Photo: Melanie Conner
–by Brenda Campbell, our Stewardship & Community Education Coordinator
In mid May, PCC Farmland Trust held our 2012 Spring Walla Walla Farm Tour with over 100 participants touring two organic farms: the historic Williams Hudson Bay Farm and Bennington Place. With registration nearly full, the tour was split into two groups to maintain the intimate quality of the event but also to minimize the impact on the refreshment tables overflowing with fresh-from-the-oven saucer-sized cookies courtesy of Walla Walla Bread Company and the glistening glass containers full of cool lemonade!
With the sun sitting high on the horizon, Joel Huesby, the gracious gentleman that he is, welcomed the first round of tour guests to Bennington Place with a firm handshake and an enveloping smile. Joel’s passion for sustainable farming is infectious and the moment he began to speak, the group was inspired by his dedication to sustainable farming. Leading the group up to the top of Bennington hill, Joel discussed everything from basics of plant physiology, to his new business model of growing pumpkins and squash, to the importance of establishing organic agricultural corridors.
With a shovel in hand, Joel loosened the earth, reached down and grabbed a handful of soil, rubbing the granules between his thumb and forefinger. This was not simply playing in the dirt, but a scientific analysis which Joel conducts countless times every day. His calloused fingers probed the earth like highly calibrated instruments, conducting a biological assessment of the soil to gather moisture content, soil composition, and temperature data. A self proclaimed “recovering farmer,” Joel knows all too well that the most important thing he can do as a sustainable farmer is to nurture and maintain the natural nutrient balance of his soil. If you ask Joel what he grows, he’ll often flash a giant grin and simply reply, “Dirt.”
Being a 4th generation farmer of Bennington Place Farm, and currently raising the 5th, Joel and Cynthia Huesby are proud to be passing the torch to their children, sharing with them lessons learned and the delicate balancing act of how to use the laws of nature to their benefit. Ultimately, they’re doing something many of us aspire to do: simply leave our world in a better state than when we inherited it.
After nearly two hours, Joel and Cynthia, standing side by side, waved farewell to their guests as the tires crunched down the gravel driveway heading for the next stop of the tour. Having caught a brief glimpse into the complex world of an organic farmer, some participants left Bennington Place with a new found appreciation for those who diligently and lovingly grow food.
Just a short distance down the Stateline Road, straddling the Washington-Oregon border at the historic Williams Hudson Bay Farm, brothers Ray and Tom waited for their second tour group to arrive. The brothers kicked things off with a show-and-tell of sorts, demonstrating how the fruits of their labor are showing up on store shelves nationwide. Among the products proudly displayed: a bottle of vodka from Bainbridge Organic Distillers that boasts the brothers’ soft white wheat; flour from Fairhaven Organic Mill, consisting of the Williams’ stone ground wheat; the black beans used in Annie’s products; and packages of Bob’s Red Mill, who use the Williams red wheat. The list went on and on, serving as a reminder to everyone that even packaged food actually does come from farms.
Williams Hudson Bay Farm is considered to be on the large side of a medium-scale operation, and is comprised of over 3,000 acres, 300 of which are preserved by the Farmland Trust. Knowing that they had a little less than 2 hours in which to complete the tour, the Williams determined there simply wasn’t enough time to see everything on foot, so they tried to answer some of the big questions such as, “What do people want to know about our farm?” “What do they want to see?” And most important of all, “What farm tour would be complete without a good old fashioned hayride?”
So after a visit to the leggy dairy heifers and a short course in Farm Equipment 101, Ray corralled the group and loaded us up for a little hayride to see a distant corner of the farm. With Captain Tom Williams at the helm safely guiding wide eyed participants down Stateline Road, we passed by fields of alfalfa on our way to see Farmer Dan, a man leasing land from the Williams to grow row after row of the famed Walla Walla Sweet onion. Sitting atop giant bales with the wind blowing in our hair, Ray could be heard proudly rattling off farm facts such as “These bales are probably the first alfalfa baled in the State!”
Down in the onion patch, the air was thick with a sweet pungent odor as the warm Eastern Washington sun neared that stagnant 5 o’clock position high in the sky. The group listened intently as Dan described the trial-and-error gambling process every farmer has to go through in an effort to perfect this season’s crop. He taught the importance of cover cropping not only as a means of replacing nutrients leached from the soil, but also as a sustainable form of weed control. Last year, he took a gamble on planting mustard as a means of reducing weed growth in the onions, which so far seems to be paying off.
As Dan was wrapping up and the sun was beating down, it looked like our hardy tour group could probably benefit from a little nutrient replenishment themselves! So back on the bales we scrambled as Tom guided us back to their farm for another round of delectable cookies and refreshing lemonade.
By all accounts, the 2012 Spring Walla Walla Tour was a success. For the Farmland Trust, it’s all about bringing people out to a farm, letting them wander through the rows to learn where their food comes from, talk to a farmer, and gain a better understanding of the complex systems involved in being an organic producer. For most of us, it’s a simple task to run out and grab a bite whenever those hunger pangs hit. But the tours help serve as a reminder of the complex farming, transportation, production, and marketing systems that our food has traveled through prior to passing over our lips and entering our own digestive systems. Sometimes it feels as if people leave the farms with more questions than answers–and that’s a success, too.
Hope to see you on the farm next time!