundred pounds of tomatoes a week. The greenhouse project, which was financed with a $350,000 loan from Business Oregon, was conceived as a way to enhance local food security and attract investors and tourists. The vegetables are sold to individuals, restaurants, and the town’s single grocery store.

“This is about honoring our heritage as a natural resource community, but doing it in a way where we’re relevant in the twenty-first century,” says Green. 

With a population of 1,735, John Day is the largest town in Grant County, one of several sprawling, sparsely populated counties east of the Cascade Mountains. Both the town and the scenic river that runs through it were named for John Day, a hunter and fur trader who in 1812 was robbed of his equipment and clothes near the river’s mouth. Miners and immigrants flocked to Grant County in the 1860s once gold was discovered at Griffin Gulch. For decades, Chinese immigrants made up a good portion of John Day’s residents, especially after fires burned much of nearby Canyon City, including the Chinese neighborhood. Kam Wah Chung & Company, a Chinese-owned grocery, dry goods store, and clinic, opened just off Main Street in 1865 and served as Chinatown’s social center until 1948. (It is now a museum and state park.) By the end of the century the gold was mostly gone, and the base of Grant County’s economy shifted to logging, milling, and sheep and cattle ranching. Today, cows outnumber people five to one.

Like so many rural Oregon communities, John Day has been in economic free fall since the decline of the timber industry in the 1990s. Overharvesting prompted the passage of the Northwest Forest Plan, which severely limited logging on public lands. One by one, the mills shut down. People moved away, leaving towns like John Day with aging populations, unreliable internet connections, and little hope. 

When Green took the helm as city manager in 2016, he was determined to reverse that trajectory. One of his favorite expressions is “honor the past, but step on the gas.” A systems thinker who’s not afraid of large sums of money, Green formerly worked for the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, where he managed a multibillion-dollar technology investment portfolio. Despite receiving some resistance from residents who prefer a limited role for government, he has applied for millions of dollars in state and federal grants to fund different aspects of the Innovation Gateway plan, which includes a network of parks and trails, the restoration of the John Day River, and a new state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant that will reclaim water for irrigation, agriculture, and industrial uses.

“We have to figure out how to be more self-reliant, because there are times when we don’t have access to things other people have,” says Green. 

It might seem ironic that a county like Grant, which has traditionally relied on natural resources, including mining, timber, and agriculture, would struggle with food security. But most of the region’s crops—hay, alfalfa, and recently hemp—are grown to feed livestock and exported. Beef is also sent elsewhere, since the county does not host a USDA-certified processing facility.

You can buy local beef and chicken from small producers, and many people do, says Green. “But prior to these greenhouses, especially in the off-season months, virtually all produce was imported.” 

Food security encompasses both the availability of food and the ability of individuals and families to obtain it. In general, rural counties suffer from higher rates of food insecurity than more populous parts of the state. And while they are certainly not homogenous, remote rural counties share traits that limit both availability and access to food, says Mark Edwards, a professor of sociology at Oregon State University’s School of Public Policy.

Grocery stores are few and far between in rural regions, and stores struggle to keep healthy food stocked. “They are too distant and inconvenient for food distributors to serve them, so often small stores send someone to the city to buy things at Costco to stock up their local shelves,” Edwards explained by email. Many residents drive long distances to larger towns to stock up at big-box stores themselves. Increasingly, rural residents are also ordering food and supplies online.

Incomes in rural communities tend to be lower and are often seasonal. Developers don’t want to invest in communities with declining populations and low property values, so rural Oregon has a dearth of suitable housing stock and, as a result, high rents.

“Rent is one of the biggest budget-busters for people trying to feed their families,” says Edwards. 

Though food security improved across Oregon between 2015 and 2017, the COVID-19 pandemic likely erased those gains.

“We saw a spike in food insecurity in 2020 because of COVID,” says Stephanie LeQuieu, Grant County’s venture catalyst for the Oregon Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network, or RAIN.

There are only two grocery stores in Grant County, says LeQuieu. “When these stores don’t get their deliveries, people don’t have access [to food].” As happened everywhere, many rural residents also lost their jobs during the pandemic, and the state’s overwhelmed unemployment department was unable to deliver benefits on time. Already lean budgets were stretched even further.

“COVID showed how heavily dependent we are on outsourcing,” says LeQuieu. “That started the conversation: Is it possible for us to provide [for our residents] on our own?”

Green says the greenhouse project and the new wastewater treatment plant, which will produce millions of gallons of recycled water once it’s up and running, will help John Day weather disruptions to national supply chains and regional disasters from floods to fires. “We can feed ourselves regardless of what’s happening in the world around us,” he says. “That’s a model that every city 

should be pursuing.” 

