I made a book about organic vegetable farmers in the Snoqualmie Valley of Western Washington.
When I started in April 2009, I only knew that the book would contain photographs of the farms, the farmers and their life histories. Beyond that, I had no idea what I was getting into. I soon learned—and was given a host of delightful and profound surprises.
With three exceptions, none of the 17 farmers I interviewed had farming of any kind in their family history. Rather, most had Masters Degrees in fields unrelated to agriculture; Law, Public Administration, Philosophy, Environmental Science, Civil Engineering, Education, International Economics, English, and Computer Science. The exceptions—a third and fourth generation pair of dairy farmers and an Eastern Washington cattleman’s daughter whose parents moved to the Valley in 1950 and started a subsistence farm. With this news, there came another, equally unexpected revelation.
Given their non-agricultural history, these new farmers had to learn, via experience and literature, how to farm “from the ground up”. They were forced to rediscover agrarian principles and practices that were, prior to WWII, common knowledge to upwards of 40% of the American population. Since 1950, the decline in family farms steadily moved that population to urban centers. And, with the advent of governmentally subsidized agribusiness and the ‘factory farm’ (mandated by Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz in 1970—“Get big or get out!”), less than 1% of the population is now involved in agriculture. The average age of American farmers is 55 years or older.
Therefore, when these new farmers began their work in the late 1980s, there were no farms in the Valley (save one or two leftover dairy farms) and so there was virtually no one to pass traditions on to them. Indeed, in the beginning, they were often told by Valley residents that what they were trying really couldn’t be done; “You can’t make a living growing vegetables here!” Undaunted, they hit the books and the fields and precipitated what has become an agricultural renaissance in the Valley. Now, after more than twenty years, there are fifteen organic farms within the 17 miles between the towns of Fall City and Duvall, Washington.
But why did they try and why do they continue? Do they make a living?
They are ‘idealists’. They choose to be farmers when they live in a world where they could choose to be almost anything else. To a person, each tells a story of a search for a “meaningful life” which they found unattainable on the usual ‘career path’ promoted in our acquisition-driven society. They did not choose to be farmers because it would guarantee a six-figure income with a retirement plan. They did choose knowing full well it meant hard labor (90% hand work) performed seven days a week, often 18 hours a day for a modest income; all accomplished at the mercy of weather, pests, and in the Snoqualmie Valley—annual flooding. Not one of them regrets their decision. Indeed, they find each day spent in direct contact with the soil, seasons, and the cycle from seed to harvest is restorative rather than debilitating; the body is tired but the spirit is refreshed.
Contrary to the early admonitions from their neighbors, they are indeed making a living at their “idealism”. Jubilee Biodynamic Farm, owned and operated by Erick and Wendy Haakensen, has a maximum of 14 acres in cultivation, (some seasons less) and supports a herd of 65 cows, chickens and up to six pigs. Jubilee is the largest farm I documented and it earns approximately $500,000.00 annually.
The smallest farm I covered, Changing Seasons Farm, is a part time operation owned and operated by Dave and Laura Casey, and it earns less than $20,000.00 a year from two acres. The other seven farms in my book fall between these extremes for income with only one other part time operation—Game Haven Farm operated by Susan and J.J. Schmoll.
All of them embrace the economic philosophy of E.L. Schumacher (author of “Small is Beautiful”) which declares “This much and no more” as its fiscal standard; a form of steady-state economics which seeks its rewards from having enough but not too much. They resist the temptation, especially when it comes on the heels of a good harvest year, to expand—to grow more and thereby fall into that other philosophy (the American Dream) which holds that resources are limitless and so is profit.
Nonetheless, the question remains, “How do they make a living; who buys their product?” The answer is linked to their “small is beautiful” philosophy.
