BY VICKY BROWN
September 12, 2014
There is an old saying that the worst day fishing is better than the best day at work.
The farmers I know are the hardest working people I’ve ever met. Still, I feel like most of them would agree the worst days of farming are better than the best day at work.
There is something in a farmer’s soul. Working the land seems to be more of a calling than a job.
I had the pleasure of taking a local farmer—Elizabeth Wheat of Skyroot Farm—away from her farming duties for two hours in the middle of a late summer afternoon.
We took time to stroll the farm. She pointed out the crops they were growing, told me the plans they have, and painted a picture of her vision for the future of the land.
Elizabeth explained to me the less traditional structure of their Skyroot Farm. It’s run by three individuals, as partners on property owned by a fourth partner. Each of the three brings unique talents and experience to the farm.
Elizabeth has been tending Skyroot farm for three years; her two partners Anna Petersons and Arwen Norman joined the farm this season. (More on the three Skyroot farmers here).
Elizabeth was just getting off the tractor when I arrived. She graciously volunteered to answer my questions and give me a tour.
While we walked and talked Arwen was busy tending the last starts of the season in the greenhouse.
Anna was busy transplanting for fall crops. Some of the plants she transplanted during my trip are already showing up in CSA boxes.
I tried to start with an easy question. I learned quickly, there are no easy answers… except: “YES! We still have room in our CSA.”
VB: Do you consider yourself a farmer?
EW: I definitely grow food. Where I grew up* being a farmer was not something that was celebrated, it was a job that you did when you couldn’t find something else to do. Here, especially on the West Coast, it is something you can do and say with a lot of pride “I’m a farmer.”
I feel like that is part of what is changing in society, but there was a long time in history in America where I don’t feel you could say you were a farmer with that same sense of pride or know that people would receive that information with the same kind of pride and interest and excitement that people do now. I think that is very special.
I’m happy to call myself a farmer and I hope I live up to the word.
* VB note: Elizabeth grew up in Upstate New York. While she grew up with farming as a part of her life, mostly the acreage they lived on was leased to other ‘real’ farmers. They did manage some crops, including strawberries. However, her real pull into farming happened when she came to the West Coast and took a job as a science teacher. She was assigned a two-acre farm to manage with her students and, she says, she was hooked. In her next position she was the impetus behind creating the student farm.
VB: How has your farming evolved?
EW: When we first got the tractor I said “this is great tool for use in mowing, and I will never, NEVER allow the tractor to be in our fields.” What was I thinking?
I had wanted to push the fertility using bio-intensive farming on a small scale. But when you’re trying to grow a business and you’re starting without the fertility, the biggest shifts were using wider spacing between plants, more active use of mulch, a lot of composting, using more cover crops and earlier in the season.
Our biggest evolution has been in the use of tools, including the tractor with a tiller. Not double digging beds by hand. Trying not to kill ourselves or being exhausted at the end of the day, every day. I still would love to jettison the tractor from our fields—maybe not double digging everything by my own hand—but maybe replacing with oxen or draft power.
I still hope for the future of our farm to be a full system, including animals and vegetables, composting, using the land.
VB: What is your business?
EW: A big part of our business is our CSA which goes into Seattle and has on-farm pickup. We also sell at the Bayview Farmers Market on Saturdays. Right now we don’t do any other markets or pursue wholesale accounts—not that it won’t change.
VB: What do you do to support your farming habit?
EW: I work (sometimes part-time, often more than full-time) as a professor at UW, which is great, but it impacts my availability for the information transfer needed with the new farm team members. There was a big download of information that didn’t happen as smoothly as it could have this spring.
We live on the farm with my family and our farm partners.
We have tried to expand our CSA.*
At the end of the day, really, none of us are going to be supported in the way we ought to be supported for the work we are doing, partly because we are embedded in a food system that doesn’t really work for small farmers. We are trying to make a living doing something that our economic system isn’t built to be able to support.
*VB note: Skyroot still has openings in their fall CSA! It has already started, but you can get in right now for the next 11 weeks for $308! The last box is Thanksgiving week. Imagine that local, lovely dinner.
