By Polly Keary, Editor
Andrew Ide, 27, has a degree in philosophy and theology. His wife Micha, 29, has a degree in anthropology and part of another in interior design. Both have experience in the California corporate world.
None of that knowledge is doing them any good now.
The chickens are out.
How they got out is a puzzle. The three hens and a rooster were in a cage by themselves, there for the purposes of mating, and they are fat and content.
But there they are, wandering through a tangle of long grass and blackberry brambles.
Andrew and Micha try various tactics to recapture them. Andrew tries to chase them to Micha. They scatter. Micha tries to herd one into a cul-de-sac of brambles. It flaps off. But they continue to chase and pounce, finally catching each of the hens and pushing them, squawking and flapping, into the wire pen.
The two pant, out of breath, and regard the rooster.
They strike on an idea. They’ll leave the cage door open, stay close enough to shoo any straying hens back in, but otherwise remain still. Surely the rooster will want to return to these hens.
It works. The rooster makes his slow and stately way right back into the cage.
It’s just the latest of a thousand such learning experiences the couple has had since taking on the job of running an organic farm this spring.
They are part of the “greenhorn” movement, a growing trend of young urban professionals who ditch the corporate ladder for life on the land, and they have teamed up with experienced local farmer and Chinook Lumber owner Eric Fritch to run Chinook Farms, an organic farm and CSA, or community-supported agriculture program, with a mission to help bring people closer to their local farm roots.
From poplar farm to organic farm
Not everyone would have looked at 60 acres of wind-downed poplar trees and said to himself that it might make great farmland.
But Eric Fritch has spent his life around the timber industry, and knows quite a bit about getting trees off land.
He owns Chinook Lumber, a small chain of lumber stores in the Puget Sound area, and used to own a saw mill as well.
So when an old poplar tree farm went up for sale on Elliott Road near his Snohomish River Valley home, he saw an opportunity to realize a dream for himself and his wife; to have a farm that would help people get more connected with the source of their food.
The land came with one additional benefit; it was usable for organic farming.
“We didn’t start out wanting to pursue organic, but the land qualified as organic from day one, because nothing had been done to it, so we decided to do that as a practice,” he said.
Over several months in 2008 and 2009, he had the poplar trees chipped and send for paper pulp, and the roots extracted and ground up for use as fuel in power plants. In all, 300 semi-truck loads of wood products left the farm.
“I might have been certifiably crazy,” Fitch said with a chuckle.
When it came time to begin producing crops on the first few acres, Fritch had a particular farm model in mind.
He wanted to do a CSA.
A CSA, or community-supported agriculture, is a program in which people subscribe to the farm, paying a certain amount for a weekly farm box full of that week’s produce item.
“I wanted people to come to the farm, because that was part of our mission, was to have people get more in touch with where their food comes from,” he said. “It was as much a platform for education as for growing food.”
Chinook Farms was born.
Andrew and Micha Ide also wanted to get in touch with where their food came from. And they wanted a way to make a difference in the world.
That’s why the two ditched careers in Southern California and went looking for farm work, even though it meant struggling with crippling student loan debt.
“Neither of us have any farm experience, but we wanted to be outside,” said Andrew, a lanky young man with a goofy grin and work-stained coveralls. “We wanted to be involved in the food. There’s a thing now called the ‘greenhorn movement’ where people with college degrees are going to do farming.”
Reasoning that the best way to learn was by doing, they started searching the internet for internship opportunities.
Fritch’s farm was well underway, but a previous, more experience couple that had been managing it moved to start their own farm in Michigan.
“We jumped in with both feet,” said Micha, a suntanned and articulate woman with an air of calm about her.
They’d both been around gardening as youths, but running an entire farm was a much different thing.
“On a farm, you are always putting out fires,” said Micha. “The goats have escaped again and they are eating the kale that was for the farm boxes, and the cows have escaped and are trampling the beets, and the pigs are eating everything.”
“Or a rainstorm came and we left all our stuff out,” said Andrew, sitting on a folding chair under an outdoor awning where the couple assembles the food boxes every week.
They learned that timing plantings to make sure there was produce for the boxes every week was difficult. They didn’t know how far apart broccoli should be planted, or what the different pests were.
But they got a lot of help from YouTube, from the WSU Extension office, from several well-worn books and from other farmers.
