Fictional hippie farm on ‘Portlandia’ is actually a Metro natural area – and an example of farm leases
If you watched the first episode of the spoof hit “Portlandia” on the Independent Film Channel, you know that a locally grown, organic chicken named Collin ended his life as a trendy restaurant entrée.
But you probably didn’t realize that Collin’s buddies are alive and well – at a Metro natural area. They’re actually egg-laying hens at Wealth Underground Farm, which leases Metro land near Forest Park and doubled as a filming location for “Portlandia.”
As a community-supported agriculture farm, this one-acre vegetable and flower patch sells “shares” to members who pick up a weekly haul of produce. Many members make the steep, twisty trip to the farm, where boat horns rise from the Columbia River below and bird calls echo from the fir trees above. Wealth Underground fulfills the college dream of three 20-something buddies, who literally wear their passion on their jackets, with matching antler-tip symbols of unity. Reflecting on the unapologetically over-the-top “Portlandia,” farm co-founder Nolan Calisch jokes: “This is exactly what they wanted to make fun of.”
Wealth Underground also shows exactly why Metro leases 580 acres of natural areas to farmers, bringing in nearly $60,000 a year and supporting local agriculture in the process.
Two voter-approved bond measures have allowed Metro to protect water quality, wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities by purchasing 11,000 acres across the Portland metropolitan area. Large properties with rich wildlife habitat sometimes include a farm field. Without money to publicly open or restore these natural areas right away, Metro rents them out. Part of Graham Oaks Nature Park in Wilsonville, for example, was leased to a wheat farmer until Metro had the resources to transform it into valuable oak habitat with hiking trails, picnic tables and other amenities.
“We’re trying to use land that isn’t being converted right away or restored for habitat,” says Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette, who has a strong interest in sustainable agriculture and toured some of Metro’s leased farms. “It’s just part of being a sustainable region. We have great soil, we have productivity. Let’s use it.”
Leasing property also reduces the cost of fighting invasive plants and protecting natural resources, because farmers actively care for their land. Laurie Wulf, who manages Metro’s agricultural leases, works with farmers to navigate the challenges of growing crops in a natural area.
“We’re keeping the land weed-free, for the most part,” Wulf says. “And the farmer can make a living.”
Farms on Metro’s natural areas span the region, from Forest Grove to Corbett and Sauvie Island to Canby. They also span the agricultural spectrum, from permaculture to potatoes and clover to community-supported agriculture.
Calisch, the Wealth Underground co-founder, trained at another Metro-leased farm: Sauvie Island Organics. That’s how he learned about a rental house and small field near Forest Park, part of a 58-acre property that might someday allow Metro to extend the Wildwood Trail.
Timing was right. Calisch recruited two classmates from Denison University in Ohio, bringing Chris Seigel from the San Francisco Bay area and Eric Campbell from Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. They launched an organic farm, selling at the St. Johns Farmers Market their first season and transitioning to a member-supported operation last year.
The Wealth Underground team didn’t specifically look for publicly protected land, but the connection felt natural.
“It appeals to our sensibilities, putting land into conservation,” Calisch says. “We’re also interested in how a farm can operate in a low-impact and ecological way. You can have growing spaces in wild spaces.”
They’re learning to work alongside wildlife that relies on the wooded corridor in and around Forest Park. Wealth Underground planted a garden for a herd of elk, for example. And when chickens got killed, the farmers did a better job of protecting them instead of targeting the predators. As Campbell puts it, “We don’t try to chase things off. It’s not set up to push the animals back.”
Wealth Underground was more focused on kale and rutabaga than publicity last year, when a talent scout inquired about using the farm as a filming location. It was deemed perfect for “Portlandia,” the new sketch comedy show created by Saturday Night Live star Fred Armisen and Sleater-Kinney rocker Carrie Brownstein. The storyline, the farmers were warned, would poke fun at Oregonians’ obsession with living off the land.
As it turns out, a couple played by Armisen and Brownstein consider ordering chicken at a downtown restaurant. But first they want to make sure it’s local. And organic. And what about the sheep’s milk, soy and hazelnuts the chicken ate? Are those local, too? Unsatisfied with details of Collin the chicken’s chick-hood, Peter and Nance ask their waitress to hold the table while they visit the farm.
A true local might recognize the wooded backdrop as Peter and Nance pull up to the farm. And frequent visitors might spot their favorite rabbits and chickens, who make cameos. But that’s where the similarities end. Wealth Underground is recast as Aliki Farms, named for a spiritual guru who runs the operation – and, apparently, is married to everybody else who works there. It’s a sunbathed scene straight out of 1970.
“I’m just falling in love with this place. It’s just beautiful,” Nance gushes.
“Yeah,” Peter adds. “We almost don’t want to leave.”
For five years, they don’t. As the farm crew lovingly surrounds Aliki on his death bed, Peter and Nance realize they’ve been sucked into a cult. They rush back to the restaurant, where they start interrogating the waitress about the salmon.
The Wealth Underground trio watched filming up-close, when they weren’t busy tending crops. And they reveled in the fame just a little, naming one of the rabbits Aliki and proudly showing off the star chickens. Although “Portlandia” makes a satire of the farmers’ profession and adopted city, they don’t take offense. “It’s not making fun of this at all in a malicious way,” Seigel says. “To be able to laugh at yourself is very important.”
Wealth Underground is busy planning for the next growing season. They’re building a greenhouse and expanding their memberships, from 21 last season to 30 and counting this year.
But Calisch took a break to attend the “Portlandia” premiere last month at the Hollywood Theatre. When he told people he was with Wealth Underground, he got VIP treatment.
“It’s the only time in my life I can drop a farm name,” he says, “and be ushered in on the red carpet.”
Learn more about Wealth Underground Farm or sign up as a member