VB: How does farming impact your relationships?
EW: I am making conscious and intentional choices about how I spend my time. At the end of every day I want to feel proud about those choices and I don’t want to feel caught in an impossible situation where I can’t give enough to any one of the parts of my life that I have. That’s my goal.
VB: How can consumers/community members support you best?
EW: I feel really helped by the community when people tell me they had our lettuce and it was part of a really meaningful dinner. I am not trying to be “best” or “better than” other farmers but I want to do things really well and not be in competition. I care about how we grow and I appreciate a really heartfelt, deep and quick thank you for that.
I feel like [a way] the community could really rally to help people like me is to help make it possible for us to buy land. The price of land is too expensive and you can’t pay a mortgage and run a farm, or at least it is very difficult. If people really want to help, then let’s start a community land trust. Let’s start putting this farmland in a trust so that the food shed of South Whidbey Island is secure.*
We have an incredible productive landscape now, but the more farmland gets carved up, the harder it is to make a living or afford the land.
Whidbey Island is full of people who do a good job doing good in the world. If we could band together and get a land trust to protect more farmland and make it available for new farmers, I think that would be good.
*VB note: I am especially interested in this as part of a solution to both Whidbey’s food security and ability to keep incredible families in our community. Is anyone else interested in this? Are we having this conversation anywhere yet? If yes, where? If not, let’s start it!
VB: What is the best experience you’ve ever had farming… THE moment?
Last year we had a party and it was during the biggest storm we had last year. It was a terrible day, it was windy and stormy. It was a killer party, 70 people were here. There was a break in the rain and I came out to the back of the farm and Annie* was out in the strawberry beds with a gaggle of four years olds—12 kids just running through the strawberries picking and eating them. I didn’t even know Annie knew there were strawberries there. What she is learning is really special.
*VB notes: Annie is Elizabeth’s amazing daughter, who happens to be sporting a pretty purple cast right now and is a big fan of my goat cheese.
VB: What is the worst experience you’ve had farming?
The worst experiences have all come from trying to do too much and not saying no.
Every time bad things have happened it is because I haven’t been generous enough with space or generous enough with time. Trying to fit too many things into a day, trying to fit too many plants in a row.
VB: If someone could only buy one product from Skyroot Farm, what should they get?
EW: Anna has been doing a great job with our Salad Mix and our cucumbers are pretty special. Our lettuce is fantastic.
VB: What would be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back that would make you give up farming?
EW: If it didn’t feed my soul anymore. If I wasn’t excited when I get out of bed anymore.
VB note: This is the common theme I have found with farmers. Not one I have met does it for the money, or because they love the long hours or the challenges that range from weather to government to neighbors to fickle markets, but because it feeds their soul. Farmers are the most passionate, optimistic people I have met. Even after two hours of being pelted with questions, Elizabeth was still animated and excited talking about Skyroot Farm.
Elizabeth’s excitement for farming is contagious. If you think you aren’t interested in farming, I challenge you to have a conversation with her about it. You may find that farming is the most fun, interesting, curious, fantastic thing ever.
Come see Skyroot Farm at Bayview Farmers Market and sign up for their Autumn CSA. You can connect with them through their website if you can’t get to market.
Even after being so generous with her time, Elizabeth offered me a bonus, a recipe featuring their green beans and garlic, both available right now:
Green Beans – A la Tracy Joy Miller*
*note – this is my favorite way to eat green beans!
1 lb green beans
1 cup walnuts
3 – 4 cloves of minced garlic
1 – 2 Tbsp soy sauce or tamar
Rinse and prepare the green beans—cut off the tops, but otherwise leave the beans whole. Place the beans in boiling water for 5 minutes. Remove the beans—in a heated skillet, add a bit of oil. Place the green beans and garlic in the skillet. Stir, add walnuts and Soy Sauce. When the garlic is cooked, serve! This is a terrific dish—we’ve eaten lots of it in the last few weeks!
Vicky Brown, Chief Milkmaid at the Little Brown Farm, puts her passions on the page writing about food, agriculture and the tender web of community.
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