Note: This is an article I wrote for the “Fall City Neighbors” quarterly newsletter, June, 2012 and is slightly modified here.
If one took a leisurely drive along State Route 203 from Fall City to Monroe in 1979, the Snoqualmie Valley watershed would have looked much the way it does today. But if you looked closely, you could not help noticing the general expanse of fallow farmland, dotted with empty barns and abandoned farmhouses; all quiet reminders of what was once a thriving agricultural community. Then as now, there were still a few dairy farms at the extreme ends of the valley—last vestiges of an industry that had spanned nearly 50 years.
Indeed, beginning in 1917 with Carnation Farm, the eventual home of “Contented Cows”, dairy farms proliferated exponentially over the next 20 years. By1940, on the west side of the highway alone, there were 23 fully operational dairy farms between Carnation and Duvall. From the Snohomish County line to Fall City, on both sides of the Snoqualmie River, there was roughly one dairy farm every forty acres. From Fall City to Novelty Hill Rd, the list of dairy families is long; Sato, Cowin, Alexander, Prescott, Richter, Juliana, Bergsma, Qualley, Keller, Swanson, Parsons, Shanke, Reed, Hailstone, Williams, Robertson, Schiedegger, Larson, McDewitt, plus at least 45 more. Twice a day, milk trucks from Carnation Milk Products, Darigold and other distributors stopped every mile or two picking up full milk cans at each farm and dropping empties. By 1991, there were less than five dairies in operation. What happened?
The answer is at once simple and complex; from the end of WWII forward, the small American family farm was steadily replaced by corporate agribusiness and the “mega-factory farm”. In the Snoqualmie Valley, tighter food production safety laws and the general consolidation of milk product production/distribution systems put heavy financial demands on small dairies. By 1967, a dairy needed to handle 400 + cows to meet expenses and make a small profit. Most of the dairies in the Valley had traditionally supported no more than 100 cows and simply could not afford the cost of the upgrade or the sanitary improvements and regulations directed at their farm infrastructure. Finally, of course, the reduced wholesale price generated by ‘factory dairies’ with 1500 + cows in production made the small dairy farm difficult to sustain.
There was at the same time a general diaspora within rural communities; fewer young people wanted to stay on the family farm and continue the traditions of their forbears. Urban life and the promise of high paying jobs in industry and other fields steadily drew them off the farm—often leaving their parents with no option but to sell and/or shut the operation down. Finally, as agribusiness grew and the pressure to ‘get big or get out’ mounted, many farms whose families wanted to continue were simply pushed into bankruptcy and forced to auction off their farms and family history. Some, like many in the Snoqualmie Valley, managed to keep their land but retired from farming or changed professions.
After 1960 or so, a slow agricultural stillness enveloped the Valley. By1980 it was quiet but not entirely dead.
In the wake of the Vietnam War, refugees from North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos began making their way to the US. Some were the so-called ‘Boat People’, others were the Hmong. These latter had made up the US ‘Secret Army’ in Laos who were enlisted to fight a guerrilla war with the North Vietnamese. When the War ended and Laos was re-occupied by the communists, the Hmong fighters and their families were in great jeopardy. After many desperate appeals, the US State Department began to assist them offering sanctuary in the States. Families came piecemeal to Northern California, Washington State, Montana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Beginning around 1978 Hmong families began settling in the Snoqualmie Valley and their numbers increased over the next two decades.
Like all immigrants, the Hmong brought their cultural traditions with them. As ‘slash and burn’ farmers, the Hmong had sustained themselves agriculturally in Asia for thousands of years. In the Snoqualmie Valley, their incredible work ethic and skills allowed them to thrive by growing and selling flowers at the Pike Place Market and other public venues. Steadily, they added vegetable crops to their fields and expanded production by leasing and buying parcels of what was once dairy pasture.
Coincidentally, interest in farming was growing among educated, middle class young Americans who, for a variety of reasons were finding life in corporate America unfulfilling. Many had been part of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s and 70s who, in reaction to “The Establishment”, advocated a return to simpler living, healthy food and local economies. “Back to the Land” was a rallying cry and after initial efforts to start agrarian based “intentional communities”, a few individuals started out on their own. Some of those early communities did survive and continue to this day; notably, the Tennessee Farm, Alpha in Oregon, and Findhorn in Scotland.
Certainly, early awareness of looming environmental crises, resource degradation and unsustainable agricultural practices had become central drivers for many who had not really been a part of the counter-culture or other resistance groups. Concerns about the nutritional value and safety of food produced via agribusiness were becoming wide spread among consumers. By the late 1980s, a new generation of people in search of a life in farming was appearing on the east and west coasts of America. The Snoqualmie Valley was no exception and over the next two decades it became a mecca in Western Washington for the surge of interest in organic farming.
