BY SUSAN WENZEL
Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
Jan. 15, 2015 (republished from Summer WLM print magazine May, 2014)
Colonel Isaac Ebey was spot on when he claimed 640 acres of fertile glacial soil in the heart of Whidbey Island. Ebey’s Prairie, as it’s now known, had been providing for its inhabitants centuries before the Colonel sowed his first row of potatoes. Today, the meats, grains, fruits and vegetables grown on the Prairie are increasingly seen on the menus of high-end Seattle restaurants and in markets far beyond the Puget Sound.
Not too long ago, however, the prairie—the Pacific Northwest’s very own Garden of Eden—was nearly paradise lost.
The native people who first populated Whidbey foraged for wild foods such as fish, marine mammals, Indian hyacinth (Camas), Bracken fern fronds, wapato (duck potato), and Nootka rosehips. They were also the first to recognize the advantages of farming the nutrient-rich alluvial plain of the Prairie.
“The Indians who lived here perfected modern agricultural techniques such as transplanting, seed saving, mulching and selective burning. They planted potatoes and cultivated the wild nettles and Camas that grew naturally in the area,” explained Rick Castellano, director of the Island County Historical Society Museum.
In the mid-1800’s, Euro-American settlers arrived on the island and also found it burgeoning with possibilities.They raised a variety of crops and livestock on the Prairie, discovering the viability of each through trial and error. While many crops failed, one was a notable success: grains. “In a period during the late 1800’s the prairie produced, on average, 114 bushels of wheat per acre—the highest yield in the country at the time,” said Castellano.
Agricultural products were originally grown for use by the island’s residents, but as farming practices and knowledge of the island’s micro-climates improved, the focus turned toward profit. Prunes were one of the first crops to be exported. Plum trees thrived on central Whidbey, and the vitamin-C and fiber-rich fruits were dried and shipped to Alaska during the gold-rush days. “The Windjammer Gallery on Front Street in Coupeville was originally a drying and storage facility for the plums, and later potatoes, prior to shipping,” said Castellano. “If you can imagine, prunes were an important nutritional and digestive aid to miners who were living primarily off of beef jerky.”
In the years that followed, the impact of Prairie farmers continued to spread—ultimately to places around the globe. Whidbey-grown products are highly favored by foodies and chefs throughout the Puget Sound region because of their exceptional quality; the close proximity of farm-to-market ensures maximum freshness and nutrient density. Recently, farmers have been producing cabbage seed, seed peas and grass seed for destinations as far away as Japan and the Netherlands.
None of this is news to local historians and brothers Roger and Al Sherman, both retired Prairie farmers. “Whidbey Island farmers have long delivered their products to restaurants and grocery stores throughout the state,” said Al.
“We first sent the Hubbard squash to Seattle by steamboat,” added Roger. “Squash has always grown well here. Dale (Sherman of Pioneer Farms) still grows it. He sells it to Eastern Washington for their school-lunch program and has a contract with Whole Foods to ship peeled-and-diced, organic, ready-to-use squash to their stores.”
“Rockwell beans have been grown on the prairie for generations,” commented Al. “I’ve been growing Rockwells for years, eating some and saving some as seed for replanting.”
“As the story goes, sailing ships brought the beans here centuries ago,” said Roger. “Some were used for trade while the rest were used for food or seed because they kept well. Rockwells are shelled by hand and labor intensive to harvest, but Georgie Smith (at Willowood Farm) is able to commercially produce them.”
While some crops have remained constant through time—notably Hubbard squash and Rockwell beans—others have come and gone based on supply and demand, market price, financial viability and culinary trends.
“Agriculture has phases. Ours was the last dairy farm on the island, then we started growing hay and barley and other grains for livestock feed,” said Wilbur Bishop of the 700-acre Ebey Road Farm he owns with wife Karen Bishop (Sherman) and son Clark, the sixth generation to work the land. “Today some of the grain I raise is certified organic for organic dairies here in Washington. We grow and adapt as times and needs change.”
At one time, change almost destroyed this opulent farmland. During the 1970’s, housing developers had their eyes on several hundred acres of the Prairie, seeking to cash in on its views of Admiralty Inlet, Mount Baker, Mount Rainier and the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges. Citizens of Whidbey banded together to protect their rural life, scenic views, historical sites and agricultural heritage. Through their efforts, this precious agrarian resource—once in danger of extinction—gained permanent designation in 1978 as a National Historical Reserve.
“I am on the Trust Board of Ebey’s Landing National Historic Reserve,” said Bishop. “And I, personally, will continue to work to preserve the rural culture that is here, to keep this land in farming, to ensure practices stay in line with the intent of those set in the original comprehensive plan for the reserve.”
For thousands of years Whidbey Island has been a land of plenty, an essential resource for meeting its people’s food needs. Now preserved forever, the farmlands of yesterday will adjust only as required to satiate the hungers of tomorrow, be they a taste for organic Lacinato kale, Purple Glazer garlic, Kamut wheat, or…potatoes.
For more photos by David Welton from the photo shoots for this story, click here.
Food writer Susan Wenzel believes in the power of locally-produced food to fortify the health and well-being of both individual and the community as a whole.
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