[Homestead] Hey, Gene !

Toni Hawryluk tonihawr at msn.com
Thu Sep 9 14:13:20 EDT 2004

Hey, Gene ! Here's what I perceive as your idea

of citizen-"forester".  Which is a great thing in itself.

And good for everybody.  "Everybody", however,

as in human-body.


Which is about 180 degrees from my idea of *Forest* -

As in *Gaia* being Mother Earth and damage to her

is damage to every"body" which includes *all Life*.

Of which some great majority of humans is only a 

ruinous part (including me since my greatest range of

mobility happens through the driving power of petroleum

and all the mechanics of search/transfer/produce/transfer/

utilize-pollute/waste-transfer-"dispose" in a vehicle) ..


I removed the photos to somewhat scale down transfer 

time for those who pay by-the-minute but left in the links 

in case somebody would like to see ..


Citizen-farmers are preserving the land and harvesting a dream


The Seattle Post Intelligencer

USA - SAMMAMISH VALLEY -- Like an old, old soul of farming -- as much as you can be after five years -- Roger Calhoon knows all the reasons why a crop might go bust.

Take last year's drought, for instance, when the blueberry crop was a total loss and the corn grew stunted instead of reaching for the sky.

At the South 47 Farm near Redmond, general manager Roger Calhoon refers to his grid map as he lays out a corn maze, which will be open to the public. Among the cooperative venture's many features are, above, sunflowers, tomatoes, chard and artichokes. Mike Urban / Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Click for larger photo<http://www.msnbc.com/m/c/l/LOCAL.ASP?url=http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/photos/photo.asp?PhotoID=49307>

Or this past spring, when a wireworm got into the fragrant Chandler strawberries, and they produced far fewer of their sweet early fruits.

Or when the county started construction work on the four-lane arterial in front of his farmland, choking off commuters who might otherwise have pulled over for U-pick potatoes and succulent thornless blackberries.

"It was totally devastating, but that's business. That's farming, I guess," said Calhoon, a biochemist by trade.

A mix of traditional and modern farming -- both the high points and the low -- have been part of Calhoon's life since 1999. That's when he and 17 other investors and dreamers banded together to form FARM LLC (Farm Acquisition, Research & Management), a company aimed at preserving farmland and proving that urban farming could be a viable business.

In the years since the self-taught group bought the South 47 Farm near Redmond, along with two nearby properties, FARM LLC has become a microlaboratory for almost every way modern farmers are experimenting to survive. Its 70.1 acres form a quilted, pesticide-free oasis of fruits, vegetables, flowers, herbs and animals, all in a suburban valley where it is more common to find strip-mall developments and traffic jams.

The citizen-farmers have done more than just get by, notching up devoted-customer numbers and sales last year that ranged from 400 dozen eggs to more than 4 tons of berries. As their fall season begins today with the opening of their popular corn maze -- healthy and tall this time, cut in the shape of a farmer with a horse-drawn plow -- they will have another chance to prove whether they can thrive.

FARM LLC investors had hoped to turn their first profit last year. They were stymied by the road construction and by weather that turned their corn, normally a prime family attraction and moneymaker, into a "drought maze" of withered stalks.

After five years of work, the group debated whether it was on the right track, asking, "Are we in or are we out?" said member and spokeswoman Christine Dubois, a writer in her non-farm life.

They all cared terribly about making the project work, said member Jennifer Beers, a software engineer with Microsoft. But it had to work as a living farm that could survive for the long term, she said, not as a piece of nostalgia propped up each time by financial bailouts.

Everywhere on the farm, the members saw ways it could succeed. 

Some customers visited the South 47 Farm this year to pick apples from young trees bearing their first crops. Others wandered the neat paths of the formal herb garden, brimming with summer savory, 12 kinds of mint and lavender-blossomed anise hyssop. 

Some dove into the cheerful rows of larkspur and zinnia in the U-pick flower patch or watched the colorful chickens laying eggs, which are sold from the half-sized refrigerator near the business office down the road.

Those who didn't want to gather their own produce stopped by the small retail table that offered pyramids of tomatoes, freshly arranged bouquets and other bounties from the fields.

A former horse pasture now holds P-patch plots staffed by 66 gardeners who till impeccable riots of vegetables and blooms. Larger fields are sublet to vegetable and flower farmers, along with other enterprises (including the crème de la crème Herb Farm restaurant) that want to grow their own produce but need only a few acres to do it.

That sort of variety and experimentation is key for the modern urban farm, said Steve Evans, "farmbudsman" for King County.

"It's the farm of the future for around here," he said. "Even though the challenge is that it's on the urban fringe, the blessing is that it's on the urban fringe. 

There are a lot of people right here, there is a ready market right here, so you can do a variety of things that will add value to your product that people will want."

After last year's debate, the investors -- who have an eight-member management committee that meets monthly for major decisions -- decided to remain on the same general path, but to streamline the efforts. 

They eliminated some products, such as the duck eggs they once sold along with the chicken eggs (ducks produce fewer eggs and they're less in demand), and dropped some of the festivals that were fun, but also hard work and not profitable.

It's all part of a constant process of trial and error that has been part of their lives since FARM LLC members were first galvanized to form.

"We're trying to create a third-generation family farm in a few years," Calhoon said.

