Back to the land in the islands — Part 2: Women who farm - Salish Current
March 31, 2023
Back to the land in the islands — Part 2: Women who farm
Kathryn Wheeler

While Emma Rastatter has visions for an innovative future on her San Juan Island farm, she and other young farmers also value the support of the islands’ farming elders, as they seek to re-energize local agriculture. (Kathryn Wheeler / Salish Current photo © 2023)

March 31, 2023
Back to the land in the islands — Part 2: Women who farm
Kathryn Wheeler

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Part 1 reported on the rise and ebb of local farms serving as the breadbasket to Puget Sound cities, the transformation of the islands to a tourism and retirement economy and the influx of young farmers willing to face the challenges of high land cost, operating constraints and isolated markets.

Part 2 profiles two of these young farmers.

In 2016, Chelsea Thorpe arrived on Orcas Island after six years working at various farms across the country. At Bullock’s Permaculture Homestead, she paid a nominal fee to live and learn the practices of permaculture for two years. She ate off the land to reduce expenses and lived mostly outside. 

For four years she managed several farms on Orcas and lived on properties in various states of upkeep. Many residents accept less-than-ideal housing conditions rather than going into debt to afford housing or leaving the islands. 

The San Juans face a housing crisis that is felt especially among those with low-wage jobs, such as farmers. Since the 1990s, island housing costs have become some of the highest in the state, and population, demand and income inequality all have increased.

In the 2017 and 2020 Agriculture Viability Surveys conducted by the San Juan Agricultural Guild, the number one listed concern among farmers was availability of affordable housing for farm workers. In 2021, a Seattle Times article on labor shortages on Orcas Island reported that during the summer, “an unprecedented number of island employers from food stores to restaurants were unable to hire or retain employees because there was no place they could afford to live.”

Becoming a land owner

Thorpe came across the land she now lives on through the help of older residents who directed her to a landowner who was willing to sell part of their property. The land is under a conservation easement with the San Juan Preservation Trust, and was sold to Thorpe at an affordable price knowing that she would steward the land. To afford the mortgage, Thorpe co-owns the property with another couple and with her partner and farm co-owner, Jesse Herzog.

There is little infrastructure. She lives in a 12-by-12-foot cabin with few amenities and no indoor shower. In freezing weather she showers at the gym. She doesn’t expect to be able to build up her property any time soon, and has put off having a family so she can live in her current arrangement. Infrastructure costs are among the most commonly shared concerns among farmers on the islands, according to the 2021 Agriculture Viability Report. Building materials, already expensive, are prohibitive for many island farmers who must pay the additional costs of getting them from the mainland. Importing large materials for building is too expensive to many farmers, who struggle to expand operations for this reason, thereby limiting potential financial growth.  

Garlic sprouts at Rising Oak Farm, where Chelsea Thorpe hopes to cultivate locally adapted seed. (Kathryn Wheeler / Salish Current photo © 2023)

Thorpe does not farm on the land she lives on. Instead, she secured a short-term lease in 2021 on a two-acre piece of land a short drive away. Rising Oak Farm is now in its second year. It provides a variety of vegetables, and Thorpe hopes to breed and cultivate regionally adapted seeds for sale. 

Home costs in the San Juans now average around $700,000. Short-term leasing is a common and an available pathway for the many who can’t afford to purchase a home or land. According to the draft San Juan County Community Food Assessment, “The cost of the land itself now far exceeds the ability to pay it off by farming. American Farmland Trust has designated Western Washington as the fifth most threatened agricultural region in the nation.” 

While leasing opens doors for some farmers, it comes with risks. Unless Thorpe can extend her lease, she will lose the property and all of the work she has done on it. She is undeterred by this uncertainty, expressing immense gratitude to her landlords, whom she said have been generous and accommodating. She remains hopeful that the lease will be renewed, but the uncertainty of her situation is never far from mind. 

Counting on community

In the summer of 2022, Emma Rastatter and her partner, Wiley Webb, purchased their 42-acre plot on San Juan Island with a combination of loans and self-funding. “Of all the places we considered setting our roots, the San Juans had unparalleled community support for local food and such generous farming elders,” Rastatter said. 

While ownership of her land offers a sense of security, paying back a large loan requires creativity and a mixed business model. To meet her financial needs, Rastatter has had to learn new skills from home maintenance to hospitality, since she is using her property as an inn to pay the bills. Currently, her budget doesn’t accommodate hired help, which means long days and nights. In the longer term, she is working to establish perennial crops, including fruit trees and chestnuts that require less seasonal maintenance, as well vegetables and eggs. 

