meet the farmer
SENSE OF PLACE
Tom Stille carves out a local food niche
at the river’s edge
WRITTEN BY ANN LINDEMANN
PHOTOS BY CANDICE NYANDO
“Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.” — Poet Gary Snyder
Tom Stille, like his bioregional movement mentor Gary Sndyer, has a keen sense of place.“I’m not from Nevada and I’m not from Reno,” the vital 71-year-old farmer/landscaper/activist says. “I’m from the Great Basin or the Truckee Meadows, the Truckee River watershed or where Hunter Creek enters the Truckee River. What we are doing is getting away from political subdivision in favor of bioregional areas.”
It is at this exact juncture of creek and river — where rushing water melodies mingle with the flutter of golden cottonwood leaves dancing in the autumn breeze — that Stille found his place on the planet, dug in, and started taking responsibility back in 1992.
Just two miles from the intersection of McCarran Boulevard and West Fourth Street, off Woodland Avenue on White Fir Street on Reno’s western tip is Stille’s bioregional heartbeat: River School Farm. An urban oasis of sorts, the two-acre riverside parcel is wedged into a mixed-use industrial area with unlikely neighbors that include Patagonia’s warehouse and outlet, a PVC pipe factory, and right next door the imposing office for West Coast Contractors.
Stille grew up in Northern Iowa where he later earned a degree in horticulture. In 1967, Stille moved to Reno and served as Washoe County superintendent of parks.
“I said I was going to stay in that position for three years and then I wanted to travel, and that’s exactly what I did,” he says.
It was on the streets of India that Stille reexamined his definition of wealth and happiness, and began developing an urban organic farming ethos that informs his life to this day. He returned to Reno in 1981 and launched Interpretive Gardens, a landscaping business that now is headquartered on the second floor of a straw bale-constructed building at River School Farm.
For Tom Stille work, play, community activism, and creative brainstorming swirl around beautifully in the vortex of his operation. In turn, the spokes of the River School Farm wheel are many. The landscaping architecture spoke reaches out to the community and beyond. Stille has spearheaded a variety of local projects that focus on sustainable landscape development, working with native plants and integrating food crops into the landscape. Of particular note is Hug High School in Reno’s bioregional garden project that was funded by the Truckee Meadows Water Authority’s landscape retrofit program. The garden is rich in edibles that are put to good use in the school’s active culinary arts program.
Back at the farm, Stille and his crew practice what they preach by growing a variety of fruits, vegetables, flowers, herbs, honey, and poultry. The farm specializes in greens and root crops that are grown year-round in hoop houses, low tunnels, and row covers. River School Farm sells through the Patagonia ESA (employee-supported agriculture) program, the Great Basin Community Food Co-op, and restaurants.
“Our goal is to have 20 percent of our food grown in the Truckee Meadows by 2020,” says Stille, who speaks of the importance of food security. He uses Havana, Cuba during the Iron Curtain era as a model. He says people were cut off from the rest of the world during this period and had to learn how to feed themselves locally.
The final spoke of the River School Farm is the on-site education and event venue. Classes range from African drum, dance, and yoga to food preserving, beekeeping, composting, and animal husbandry.
Frequent community dinners are a popular draw, but riverside nuptials serve as the farm’s real cash cow. During summer and fall months, the weekends are booked with weddings. There’s a wedding altar, bandstand/dance floor, amphitheater, cave-like room for pre-event preparations, and an outdoor kitchen. The elegant venue is punctuated with whimsical found-object sculptures depicting dancers and birds. It’s no surprise that this lush sanctuary — where Hunter Creek joins the Truckee River — resonates with couples who are looking to form a unique union of their own.
For details about River School Farm, visit www.Riverschool.info.
Writer Ann Lindemann lives on the West Shore of Lake Tahoe where she writes for a variety of regional and national publications.