December 9th, 2023

A Visit to ōkta Farm

A wood board with a variety of fermented foods.  Pinto rye miso, navy rice miso and chickpea miso are labeled.
A new kind of tasting experience. Photos by Emily Strelow.

In the heart of the Willamette Valley lies restaurant ōkta’s 70-acre farm. The property includes Bramble Hill Vineyard, barns and grazing paddocks for the newly arrived sheep, preserved forests and wildlife corridors. As the grapes have been harvested and leaves hit peak color, life on the farm starts to evolve. Co-proprietors of ōkta and the Tributary Hotel Katie Jackson and Shaun Kajiwara share an overall goal in the post-harvest time of moving animals between the vineyard, forests, and paddocks to encourage increased biodiversity to the entire ecosystem. On a truly sustainable farm, every season brings new growth, innovation, and change. 

Bramble Hill Vineyard is the origin of ōkta farm and Tributary. What started as a small vineyard to explore regenerative practices has grown significantly of late. Farmed using sustainable practices and certified both LIVE and Salmon-Safe, the vineyard reflects a passion and commitment to long-term stewardship of the land and vines. The vineyard now encompasses ōkta’s vegetable farm and forest preserve, as well as the sheep paddock and barn. Every aspect of the acreage is considered and tended by the crew throughout the year. 

In a world where the phrase “farm to table” has begun to lose impact and meaning, ōkta has doubled down and propelled the idea to the next level. Focusing on micro-seasons, the restaurant sources almost all of their produce from their own farm on the ribbon ridge in the Willamette Valley. Recent James Beard semi-finalist and Michelin-starred chef Matthew Lightner walks the five-acre farm and trails every morning with his crew, then discusses what’s happening and growing on the farm before heading into the small town of McMinnville to the restaurant proper. 

When I asked to come visit, I had one idea of what I might find: a farm focused on sustainability. But after a few hours talking with the small, dedicated group that runs the operation and tasting from their on-site larder, I left feeling as though I had just spent time in a sustainable culinary think tank. I participated in an ongoing conversation about how ingredients speak to us from the ground, food as art, and how fermentation acts as a sort of living history as flavors change over time. I was floored by how the inherent limitations set by serving food from a small farm could support and encourage such distinct innovation and creativity.

The tasting board prepared for me by head of the larder Larry Nguyen sat next to a glass containing house made yerba Buena kombucha. The yerba buena was gifted to ōkta by local Grande Ronde confederated tribes who cultivate the herb nearby. The board in front of me was dotted with pickled, fermented, and salt-cured items that honestly didn’t at first look like more than blobs on a board. But I was in for a culinary ride.

A person in an apron stands behind a tray of white koji.
Larry Nguyen and his koji.

One of the first items I tried was a simple enough pickled carrot and baby parsnip duo. The first tang, balanced by the balanced sweetness of the kombucha, immediately let me know I was among masters of their craft. Then we tried salted marigold petals, miso made from navy beans, salt-brined strawberries, and pickled winecap mushrooms. All of the food could be traced back to where it grew just feet away from the larder building or from local growers (the navy beans, for instance, come from local organic farm Bernards Farm). The fermented items had all achieved the kind of balance of flavor that a home fermenter and pickler such as myself can only dream of achieving. 

When we got to the oils and koji I started losing a bit of composure and doing things like spinning around in a circle after trying a flavor. This is what good art does to people, I suppose. It lets us loosen our inhibitions a bit. Lightner was passing through just as I said in awe after tasting purple barley koji that had notes of truffles,

 “It’s like an entire performance on my taste buds.” 

Lightner laughed from deep in his belly as he passed by and said, “I love that.” And I think that response was indicative of how much the crew at the ōkta farm supports one another’s ideas, no matter how outside the box. This natural camaraderie is apparently something that happens daily on the farm. When I asked general manager Christine Langelier about what it’s like working for ōkta she said, “Every day I love coming to work because I know I will be part of a beautiful conversation about land, soil, food, and art. The ethos here is fully driven by intention.”

An acquaintance of mine, the painter Zach Hixson, happened to be visiting the farm and joined my tasting. The conversation moved naturally between Nguyen, Hixson, and me as we tasted Koji, Nukazuke, miso, infused oils, and more. As Hixon and I remarked how the flavor of a Koji started one way then changed and evolved into something else on the palate Nguyen said, “Fermentation opens flavors like an accordion. You have salt, acid, and tropical notes in the lacto-honey.. We showcase and present flavor and as it opens up you experience the whole spectrum.”

Nukazuke is the result of a process of fermenting vegetables in rice bran, a method that’s been used since the 17th century in Japan. As we tried it, the experience started to feel beyond merely tasting flavors, but more of a dipping into history. Nguyen had to say about this, 

“Some of these dishes, they are living documents that keep track of everything the bacteria have been doing over time. When you try a dish you are tasting the lifespan of the process.”

Hixson added, “like layers of varnish on a painting. Each one changes how we experience the art just slightly.”

We ended with Naked Bear pumpkin and chanterelle garums. Garum is a sauce whose process is traditionally made like a hydrolized fish sauce, but when made vegetarian creates a distillation of flavor that gets to the far, mysterious reaches of what a vegetable has to offer. As a lifelong forager of wild mushrooms myself, I felt closer to the chanterelle than I’d ever been. I could sense the Doug Fir needles and the smack of the soil from the place where the mushroom grew. Finally, it was the 1-year-old aged salt cured celeriac, shaved like parmesan, that had me shaking my head. I remembered that Nguyen had mentioned they were “working with nature to capture moments and showcase them.” Those moments, that limitation of what can be grown, foraged, or sourced locally, has officially sparked genius at ōkta. 

In the spring, ōkta will begin hosting farm lunches on the property. Katie Jackson & Shaun Kajiwara work closely with Chef Matthew Lightner and General Manager Christine Langelier as well as the entire crew to welcome guests to the region and acreage they love and share the land’s bounty. When the lunches begin, I will be first in line to return and savor the fruits of many labors of love at ōkta farm.

Emily Strelow is a McMinnville resident and author of the novel The Wild Birds.