“There’s a fun and generous community of young, small organic farmers around,” said Andrew. “We’ve had people who came over and have been very generous and said, ‘Oh, you should tackle weeds when they are an inch tall, and not a foot tall.’”
And as time went on, through trial and error, they built a body of knowledge.
They learned that pigs won’t root everything up if they are moved to new ground regularly, and that hand-washing kale in a bathtub is a good way to remove aphids. They learned to prep vegetable beds four weeks ahead of harvest, and how often to move the chickens.
“And if you weed on rainy days, you just spread weeds,” Micha said ruefully. “And goats don’t respect barbed wire.”
“Or electric fences,” supplied Andrew.
“I don’t recommend goats, actually,” said Micha.
In the middle of all that, they built a small house on the farm, and managed to get a farm box out weekly to all their CSA members.
For the people who belong to the CSA, getting fresh local vegetables each week is worth a little extra time and money.
At Chinook Farms, for a standard-sized assortment of whatever is in season, from arugula to zucchini, members pay $28 per week for 21 weeks. A family-sized box is $37. And the members have to drive several miles up Elliott Road to get it.
It’s more than worth it, said Karen Castle, one of 30 members of the Chinook Farms CSA.
“I love getting fresh organic vegetables each week and figuring out creative ways to use them,” she said.
The farm also produces meat and eggs, and they, too, are very popular.
People can buy anything from a $525 quarter-cow to a nearly $2,000 full cow at any time during the year and pick it up when it is slaughtered in the fall.
That works out to about $3.25 per pound for grass-fed beef, and Chinook Farms is already sold out.
And about 100 chickens are also mostly sold, as are the several grunting pigs pushing around a pen.
And every week or so, about three dozen eggs go to Bob’s Corn across the road for sale.
Even the area’s struggling families benefit; a minister from a Redmond church rents three acres, and gets three more free from the farm, on which his congregation raises food for local food banks.
Eating locally-grown food, for many, is more than just healthy or educational. It, like leaving urban life to farm, is part of a larger nationwide movement.
In 2005, the word “locavore” was coined by a California chef. It is now widely used to describe someone who prefers to eat locally-grown food.
Some people are concerned about the amount of fossil fuels required to move food around. That’s because food today travels sometimes incredible distances between farm and plate. For example, a packet of C&H sugar grown in Hawaii, processed in San Francisco, shipped to New York to be packaged and then returned to Hawaii for use in a restaurant has traveled about 10,000 miles.
And often Washingtonians find themselves at the grocery store buying apples from halfway around the world that are less expensive than those famously grown in the state.
One study found that the average American meal has traveled 1,500 miles from source to table.
Another showed that nearly half of the fruit in the U.S. is imported, and more than 10 percent of each family’s carbon footprint is related to the transportation of the food they eat.
Other people are more concerned about the implications of large scale farming. Massive farms growing single products leave the food supply vulnerable to single diseases; if one strain of wheat proves vulnerable to one fungicide-resistant blight, there goes a lot of the nation’s bread.
Many people also don’t like the way animals are treated on big commercial farms. Egg-laying chickens, for example, mostly spend their lives in tiny “battery cages,” unable to move much, beaks clipped short, feet sometimes destroyed by their flooring.
And then there are many who want to see their money go to their local farming community and into the local economy.
Those are the kinds of concerns Chinook Farms was created to address. People can come see the way beef cows, pigs, dairy goats and chickens are treated, the difference between a farm-fresh egg and a store-bought one, and beets coming in from the field with the dirt still clinging to them.
“We have a lot of young people that come to pick up their farm baskets,” Fritch said. “They bring a picnic or have the kids out seeing chickens and digging up carrots and doing things that aren’t experienced more in our society.”
That’s of huge value to Chinook Farms CSA member Karen Castle, whose 13-year-old daughter volunteers on the farm in the summer.
“The farm is more than just a money-making endeavor,” she said. ”It is about connecting people in meaningful ways to the land that produces the food they consume.”
To Micha and Andrew, the farm represents their chosen future. One day, they’d like a 20-acre farm of their own. For now, they are finishing this year’s harvest and preparing to start fresh in the spring with a lot of new hard-won knowledge.
“I wanted a career that made a difference, and in a very tangible way, farming like we are doing here, it’s pretty radical,” said Andrew, surveying the chicken scratching placidly in their pen. “It’s an effective way to change a situation that otherwise we wouldn’t have much control over.”