Michelle Jensen, the farm's educational coordinator, tends the flower stand. The operators of the farm believe in the importance of preserving farmland. Mike Urban / Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Click for larger photo<http://www.msnbc.com/m/c/l/LOCAL.ASP?url=http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/photos/photo.asp?PhotoID=49308>                                                                                                                

The members were all customers at The Root Connection, one of the oldest "farm shares" in the state, which provided weekly bags of fresh-picked produce to subscribers who paid a seasonal fee.

One day Root Connection owner Claire Thomas, who had leased the 11.7 acres of land between Redmond and Woodinville, warned her customers that the property was about to be sold. That is an all-too-familiar scenario in King County, where -- like most urban areas, land prices are soaring and open space is fast giving way to shopping centers and luxury cul-de-sacs.

FARM LLC's land avoided the usual fate when Thomas called her members with an unusual question: Could they buy the farm and become her new landlords?

"I realized that was something people wanted to happen," Thomas said. "I also knew, to be blunt, there were a lot of people with a lot of money over here. And I guess I really didn't ponder on it that much. It was just a matter of trying, basically, to keep my business."

In a scene that's now part of FARM LLC lore, Root Connection members wrote on small slips of paper the amount they could contribute toward buying the farm, starting at $1,000. They collected the slips and added the total. To their shock, they had enough.

It was a leap of faith, but Root Connection had been too much a part of their lives to let it go without a fight, said Dubois, adding, "What would our lives be like without Claire's farm?"

And, said Beers, as one of the people who have moved out to the valley in recent years, she felt responsible for finding good ways for development to take place. Supporting a healthy farm seemed to cut across so many crucial issues for the area, she said, from providing jobs to environmental benefits.

FARM LLC was officially incorporated with $479,000 in investments from the 18 founding members. More has been added since, from the original investors and from new members, DuBois said. The Root Connection property soon was bought for $183,000. Thomas still operates it, along with other family members. FARM LLC also bought the LLC Ranch property down the road, for $430,000, and the South 47 Farm, for $250,000.

  Brian Scheehser, executive chef at the Hunt Club at the Sorrenton Hotel, picks early sweet corn from his P-patch at the South 47 Farm. Mike Urban / Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Click for larger photo<http://www.msnbc.com/m/c/l/LOCAL.ASP?url=http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/photos/photo.asp?PhotoID=49309>

King County officials wanted to see the property preserved as well. It chipped in $900,000 to buy development rights to the South 47 Farm, ensuring that it would always remain agricultural land. The land is part of the Farmland Preservation Program, a $60 million campaign approved by voters in 1979, under which the county has bought development rights to about 13,112 acres, program coordinator Judy Herring said.

The investors had saved their farm. Now they had to figure out what to do with it.

Tourist attractions such as a corn maze weren't part of the original plan, Calhoon said. But the members soon learned that families who came for the corn maze or a pumpkin patch might stay on to learn about farming life, dig Yellow Finn potatoes, pick violet-podded stringless beans or choose a bouquet of sunflowers.

Some farms operate successfully on just a single crop each year, such as strawberries, Calhoon said. But the FARM LLC group wanted to attract people to the farm year-round -- one of its missions is to educate the public about farmland -- and to spread their risk out over a broader array of crops.

Take the strawberries, for instance. The nascent farmers thought they could find a good niche by offering berries that ripened a few weeks earlier than others around Puget Sound. Instead, Calhoon said, customers weren't expecting the spring fruit so early. They weren't prepared to come pick strawberries until after the South 47 crop was gone. In time, he believes, that will change.

Calhoon already is thinking ahead to what new projects might help the farm break through to its next level: perhaps drying herbs from its fields for winter use or infusing them in oils or soaps or drying beans, maybe, and packaging them for soup mix. 

A pilot project with edamame beans last year didn't take root, but there are always other crops to try and attractions that might bring people through the front gates.

"We've always had faith that it's going to work. It's just getting there," Calhoon said.

The farm employs 24 people during various seasons, some of whom began as volunteers who liked FARM LLC's mission. But what Calhoon thought would be a simple role for himself -- signing some paychecks -- has turned into a farming jack-of-all-trades position that has him serving on the county's agricultural commission.

One recent day his schedule was packed: Graph the weekly sales, finish payroll and pay quarterly taxes, continue designing and cutting the 6.1-acre corn maze, drive to The Home Depot for some lumber, take samples for a soil test, complete a rental agreement.

Then, "I've been neglecting the bees," he said.

Calhoon and the other FARM LLC members (only a few investors regularly work on the land) mostly gained their expertise from books and colleagues, liberally seeking information from extension services and other agricultural resources.

While they could have hired experts to run the farm, some knowledge simply has to be gained hands-on, learning the quirks of that particular piece of land, Beers said.

Practical help was always available from Thomas, the resident "farming visionary." What the new farmers mostly needed wasn't nuts and bolts, she said, but a philosophy.

"The mindset from people who are used to a different working environment is not the farmer's mindset," Thomas said. "Basically, you have to be a total optimist and at the same time you have got to expect that every single thing that can go wrong, will.

"There is no such thing as 'it can wait until tomorrow.' There is no 'time management.' You have to kind of go out there and say, 'This needs to be done.' "


P-I reporter Rebekah Denn can be reached at 206-448-8190 or rebekahdenn at seattlepi.com
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