Living in the Pacific Northwest, its difficult to imagine that nationwide, the number of total farms in the US is still in decline. I see flyers and receive notifications about new CSA’s near Seattle every year. In Jefferson County, on the Olympic Peninsula, the pattern holds. The bulk of these farms are certified organic, and/or focused on sustainability. Many are new within the last few years.
For those of us residing in pockets of the country where small farms are springing up in and around urban communities, we forget that nationwide, Big Ag reigns, and small farms are considered a quaint antiquated idea, not viable. In Western Washington, we don’t see the thousands upon thousands of acres where growing food means machines, chemicals, subsidies and corporations.
Because of this, owning and operating a small farm, a 20+ acre parcel of land, which gives as much or more to the community and to the environment as it takes, is a radical, even subversive act.
Too Busy for Radical
Karyn Williams, of Red Dog Farm, isn’t an organic agriculture activist or organizer. She doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about her role as pioneer in a new order of farming. She has too many other things that require her attention.
She’s a young, single woman running a busy farm with a handful of helpers. She’s not riding around on her tractor imagining herself as a torch bearer and role model for the next generation of young people interested in growing food. She’s engrossed in growing 150 different kinds of vegetables, berries, flowers and plant starts, which includes everything from studying the weather to fixing tractors and teaching farm hands to operate them, to ordering seed, planting, fertilizing and selling the products.
Karyn’s spent the last 7 years making Red Dog what it is today, a thriving small organic vegetable farm. For six of those years, her commitment meant living in a trailer on the property, and she’s still breaking in her new farmhouse.
I had wanted to meet Karyn since I started buying vegetables from their honor system farm stand several years ago. The small building housing the self-service coolers is the first one at the end of the gravel lane off Center Road in Chimacum. Customers simply drive up and choose what they want, without interrupting the business of farming. Its open seven days a week, year round, from eight to eight, making it easy to stop in and buy local produce. Being from the city, I was captivated by this idea. I admired Karyn, whoever she was. I couldn’t really understand how the stand could succeed, and wondered if it would last. Fortunately for me, and clearly for a lot of other people, the idea works. Chimacum is not the city…
I finally met the elusive Karyn when we spent a day together making sausage with mutual friends. I told her that I’d basically been stalking her farm for the last several years and was happy to finally have a chance to meet the young woman who pulled this off. Since it was December, we agreed that spring would be a better time for me to come for a visit with my camera.
A Day at Red Dog Farm
Clearly, I had to make friends with him before I was going anywhere…
With provisional acceptance, Ru and I headed toward the barn. Karyn dashed by to help Ben adjust the the spreader he was pulling behind the tractor, calling over her shoulder, “Hi, talk to you in a minute”. It was his first day at the wheel of the tractor.
Already mid-morning at 9:30 am, the work of the day was in full swing and a pile of coats and hats was quickly filling a wheel barrow at the end of a row when I met the rest of the crew.
A sunny day in March means the ground is dry enough to get equipment into the field, and preparing the ground for planting and fertilizing takes top priority.
Ben and Karyn soon had the tractor and spreader organized again, and he, Laura and Devon loaded it over and over with pelletized chicken manure.
Laura and Devon hoed long rows of early season crops, while Karyn drove a smaller tractor, one with so much personality it should have a name. When I commented that it looks as if it has a lazy eye, she told me that she had purchased it from an long time farmer up the road who advised her to never buy a tractor with working headlights – “It will keep you out in the field when you should be finished for the day”.
Ru, like a good working farm dog, kept an eye on me and everyone else, making sure that everything was running smoothly while Maggie, one of Ru’s two year old offspring, was kept tied up adjacent to the field where she could feel like she was part of the action. She’s still recovering from a tough surgery after being hit by a car in the driveway.
Hoop houses opened to the warm spring air, filled with the earliest plantings of salad mix and flats of seedlings waiting for warmer weather to go into the ground. More vegetable starts as well as storage crops from last season were for sale in the farm stand. Baby spinach, Laura’s favorite crop, is available almost year round, but wasn’t yet in the coolers this spring. March and early April are the exceptions.
While the farm is a busy place this time of year, This is only the beginning. A new farm hand or two was expected to arrive every week for the next few, totaling 12 at the height of harvest season.
At lunch the five of us sat chatting in open shed fitted with a basic kitchen, looking out over the fields and enjoying the rare day of warm sunshine in March. Rain was predicted for the next day. Karyn, Laura, Devon and Ben each told me a bit about the circuitous routes they’d traveled to come to farming on the Olympic peninsula. Coming from Seattle, Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Florida, none of them hail from farming backgrounds, a similarity I’ve noted among most of the young farmers I’ve met.
Lounging or napping in the sunshine until its time to go back to work must be obligatory after lunch on sunny days. It also seems to be obligatory that you enjoy what you are doing if you’re working here… either that or its simply infectious.
I asked Karyn about what it was like to arrive in Jefferson County when she first moved to a farm near Quilcene in 2005, after two years WWOOFing in Europe and studying sustainable agriculture at Evergreen State College. I imagined that it might be lonely or challenging to be a young, female newcomer in the farm community, but she said it was easy to meet people and make friends simply by going to the markets and talking to people.
Sitting around the table with this group, I sense that ease, and knowing a handful of other people farming in the area, I recognize that this is true.
I’ll Be Back
I’m always reluctant to leave this valley, and fortunately, when I say good bye to Ru, Karyn and the rest of the gang, I still have another couple stops to make before heading home, and know that I’ll be back before long.
Today, most everything we read about commercial agricultural practices in this country is in some way alarming, yet I can’t help but be hopeful about the future when I spend time around young farmers who are actually making small sustainable farms work. Sure they work hard, but what I encounter at Red Dog, and have noted before, is that a sense of community and love for the land emerges through the work and leaves even a visitor with a feeling of well-being.