Many Portlanders have at some point wondered what it would be like to wake up on Sauvie Island, the natural wonderland located in the Columbia River just outside of Portland. But until recently, few have had the opportunity to do so. Protecting the thousands of acres of farmland and nature reserves that make the island a dreamy locale has meant there is almost no traditional hospitality industry to speak of.
Enter Vail and Greg, owners of the first short-term guest rental on the island, The Croft Farm. The couple had to work hard to establish their spot on the island, but what they’ve created is truly inspiring. Since there are only about 1,000 residents on the island, Vail and Greg now get to see Sauvie Island in a way few others get to. We caught up with Vail to talk about how their guest home came about and what makes the island special.
When did you first know you wanted to live and farm on Sauvie Island?
"Two moments jump out that help narrate our decision. Greg and I went on one of our first road trips as a couple newly in love and as we drove home through Montana, Idaho and Washington, we just adored the farms, ranches, and open spaces. In the car ride, I searched every two-acre parcel for sale in Multnomah County and our plot was the first and largest on the list. I insisted we look at it the very next day. The other moment was spending an evening at Wild Goose Farms on the island a few years earlier. This was before Greg, babes, and all of it. I was invited to a party for a friend of a friend, and saw a life I wanted in front of me. One of the best gifts in life is having friends or even strangers show you how to live. They showed me that."
How has living on the farm compared to your dreams of it?
"It completely surpasses any ideas of it we ever had, which we are deeply grateful for. It is also so much work. The emotional labor, physical labor, and self-reflection demanded of you by living here is much more than we expected. The sunrises and sunsets are beautiful, though what is more dreamy is how it forces us to be in relationship with all types of life. Soil, trees, mice, bees, frogs, and all of the food we grow. We are now deeply enmeshed in all of it."
What is your background in? Have you always farmed?
"Not exactly. Greg is from England, where you always keep a healthy section of your yard for growing, but we scaled up massively when we started our farm. Our first CSA was a wild experience, and Greg literally grew 25-30 different vegetables and herbs the first season, working 12 hours a day trying to maintain it all. The weeds alone nearly killed him. I am a professor of environmental communication and gender and women studies at the University of Portland, which affords me a lot of flexibility in my work on the farm."
What’s the best season to be on Sauvie Island?
"All of the seasons reveal something hidden and new, a refreshing view of life and living. Spring is likely the season du jour in our home, since it brings all the joy of new life and new beginnings. But boy does a random snow storm in winter seem to capture our imagination and stillness with perfect bliss. Oh, and all four of our birthdays are in winter, so there is that season of celebration. And, of course, summer is full of the plentitude of so many months of planning, growing, and hoping. To summarize, we eat best in summer and drink best in winter."
How would you describe the look and feel of your farm suite?
"It is modern, bright, and feels natural. We chose lots of natural materials and we really just want people to feel happy looking out the window while visiting. The sheep and goats roam 30 feet from the main windows, and birds nest and eat from our feeders just outside the door. The view of St. Helens from the bed is awesome. I would also be remiss to share that many of the blankets and textiles are from Collectivo, my Mexican textile passion project with two dear friends. Every item in the space is handpicked and considered with the earth, guests' experiences of joy, and comfort in mind."
Your farm suite Tu Casa is one of the very few places travelers can stay on Sauvie Island, and you had to go through a significant process with the county just to get that distinction. Do you think more short-term rental spaces will pop up in the future and open up Sauvie Island as a travel destination in and of itself?
"Multnomah County has some of the strictest land use laws in the country, if not the world, and few people will probably be able to make it work in the way we did. If the laws were designed to protect wildlife and not hunting, if the laws said all farming should be regenerative or organic, we would be so happy to support such tight protections. Of course, we need to grow food, and land should be preserved intentionally for this purpose. But I think innovation (like the short-term rental market) has been cast aside in many instances.
We use our guest space to support our small farm in the least impactful way we can think of so that Greg can farm without all the stress of worrying about failed crops (or a commute), and it took thousands and thousands of dollars of permit fees and related expenses to make that possible. I don't think you will see too many additional spaces on the island anytime soon. The other part of the equation is that there seems to be low turnover of residents here - which is great for community - but this also means that things don't change too rapidly."
Did you have a plan from the beginning for how the décor would look or did it come about more organically?
"Design and decorating has really been a side project for us, but we both love it. Greg geeks out about plants and exteriors, and I love thinking about color and texture. We are always constrained by budget, so we buy almost everything secondhand at the Portland Flea or the like, and Greg grows plants exclusively from seed or grafts. This can sometimes be frustrating since I often want things done immediately, but I have come to appreciate the patience needed to cultivate something beautiful. Greg has always accepted the journey."
You have an impressive selection of Schoolhouse light fixtures. What are your favorite pieces?
"I love them all nearly the same, though my current favorite is the white Factory 9 pendant over the simple wood dining table. It makes such a powerful statement in the relatively intimate space and I just love how it hovers overhead, inviting you to its warm glow. All the lights are on dimmers, and my favorite thing is to select a couple to turn on for a guest arriving after dark, so that when they enter it immediately feels inviting and homey."
Honey is something of a specialty for your farm. What’s your favorite use for your honey?
"Oh, our honey is sacred to us and this that we feel it’s most appropriate use is to eat it unadulterated on a small spoon! I always think 'I could never add this to anything.’ But drizzled over toast it is an out of this world combo—it’s my favorite meal. Our master beekeeper/friend, Ryan, says he uses it in the shower as part of his beauty routine. I could never do that, but I get why he does: It is precious and wondrous stuff."
What are your recommendations for places to visit during a day trip on Sauvie Island for people traveling there for the first time?
"I can offer my three favorite places: 1. Cistus Nursery; 2. Wapato Loop Trail; and 3. the river beach. And to be honest, a fourth is blackberry picking, which is almost at ANY bush on the road as you drive around the island in late August and September. Just find a safe space to park and make sure to wear gloves. There are a couple other spaces, but I must keep them secret (or for our guests!)."