As a co-evolutionary trend in American commerce, a group of consumers has developed parallel to organic farmers which now demands “organic” local food products. In part this has developed from a growing mistrust in the safety of agri-business products consequence of significant food poisoning incidents on a national scale. Deaths from E-coli outbreaks have caused massive recalls of hamburger, eggs and green vegetables, panicked consumers and forced increased scrutiny of the actual contents and production methods of food products. This, plus the steady increase in obesity in all adults and children leading to an increase in Type II diabetes, has driven anxious mothers and “foodies” to Farmers Markets everywhere. And, there are now consumers who have made finding fresh, organic, local food products a moral and political imperative; a grass roots backlash against a society evermore dominated by corporations. Management at a distance has pushed the separation between producer and consumer to the breaking point. Now, when a health issue appears in the food we eat, those responsible are well-nigh impossible to find. Knowing your farmer has become, for many, a necessity for good health.
With the growing demand, the number of small organic farms has increased proportionately. In addition to Farmers Markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs have become more prominent. The consumer buys a “share” in the harvest from any given farm which guarantees a box of fresh produce every week of the growing season for $25-$30 per week. Memberships are full every season here in the Snoqualmie Valley and some farms, like Jubilee Farm, are exclusively CSA farms. Beyond these, Seattle area restaurants now purchase fresh local produce from Valley farms to feature on their menus as healthy flavor-rich additions to the cuisine.
Marketing is one thing, but the real “surprise” that greeted me in the Valley is more cultural than monetary. In the beginning, what may have had (and still does in some ways) the aspect of just another “fad” has become, in the wider sense, a real sub-culture. What was once a “trendy” thing to do on a Saturday afternoon is now a way of life.
If we humans are anything, we are social animals. We prefer the company of those we know and trust; we do not do well in isolation. However, life at a distance has become the current norm for Americans who contact their neighbors, friends and family primarily through some form of media. Less and less time is spent with informal social groups and family physically gathered simply for the pursuit of ordinary activities without the presence of external media input; the family sit-down dinner as a nightly ritual is largely a thing of the past. Rather than physically visit our friends, we often prefer to “chat” via Facebook. Yet we will insist we are, because of the internet, cell phones, and television, more connected than ever before.
In our relationship with food, the distances are even greater. Nearly everything in the supermarket travels at least 1500 miles from point of origin to the shelf. We have few if any clues as to who grew it or the exact location of the farms it came from. And, of course, our understanding of the organic processes which produce the food itself—seeds, soil, growing seasons, compost, etc.—are barely within awareness beyond grammar school science class. As a society, our existence depends entirely upon sources and distribution networks completely beyond our purview and control. That control, as already noted, is primarily held by multi-national corporations.
As I moved through the growing season of 2009, going farm to farm, making in excess of 1500 photographs, I witnessed not only the abundance of crops but a revitalization of traditional rural community. Each farmer is cultivating personal customer relationships with the same dedication s/he devotes to the soil and its produce. In turn, customers have come to value “their farmer” as an essential entity and contributor to their lives.
The larger farms experience a steady stream of clientele daily arriving to take their children to “Farm School” with Farmer Erick or Wendy or Sarah or Adam. Parents and children show up for U-pick to glean whatever is ready for harvest. Some turn out for “Work-Share” to receive a CSA box in exchange for 4 hours labor or to simply pick up their weekly CSA subscription share. From June through October the farms are bustling with visitors, clients, workers and continuous harvest. In the fall, there are harvest celebrations, pig roasts and barn dances. I had to pinch myself to realize I was a mere 20 miles from a major urban center (Seattle, WA) and not back in the 1920s where this way of life was commonplace across the American landscape.
What I experienced on the farms and subsequently in each interview with each farmer was a deep internal response that in fact was an answer to a basic human necessity. Being reconnected in this way to my fellow humans, the ones who are sustained by growing food for had relieved a long denied hunger in my psyche. Suddenly, via the food on my table, I am connected to a whole web of human beings, their work and their land. With each bite, I am returned to their farms and experience again the smell of the earth, the air; the sound of their voices and the stories of their lives. I cannot imagine ever eating again without them at my table. Making a book about them was indeed a pleasure but my relationship to them now and in the future is of incomparable value.