–By Rick Vanderknyff, Vice President PCC Farmland Trust Board of Directors
A crop of new farmers have planted themselves on the Trust’s preserved farms in and around Orting, and one of the things taking root is a growing sense of community.
That was obvious in visiting the new farm businesses during the bustling Oct. 12 public tour in Orting, where there were plenty of tales of new neighbors pooling resources, sharing expertise and swapping labor.
In 2011, the Trust crafted and adopted a new strategic plan, one that put a new emphasis on preserving farms in geographic proximity, with hopes of creating a critical mass of small, family-scale farm operations that could not only lean on each for help and advice, but together start to build (or rebuild) the local infrastructure and other conditions needed for a sustainable farm economy.
Staff chose the Orting Valley, along the Puyallup River in Pierce County, as the first primary focus area (with the Snoqualmie Valley as a second area of focus). Since the plan was put into motion, the Trust has added the 120-acre Reise property in 2012 and the 95-acre Sturgeon property on July 1 this year, almost tripling the number of acres protected in Orting from 108 to 315 in just two years.
At the Sturgeon property, Lauren Manes and Garth Highsmith have set up shop as Dropstone Farms, specializing in grass-fed and pastured beef and poultry. Also this summer, Jeremy and Angela Sanford moved onto a 27-acre farm that was part of the Trust’s original Orting Farms project in 2008. Sanford’s Farm and Dropstone are direct neighbors to two other Trust-preserved properties, Tahoma Farms (run by Dan and Kim Hulse) and Little Eorthe Farm (operated by Carrie and Ken Little).
Meanwhile, a few miles down the valley on the other side of Orting, Cheryl Oullette has leased 90 acres of the Reise property from the Trust and has moved her organic pork business – she’s known as Cheryl the Pig Lady – onto the land. I met Cheryl (and some of her 120-odd pigs and piglets) for the first time on the public tour, and got a first-hand glimpse of the long-term vision she has for the Reise property.
What Cheryl wants to do next is lease the full 120 acres, as a home not only for her own growing business, but as a mentorship farm where young and beginning farmers can start to build their experience and their business credentials. Cheryl, who has connections with Washington State University and Evergreen College (and is president of Pierce Tilth) already has a tenant on the property – Brandon Harper, a former intern of hers who is subleasing five acres and has dubbed it All In Farm.
“There’s a trial and error period, when you get your hands in the dirt,” Cheryl said by phone a few days after the tour, when I called to hear more about her plans. A lot of young farmers come out of school with lots of enthusiasm and ambition, but little opportunity to test their newfound knowledge and use it to build the kind of experience (and nest egg) that can help them build to someday running their own business and buying their own land.
Part of the trick of preserving local farms forever – the Trust’s mission – is securing the land itself. But there is also the need to help enable a pipeline of organic farmers who are ready to move onto the land and build economically viable businesses.
Meanwhile, Cheryl is working in other ways with her new neighbors at the other end of the Orting Valley. She has bought organic feed from Carrie, of Little Eorthe farms, and helped Garth at Dropstone pick out his pigs. And when she was injured in a car accident last year, before moving onto the Reise property, employees of the Hulses at Tahoma Farms helped her keep her business going.
Other examples of neighborly cooperation are cropping up – exactly the early signs of success we were hoping to see when we embarked on the idea of geographic focus. Another sign comes in the form of Clean Food Farms, run by Sarah and Larry Bailey. They bought 10 acres and moved their organic operation (mostly eggs and chickens) from Snohomish County this year, partly because of the proximity to other organic businesses. They are right across the street from Dropstone.
I met Larry on the public tour and talked to him by phone a few days later. When he and Sarah decided to move their operation off leased land and buy their own property, they looked for a year before settling in Orting. The proximity of the Trust-preserved farms was a “big factor” he said, and having like-minded neighbors has been a hugely positive factor in their business.
“We cooperate all the time. It’s a big deal. It’s something you don’t really understand unless you’re a farmer,” Larry said. For instance, when it came time to buy western juniper wood for fencing – organic farmers can’t use treated wood, and the preferred juniper is hard to come by – he and several of his neighbors got together to buy a full load and have it delivered.
And when the Baileys looked to have 180 fence post holes dug on their property, they got an estimate of $5,000, which didn’t include the materials or the labor of clearing the land. So he shopped and found a “barely used” post pounder for $1,200, he and his neighbors pooled their resources to buy. He rattled off other examples – all in just a few months of living near each other in Orting.
When there’s a common issue, he said, “We just pool our resources, put our heads together, and figure it out.”
As a board member, I first walked the Reise and Sturgeon properties about two years ago, before their acquisitions were complete. The Orting Valley has rich, prime soils and more than a century of farming history, but like other nearby areas is under threat from residential and commercial development, and from the decline (from various factors) of the conventional farming economy. At the time we walked the land, Sturgeon had been platted for estate-size homes, and while parts of Reise were being farmed (conventionally), the barn and other structures were falling into disrepair and the future of the property was uncertain.
What I and other visitors saw on the October tour was the stirring of new agricultural life in the valley – and signs that a real organic farming community may be taking shape. Just what we were hoping for.
“All of us are working together to make us all succeed,” Cheryl told me. “It’s going to take more than one farm to feed this foodshed.”