Interview with The Side Yard

Urban Farm Brings Specialty Produce to Some of Portland's Top Restaurants

By Elle Nigh
Nov 09 12:00am

The Side Yard started in 2009 as just a hobby. Local chef Stacey Givens split her time between working at restaurant called Rocket (which is now the Noble Rot) and spending time on its rooftop growing produce. After two years Rocket went out of business, but Givens, who had developed a green thumb, never looked back.


Givens is a chef before anything, as she describes it to us as we walk through the NE location of her garden. “I went to a couple culinary schools in Oregon and California, and my brother owns a restaurant. It's all I've ever done for work.” Growing up with a garden in her backyard, farm-to-table is all Givens has ever known. “Growing food to put on the table is a natural thing, but for me it has turned into a business.”


With the support of chefs Givens once worked for, she developed a plan to start an urban garden that would supply local businesses with fresh produce. “As soon as Rocket went out of business, I started looking for property,” Givens recalls. “This was what I really wanted to do. I got so into the relationship between farming and restaurants. So we started the Side Yard, and it took off. We started supplying places that I used to work at over the last five years.”


The Side Yard started growing produce and sharing its urban farm techniques with the Portland community in its spare time. The success of the urban garden has even demanded expansion into two different sites, which makes sense considering all the different restaurants the garden now provides for. “We now have about eight restaurants,” Givens notes. “Most are really great ones that are very local, like Beast, Veritable Quandary, Lincoln, Ned Ludd, and South Park to name some. This is the main site, and there's another one on 67th and Wygant, a little bit larger than this. Over there we have bees. We also have about 11 chickens at that location, but here there's only four.”


Givens’ previous years working in the restaurant industry in Portland has paid off. “I have great relationships with all the chefs.” Eateries and chefs around Portland are always eager to know what produce Givens has available. “I specialize in a lot of things that people don't want to do. Like instead of throwing out my thinnings of radishes, I'll do micro-radishes, like as a garnish. Or maybe micro-carrots, stuff like that. Nobody else does that because it's so time-consuming. A lot of people don't grow salad burnet, or edible flowers, which attracts chefs and foodies from all over.”


Another unique aspect of The Side Yard is its appeal to people who want to learn how to farm sustainably. “I’m the only owner, and everyone you see here today are all volunteers who maintain Side Yard.” The fairly small size of it brings people together to form a tight-knit community. “We do harvest on Tuesdays and Fridays during the summer, and they help me basically every week. They’re all amazing people that just want to learn.”


Given the garden’s annual crops, many of the restaurants design their menus around what’s available. “I tell my chef's, okay, this is what I got -- want it or not. They're all very cool with that,” Givens explains. “I'm kind of like a farmers market, I might just text you that morning and say what I have. Every week it changes. A lot of chefs even take my stuff because they use it only on specials, which is really cool.”


Not knowing exactly what or how much produce she will have on a daily basis allows Givens to carry many different types. “I try to do crops that have fast turnover, so a lot of different types of lettuce mixes, arugula, greens, radishes, salad turnips. I do a bunch of heirloom tomatoes, a bunch of different culinary herbs.”


The Side Yard provides food for restaurants of many different sizes and therefore yields various amounts of produce. “Some smaller restaurants only want three bunches of radishes, or just four ounces of chives. The larger restaurants, like VQ and South Park, just take whatever. They'll take pounds and pounds of greens.”


Portlanders have also been able to get a taste of The Side Yard at Sunday morning brunches during the summer. “For the brunches I use everything from my farm, including eggs from my chickens.” Brunch is first come first serve and combines local, sustainable food, with good people and superior cooking. “It's cool because usually chefs come, other farmers, friends, even people I don't know in the neighborhood.”


The Side Yard also brings the Portland community together with larger events, in which chefs come together to cook good food and enjoy music with like-minded people. Earlier this year the garden had a massive pig roast. “There were nine chefs, a hundred and forty pound pig, and 50 people,” Givens recalls. “I'll continue to do the brunches until the weather's nice, and then once that stops I usually do monthly hoop house dinners. I'll put picnic tables up, lights, and do like six courses.”


Combining specialty farming with quality food and hard-working people, The Side Yard truly boasts creativity and community within a Portland population that is so passionate about its food.


Check out The Side Yard’s website for information about the upcoming season and its monthly hoop house dinners.