Striving For a Manageable Balance: Messy Gardens and Long Hours on the Homestead

June’s Homestead Farm
Skagit Valley, Washington
Visited mid-day on Saturday October 17th, 2015

June and I drank green tea as we looked out the living room window at the Skagit Valley flats. She, her husband and their youngest daughter moved to this farm of 18 acres shortly after she and I graduated from Western Washington University in 2010. Since then, she’s been taking care of the land a lot more than she expected to because her husband has been working long hours at a refinery nearby. After several seasons of unmanageable weeds, building projects left half-finished and too many tomatoes to handle, she recently, and perhaps only half-jokingly, gave him an ultimatum: she won’t weed until she gets more help at the farm.

The farm sits next to Highway 11, the same road that becomes Chuckanut Drive (the beautiful, forest-lined turns that wind along the cliffs and shores of Bellingham Bay and Samish Bay). The Skagit Valley, “may just sit below sea level,” noted June as we walked through her garden.

This area is renowend for it’s fertile soils. Among the highlights of the season have been bright tomatoes (“too many!”), orange pumkins and warty squash, strawberries and mint. I particularly enjoyed seeing a colorful variety of beans. We shelled a few to see the difference inside and uncovered pink, white, and black treasures. June has also planted Cherokee Beans because she is part Cherokee. These beans are a bit smaller and flatter than the regular black beans she has planted. Since she has only found one recipe for these beans online, she is still experimenting with how best to cook them.

When I asked if I could take photos of the gardens, June laughed and said the caption should read “This is what happens when you need more help in the garden.” Her husband, laughing, asked if I meant I wanted to take photos of the weed garden.

“This is what happens when you need more help in the garden.”

“This is what happens when you need more help in the garden.”

She’s also planted what she calls a “victory garden,” which are raised beds that sit two feet from her front door and provides carrots and salad greens for the kitchen. Across the yard are three turkeys that squawk at the passing cars. These are the turkeys that her vegan daugher was a bit uncertain about keeping, until June explained that if part of the family was going to eat meat, she preferred it to be meat that had lived humanely. And what better way to monitor that than raise it yourself. “Dont you think?” she asked me. I nodded in agreement.

Victory Garden

Victory Garden outside the kitchen window

Turkeys

In contrast, the neighbor’s cow barn to the north, which houses hundreds of cows indoors, reminds us that some farmed animals rarely enjoy daylight or outdoor grazing. The shit-pit adjacent to the cow barn will occasionally bring less than lovely smells southward. There is also the risk that runoff from the pit after heavy rains could contaminate surrounding water sources or the soil.

For June, part of the challenge of living among other farmers is the possibility that the farming practices of others will effect her own. The cow barn is one example. Another is the “round-up ready” corn that was previously planted in a neighboring field. We talked about the risks this could pose to the valley, such as its effect on the soil and potential cross-contamination of seeds. June remarked that there is also organic corn nearby, but that the transition from soils planted with GMO crops to organic could take a while.

June has a lot of projects she wants to complete. She’s a woman of inspiring ideas and big dreams. For example, she’d like to collaborate with the organization Growing Veterans to potentially lease out some of her acres to a veteran who is now farming. As I mentioned, she and I both studied together. Our field was human services, often in the world of non-profits. That she wants to share her land with a social service organization is a perfect fit.

As I left, she and her husband resumed their Saturday task of clearing out the studio adjacent to their house. Kitchen-ware, shelves, potted plants, wood scraps and jars full of pickles began to fill the back yard. The area they cleared would hopefully soon become the back porch from which a future tenant could enjoy the view of the valley and the mountains. They’ve also considered hosting WWOOF volunteers (an idea I absolutely support, so long it works for their lifestyle).

View

View of the Skagit Valley

It’s all a work in progress, June seemed to continuously remind me. As a response, I reminded her that it’s likely going to get messy before it looks all good.


Visit the Farm and Project Profiles page for more people and programs dedicated to keeping our food systems sustainable, healthy and just.


 

 

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