Rastatter cannot rely on farming alone to provide enough income to live, as was once possible in the islands. In the Agriculture Viability survey, 83% farmers listed “access to reliable markets” as a top priority. Most island farmers, cut off from mainland markets, must rely on locals to buy food either through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) networks, farmers markets or farm stands. The prices of their produce must be high enough to provide them a profitable return — which could result in many of their neighbors not being able to afford to stock up on fresh local products.

Rastatter works as executive director of the islands’ Agr Guild, which helps young farmers gain access to land through a variety of new programs. She expects to continue to find other sources of income to fund the farming part of her venture.

Why commit to a pathway that is unavoidably hard and comes with tremendous financial, physical, and mental stress? 

“If someone is a young farmer in San Juan County they’ve chosen to do that at personal sacrifice, likely because they believe in taking care of the community and taking care of the land as best as [they] can,” Thorpe said.

In the spirit of island farming as experimentation, both Thorpe and Rastatter have bigger dreams, too. 

Rastatter envisions a communal gathering space: a farm that uses regenerative practices to not only provide nutritious food to the community, but to educate others. She hopes to hold chef residencies and educational workshops. She would like to host guests who want to learn about sustainable agriculture, with the hope that they will take those lessons back to their own communities. 

To Rastatter, what happens here may set an important example for other places. “Our island county is an ideal sandbox for building a re-localized food economy,” she said. 

Banding together

Thorpe also hopes to use regenerative practices to both revitalize the soil and produce high-quality produce that fills gaps in island food production. In the long term, she is looking to produce regionally adapted seeds, which will strengthen crop resilience, especially important as climate change increasingly threatens local farmers. As an employee of the Ag Guild, recruited by Rastatter, she will continue to work to provide pathways for other farmers to realize their own dreams. “Young farmers need to band together,” she said.

Bare at the moment, trees in fruit and nut orchards are integral elements in the future of agricultural viability that young island farmers envision. (Kathryn Wheeler / Salish Current photo © 2023)

Increasing initiatives to support island farmers may provide a critical lifeline to both existing and future farmers. Since 2016, The Ag Guild has linked 81 beginning and existing farmers with funding resources, technical assistance and land opportunities from 22 San Juan County farmland owners, according to their website.

The San Juan Islands Food Hub, another initiative in place since the pandemic began, provides an online grocery-store platform for residents to easily order local products, providing farmers and buyers an easier avenue to sell directly to their community. 

While these efforts are immensely helpful, they still aren’t enough to erase the many financial burdens of farming on the islands. Most farmers continue to face financial stress to keep their operations going, and many farms disappear each year. Additionally, with the average age of island farmers still in the 60s, many will soon go into retirement. Without adequate pathways for new farmers, more acres of agricultural land will be lost.

Many farmers are motivated to continue despite barriers because they see their work as increasingly necessary, and they hope that others will too. The islands have a near total reliance on mainland food, a relationship that has proven fragile. Supply chain issues in 2020 meant one Orcas grocery store received only 40% of the food it was ordering from the mainland. Without an ample supply of local food, the islands would be more vulnerable to a disaster that could cut the islands off from mainland food sources.

Already the lack of affordable food has increased food insecurity. According to 2022 data collected by the Friday Harbor Food Bank, usage of food assistance programs in recent years has climbed dramatically.

With more buy-in from the community at large, farmers could find the support they need to address the ample problems they are facing. 

A strong local food system could mean a stronger economy for all. The 2021 San Juan Island Food Impact Economic Analysisby Western Washington University found that “on average, $1,000 of added food production in San Juan County generates $1,428 of economic activity,” indicating the potential for local agriculture to provide significant economic benefits. 

The future is unclear for the many new farmers who have chosen to put down roots in the islands. They can’t do it alone. “It’s going to have to be the community at large clarifying the importance of [eating locally] and coming together to directly finance people who are providing the community service [of growing] food,” Thorpe said. 

In a vastly different world of quickly changing island life, old timers like Boyd Pratt still believe there is hope. “I’m very encouraged by [farming’s] youthful face,” he said, and the many creative ways young farmers are selling and marketing their goods to create more interest and buy-in from islanders. 

When asked whether he believes small farmers survive on the island, Pratt said yes, but with more creativity than has ever been required. “There’s a lot of niche farming that is available that people can make a living on. I say that with the caveat of land and housing availability. If you have both then you have an incredible leg up if you somehow manage that,” he said. 

Beyond visions for the future and a broader mission, it is the agrarian imperative, Thorpe said, or the philosophy that farming is ingrained in our DNA, that brings her back each season: the inexplicable desire to — against all odds — return to the land.

— Reported by Kathryn Wheeler

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