"I'd never grown a vegetable before. I didn't even eat a green vegetable until I was 18," says Sarahlee Lawrence while petting her snow peas and lettuces in her thriving greenhouse at Rainshadow Organics, the vegetable farm she started last year in Terrebonne.
27-year-old Lawrence is also an accomplished river guide and has her Masters in environmental science and writing from the University of Montana, where she began writing her soon-to-be-published memoir, River House. She's managed to design and build a log house, which is nearly finished - even though, as she says, she still can barely hit a nail with a hammer.
Although she grew up on her family's farm, Lawrence Farms, their crop was hay, not organic vegetables and while she helped her parents haul hay, she longed for a life outside of Central Oregon. In fact, she's rather surprised that she came back to Central Oregon at all. But Lawrence virtually glows when she talks about her farm, which is the reason she returned to Terrebonne and the basis for her memoir.
As a teenager, Lawrence didn't fit in at Redmond High School and idolized her surfer father who, in his twenties, traveled the globe searching for the perfect wave. She spent her junior year abroad in New Zealand and after graduating, chased down one adventure after another - running the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, fighting dams in Costa Rica, river guiding in Africa - until she found herself on the cold floor of an apartment in Peru, wondering why she wasn't in Oregon.
"I managed to have all these experiences and see so much," Lawrence says. "But I realized how much place, home and family matter." River House, which she completed this past winter, is Lawrence's tribute to her family and the landscape of Central Oregon.
"This is my place. It made me who I am," she says.
While many twenty-somethings struggle with breaking free from their roots, Lawrence began to long for her home on the high desert and the family she left.
"This guy I had been dating while I was in Chile had been guiding for 15 years. He had quite the life. But he just regretted never buying a place where he grew up - it ate him up. That just resonated with me and I was like, 'holy shit. I've gotta do something about this.'"
In River House, Lawrence talks extensively about the pull of the high desert landscape and the need to return to her roots. After a whirlwind year of river guiding in South America, Lawrence packed up and moved back to her childhood home in Terrebonne to build a house and start an organic vegetable farm.
"I wanted to grow something I could eat," Lawrence says, even though her mother tried to dissuade her. "When I wanted to do this, she said, we can't grow vegetables here. It could freeze any day. It could snow on the Fourth of July!"
Tall, effervescent and graceful even while wearing thick work boots and Carhartts, Lawrence laughs as she remembers making the decision to start her own farm.
"I was wondering if I'd like farming," says Lawrence. "I had no idea. I helped my parents' farm - I understand labor. But actually growing vegetables in row crops, whoa. I didn't know if I'd like that. I didn't now if I'd like weeding and squatting. But I love it. It's so fabulous."
While much of River House focuses on Lawrence's return to Central Oregon, she also discusses her father's own desire to return to his former life as a surfer, which ends up taking him to the Pacific Coast and away from the family farm. Today, while he lives part-time in Terrebonne, he spends most of his time in Mexico, where the family has purchased a home on what she describes as an "amazing point break."
"It broke my heart when he left," Lawrence says who had hoped to work side-by-side with her father. But, she says, she understands why he now spends his days surfing. It's the same reason she came back to the farm. "All of my ramblings led me back here, but his ramblings did not lead him here. This is my dream. He's happy to turn it over [to me]."
This fall, after the farming season ends, Lawrence will head out on a book tour to New York and then across the West Coast. She'll then guide rivers in Chile or India - she hasn't decided where yet - surf with her father in Mexico, then put the final touches on her house before beginning next year's crops, which she's expanding from three acres to 28.
One wonders where she gets the energy for all of this. Lawrence chalks it up to passion. "What is life if you aren't passionate about what you're doing?" she says.
"I don't make any money. My life is so rich. I do what makes me happy and I follow those dreams and make those dreams reality."
"Like, how can you be a farmer and a river runner? Well, watch me fucking do it! I don't know, but I'll figure it out because that's the way it needs to be for me."
Lawrence's book, River House, publishes in October 2010.