Back to the land in the islands — Part 1: Locally growing - Salish Current
March 24, 2023
Back to the land in the islands — Part 1: Locally growing
Kathryn Wheeler

Young farmers such as Chelsea Thorpe of Orcas Island’s Rising Oak Farm is among those bringing new practices and new energy to the agricultural scene in the San Juan Islands, and working to bolster local food sources.  (Kathryn Wheeler / Salish Current photo © 2023)

March 24, 2023
Back to the land in the islands — Part 1: Locally growing
Kathryn Wheeler

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In this first of a two-part series, Salish Current looks at trends in farming — including the challenges faced by today’s farmers — in the San Juan Islands.

The San Juan Islands are the very picture of pastoral — open fields with grazing sheep, goats and cattle, orchards, and verdant plots of vegetables — a utopia for farming. 

The exceptional beauty of the islands, combined with abundant open space, drew many non-Native settlers to the islands in the late 1800s. Coast Salish people had been harvesting camas and other wild crops there for millennia.

As non-Native settlers increased in population in a place that, at the time, was hard to reach and far away from mainland food supply, they built a strong local food system. They planted large apple and pear orchards and fields of grains and vegetables, and established stocks of cattle, sheep and pigs. In 1904, Friday Harbor Dairy was producing 3,000 pounds of cream a day, according to local agriculture historian and former farmer Boyd Pratt of San Juan Island.

Times a-changin’

Many farmers found creative ways to make a living on the islands: cutting and selling their trees to provide lumber to the local lime kiln on San Juan Island; canning mustard, ketchup and kitchen staples; and combining seasonal salmon fishing with farming. Water transport such as the Mosquito Fleet opened a market for produce to Seattle and other cities on the eastern shores of the sound.

This period of local agricultural abundance lasted from the 1890s until the 1930s when dams built on the Columbia River brought irrigation and electricity to fertile areas east of the Cascades. Island farms by the 1930s produced only a third of what they had produced 20 years earlier. An agricultural-based economy gradually shifted to one relying on tourism, which remains to this day.

A fallow field awaits spring planting at Rising Oak Farm on Orcas Island. (Kathryn Wheeler / Salish Current photo © 2023)

In the 1970s, the islands saw their first resurgence of farmers, thanks to hippies who sought to live differently, joining the back-to-the-land movement of the flower-child era, said Pratt. Many current island farmers, now in their 70s and 80s, rode this wave.

Among them was Greg Blomberg, who came to Lopez with his wife on the sailboat they called home in 1968. After landing and walking only a mile inland, Blomberg announced, “one day we will live here. … I couldn’t tell you why; [there was] just something about Lopez,” he said. The couple decided to sell their boat and buy a piece of land. They had no background in farming, but, like others, they built, and planted and learned, often working multiple jobs to do so. 

Still experimenting

Stories like these are still common on the islands, where there is a strong culture of experimentation and bucking the trend. Most current farmers didn’t grow up on the islands or in farming, instead migrating to the islands for a different kind of life.

Roger Ellison of Thornbush Farm on San Juan Island spent much of his career as a urban bus driver. He eventually moved to the island, where he started his homestead and farm in 2001 to learn to live sustainably. In addition to eggs, apples and produce, he produces biochar, a nutrient-dense charcoal soil additive that recycles organic waste through controlled burning, and sells it to local growers. 

Amanda Zee at Sweet Earth Farm, also on San Juan, came from a background of outdoor education. After giving birth to her daughter, she wanted to live closer to her parents on the island. To continue to work outside, she taught herself to farm her parents’ land, where she raises livestock, vegetables and fruit on 20 acres. She uses regenerative practices to revitalize the soil through minimal impact techniques, a relatively rare farming practice that takes a great deal of education to understand and implement.

Many island farms focus on environmentally sustainable or outside-the-box methods. According to the 2022 Community Food Assessment (CFA), an 88-page document assembled by representatives of several San Juan County agricultural organizations, “many farmers and ranchers in the county follow organic practices and permaculture design techniques that provide valuable ecosystem services, enrich soils, recharge aquifers and sequester carbon.”

On Lopez Island, which has the most farms of all the islands, many farmers are experimenting. Barn Owl Bakery grows heritage and locally adapted grains. Some farm use sustainable, rotational grazing of livestock to help regenerate the soil and mitigate impact on the land, and some use no-till methods for vegetable crops. Many farm organically and some practice permaculture, a set of farming practices that aims to restore the resilience found in natural systems. 

Groceries from elsewhere

Locally produced food accounts for only 3.7% of groceries purchased on the islands, according to the CFA. A 2020 survey conducted by the San Juan Islands Food Hub found that the high price of locally produced food is a barrier to access. Residents shop at the local grocery store and over half go off-island to buy cheaper groceries at bulk-buy stores. Food prices have become a source of stress for many.

Many local farmers hope to change this, recognizing the need for affordable, environmentally sustainable local food. The Food Hub is organized as an online marketplace of local food products available for customers on Lopez, Orcas and San Juan to purchase directly from local producers. Orders are delivered for weekly pickup to each island. While the cost of locally produced food is still higher, the goal is to lower the cost, increase the convenience of accessing local produce and support local producers by growing the number of customers.

A Brussels sprout that survived winter was one of the first fall plantings at Saturn’s Return on San Juan Island. (Kathryn Wheeler / Salish Current photo © 2023)

While the number of acres being farmed on the islands has decreased by more than half since the 1960s after the disappearance of many larger farms, the number of small farms has increased dramatically, from 157 to 316 between 1992 and 2017, currently composing a total of 18,400 total acres, the CFA found.

The demographics of farmers are shifting as well. In 2020, 45% of all farmers were under the age of 50, an increase of 16% from 2017 to 2020. Many farmers, both young and old, are female (54% female versus the national average at 31%), and many are engaged in innovative methods of farming and selling food. 

Long, winding road

Two of the newer island farmers are illustrative of the hopes and challenges of agriculture in the San Juans. 

The arrival of Emma Rastatter and Chelsea Thorpe came at a time of great change in island farming.

Thorpe, 35, is in her second season on Rising Oak farm which she is starting on Orcas Island. It has been a long and winding road to get to where she now is. In college she studied to be an international human rights lawyer. After contracting a near-fatal illness in Egypt, she “went to the country to get some fresh air,” and chose to try farming. She found a sense of balance she had never previously felt, and she has never looked back. 

Rastatter, 29, on a high-pressure, high-achievement track towards medicine, felt burnt out and also experienced a period of illness. 

“I’d lived most of my life behind a screen or in a classroom, and I only truly came to life and to my senses when I started farming,” she said. With no prior experience, but with deep conviction, Rastatter left her job in New York City to pursue an internship at San Juan Island’s Aurora Farms. Three years later, she is beginning her own farm on San Juan Island. The farm is called Saturn’s Return, which for astrologists marks the time in one’s 29th year of life that promises great abundance and great change. 

Farming on the islands is unique in its challenges — challenges young farmers like Thorpe and Rastatter are facing as they try to realize their dreams.

— Reported by Kathryn Wheeler

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