Located on East Main Street near John Day’s lone stoplight, 1188 Brewing Company has an airy, casual vibe that draws people in, with open seating and knotty wood decor. The menu offers pub fare like burgers and jalapeno poppers alongside colorful salads and wraps that feature many ingredients from the city’s greenhouses.

Owner Shannon Adair, who opened the restaurant in 2013, jumped at the chance to start sourcing fresh produce locally.

“The cost might be a little more up front, but there’s so much less wasted food,” says Adair, who also sits on John Day’s city council. Too often, much of the produce she gets from her regular vendors is “already brown, and it doesn’t last.” 

If the greenhouse weren’t an option, Adair would only be able to source fresh produce twice a week. Now, if there’s an E. coli outbreak that impacts the national supply of romaine lettuce, she’s not concerned. The tomatoes from the greenhouse are “super flavorful,” the basil bright green.

Not only is Adair throwing away much less wilted produce, sourcing from the greenhouse doesn’t generate any plastic packaging or cardboard boxes; instead, the restaurant collects vegetables in sturdy plastic bins that can be sterilized and reused over and over again. 

Adair cites the two-way communication with the vendor as another benefit. She and other restaurant owners can request that the city grow hard-to-source items, such as Thai basil.

Green admits there have been some challenges. 

“In a production greenhouse, you have one type of thing—all tomatoes, or all lettuce,” he explains. “We grow twenty different products in a very small footprint.”

Greenhouse operators have had to tweak temperature and light settings, the amount and timing of nutrient delivery, and even the type of hydroponic containers.

“We’ve probably redesigned every aspect of the greenhouses’ internal operations,” says Green.

The city sells directly to both retail and commercial customers. Restaurants like 1188 Brewing Company purchase produce at a 20 percent discount over direct consumer pricing; grocers receive a 40 percent discount.

The city is also a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) certified vendor, and it can distribute food directly to low- and moderate-income households. People can buy the city’s produce at the grocery store using Oregon Trail cards or vouchers obtained through the Farm Direct Nutrition Program.

The greenhouses were up and running by September 2019, well before COVID-19 arrived in the United States. But the pandemic has underscored the project’s relevance. 

“A county commissioner asked me how we can enhance what the city of John Day is doing,” says LeQuieu, who is spearheading a county-level discussion on how to create a more self-sufficient Grant County.

Arid soils, hilly terrain, and a limited water supply make traditional agriculture challenging; still, LeQuieu says there are a number of small producers, growers, and makers in the region. The key is providing enough support so they can do what they do on a larger scale.

This may include subsidizing the cost of licenses that allow producers to sell over a certain dollar amount, or helping them convert to year-round production, perhaps by using hydroponic greenhouses similar to the city’s. LeQuieu likens the John Day Farmers’ Market, which she also manages, to a business incubator that allows entrepreneurs to try out ideas in a relatively low-risk setting. In both of her roles, LeQuieu hopes to help build an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” in Grant County that attracts new blood and keeps young people from fleeing.

When at full capacity, the city greenhouses will produce twenty-five tons of fresh produce a year within a ten-thousand-square-foot footprint. But the project isn’t an end unto itself. 

“For us, this was really a proof of concept to show that we could grow efficiently in this climate,” says Green. “The rest of the agricultural expansion we hope will be private enterprise, or public/private partnerships between the city and growers.” 

The City of John Day is redeveloping about one hundred acres of city-owned land, much of it riverfront property. Green would like to see some of this acreage converted into agriculture, and the city is sweetening the deal to attract producers. 

“What we can offer is reclaimed water from the new facility, very low-cost land, tax incentives, and economic development incentives to encourage those businesses to expand here,” he says. Green hopes these advantages offset the higher distribution costs out of the county, which is not served by a railroad.

Green envisions attracting growers who will help feed the county’s residents, as well as food processors and manufacturers who can turn raw materials into value-added products for export—fish from aquaponic operations, or textiles and CBD oil from hemp, for example. With its natural resource heritage, the county is well positioned to provide workers for these industries.

“For an area that, pre-COVID, had the highest unemployment rate in Oregon ten years running, it’s a good fit to help us with our economic recovery,” says Green.  

In an era of climate change, these new projects may make John Day not only relevant, but a leader among rural communities in Oregon. Standing in one of the greenhouse bays, among verdant green vines that reach into the rafters, it’s easy to imagine such a future taking root.

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Photo essay: "Weekend in John Day" http://members.efn.org/~hkrieger/johnday.htm

Herman Krieger | January 2021 | Eugene, OR

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