“Those rabbits got me for four flats last week,” he says.
He’s thought about setting live traps, but Hunter doesn’t have the budget for them. The previous farmer put in a rabbit-proof fence but didn’t install it right. Hunter keeps hoping the coyotes will kill more rabbits, but there are just too many. Killing them himself, he says, wouldn’t be humane.
Hunter works for Multnomah County, and his official title is “urban food production specialist.” But most people refer to him simply as the county farmer.
That the state’s most urban county still has a farmer on the payroll, at $56,334 a year, is a surprise. Hunter is in charge, primarily, of growing crops on two acres of county land so the food can be donated to local social services agencies.
Deborah Kafoury, currently running for Multnomah County chair, raised Hunter’s profile when she said the farmer’s job is the first thing she’d cut from the budget if she were elected. There are better ways to deliver the same services, she says.
“No comment on that, I don’t get into politics,” Hunter, 57, says. “I heard the comment, and everyone has their own opinion, but I’ve seen firsthand, frontline what this garden has done, produced and the impact it has had on people’s lives.”
The county CROPS program (the acronym stands for “Community Reaps Our Produce and Shares”) began in 2009 under then-Multnomah County Chairman Jeff Cogen, whose chief of staff, Marissa Madrigal, came up with the idea. Madrigal, who now serves as interim county chairwoman, proposed turning two acres of unused land in Troutdale into a vegetable farm, with the crops going to local charities.
Hunter started working for the county in 2002 as a youth and adult crew leader for the Department of Community Justice. As a crew leader, he was in charge of bringing juveniles and adults doing court-ordered community service to work sites throughout the county. In 2009, he began bringing his first crews to CROPS, where they cleared blackberry vines, tilled the fields and harvested the vegetables. He got the county farmer job three months ago.
“He was absolutely the right person,” says Kim Powe, director of Multnomah County’s Office of Sustainability. “A lot of people can work at a farm, but not a lot of people can work with others like Jerry does.”
Hunter moved to Oregon from Arkansas when he was 4 years old. He attended Franklin High School in Portland and worked as a production foreman before joining the county.
In addition to running the Troutdale farm, Hunter coordinates education projects (like the Beginning Urban Farmers Apprenticeship, a program co-sponsored by the Oregon State University Extension Service) and a garden at the county headquarters building.
“Farmers work 24/7, and that is something I’m learning right now,” Hunter says. “I go home and I’m still planning for this farm. I sleep and I have dreams about farming.”
In 2013, the county sent 12,000 pounds of produce from the Troutdale farm to local nonprofits.
“This program provides fruits and vegetables for low-income people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to fresh organic produce,” says Judy Alley, director of SnowCap Community Charities, a food pantry in east Multnomah County. “If kids don’t develop a taste for vegetables when they are young, they will never want to eat them.”
Much of the costs of the program are carried by other agencies—county corrections’ budget pays for jail or community-service crews working at the farm.
But the program is a leftover from Cogen’s time, and Kafoury says there are far more cost-efficient ways for the county to help nonprofits.
“It probably costs more money for us to pay for the salary of the farmer and grow the food ourselves rather than just give that money to charities directly,” she says.
Hunter’s office is in a metal shed at the Troutdale farm, where he answers emails on his phone while sitting on a blue rototiller.
On a recent day, a van rolled up to the farm and unloaded seven men and women on a court-ordered work detail. Hunter had several of them load rocks to build a driveway so vehicles entering the farm wouldn’t sink into the mud. Others began mowing the grass around the fields.
Hunter and one worker measured black PVC pipe for a new drip-line system Hunter is convinced will increase the farm’s yield. Hunter hacked at the pipe with a knife to cut it to the proper lengths.
One of the workers heard about Hunter’s rabbit problem and offered a suggestion.
“In pot fields in Eastern Oregon,” he told Hunter, “we would put blood meal in burlap sacks on the edge of fields, and the rabbits won’t come near.”
Hunter tells the worker he’ll give it a try.