Erick Haakensen, owner of Jubilee Farm and Michaele Blakely, owner of Growing Things Farm were at the vanguard in the Valley. Pioneers both, they, like most of those who followed, had no farming history and came to it from other professions. Erick has a Masters Degree in Philosophy and Michaele was a Montessori teacher. Without benefit of inheritance or mentors, they had to learn ‘how to farm’ on their own. Farming was a personal ‘choice’ born of their quest for a ‘meaningful life’. And so it has been for those who come year after year to the Valley. They choose to farm in a world where they could choose to do almost anything else. And, not the least, their ‘meaningful’ lives also earn them a living.
Today, of course, you can make that same leisurely drive up Hwy 203 but now you will see an array of hoop houses and long straight rows of vegetables dominating the once grassy fields. In the fall, pumpkins abound as do lines of cars along the roads and the fields are filled with families gathering their golden treasures. There are two Farmers Markets, Carnation and Duvall, that make fresh produce available from June to November.
Just across the bridge in Fall City, after the ‘round-about’ on Neal Road, is Fall City Farms. It has been under management by Rob and Debbie Arenth since 1984 and its history with them is a microcosm of many of the changes in agriculture the Valley has experienced over the past 30 years.
Rob came to it from his work as a dairyman in Snohomish and when he and Debbie took over, they raised cattle (around 200 cows) until the mid 90s. After the big flood, Rob decided to reduce the livestock activity and try some crops They tried garlic and some corn and, by then had expanded the farm infrastructure a bit and started a little farm store to sell their products. The flooding made garlic a challenge; it requires early planting and often gets the brunt of spring floods. Nonetheless, Rob noticed the changes going on in the valley, particularly in the fall; vegetables were slowly becoming the prominent crop.
One autumn in particular, he noticed a growing line of cars snaking its way down his road and when several stopped and their occupants asked if he had pumpkins for sale and he told them to go to Remlinger’s and they said, “He’s sold out!—the light came on. Rob started growing pumpkins and it has been a mainstay of the farm ever since. As we all know, fall in the Valley is pumpkin time at all the new farms and it seems they can’t grow enough.
Later, Rob decided to add some Christmas trees to his operation and now has a small tree farm on the property which fills out the season from the week after Thanksgiving ‘til Christmas. Fall City Farms is open to the public from late September (beginning with the King County Fall Harvest Farm Tour) to Christmas. In addition to the Country Store they offer farm tours as well as host weddings and other special events.
Looking out from the Highway Interchange at Fall City, one can choose Hwy 202 or 203; either offers access to farm country. Continuing North on 203 past Fall City Farms, you will encounter rows of flowers and vegetables on both sides of the road; The Children’s Garden Farm owned by Fong Cha. Fong is one of the Valley’s Hmong farmers who arrived in 1978 from Laos. Next is Full Circle Farm owned by Andrew Stout. Full Circle is the largest of the new organic farms with over 400 acres in cultivation at various locations in the Valley and provides year-round CSA subscriptions State-wide.
Take Hwy 202 toward Redmond, turn right onto 324th, and you are immediately in farm country. Many of these are old dairy sites but sprinkled here and there are new sections with vegetables and flowers. Our Hmong population leases many of them and owns others; Pho Pa Cha and Tong Cha are significant growers. You will also pass a feed lot of Water Buffalo!
When you come to the “T”, turn right again onto West Snoqualmie River Road and begin a 4 mile stretch containing many of the new farms.; John Hushley’s “Nature’s Last Stand” is across from what was Tall Chief Golf Course; then another Hmong farm (Pho Pa Cha); then Ryan Lichtenegger’s “Hands on Farm”; then Erick and Wendy Haakensen’s Jubilee Farm, the largest on the road; then Matt and Deanna’s “Soil to Seed” Farm; Dave and Laura Casey’s “Changing Seasons Farm” and then Dan Beyers’ “One Leaf” Farm. These last two have Hmong fields on either side.
At the end of the Road is the Snoqualmie River Bridge and Carnation. Of course there are more new farms north of town all the way to Duvall—a dozen or more located on both sides of the river. All of them, north and south, occupy former dairy farms and many have restored historic farmsteads and barns.
Now, as the second decade of the 21st Century begins, it is abundantly clear that agriculture has made a come-back in the Snoqualmie Valley. In addition to demonstrating the productive viability of the small farm as an alternative to agribusiness and the mega ‘factory’ farm, this resurgence has revitalized a locally based economy. Family farms are once again bound together by a community of young farmers who are reinstating the values and traditions that historically characterized farming communities all over America.