The Good Rock: farmers on Orcas Island and the good life

  • Tue Oct 28th, 2008 5:44pm
  • Life

A worker at Maple Rock Farm kneels to plant seedlings.

Farming as a way of life has both a history and a future on Orcas Island. Many islanders actively cultivate the earth on this rock, learning from the past and planning for the future, even while working through the seasons on a more-than-rewarding way of life.

Coffelts’ Farm

Vern and Sidney Coffelt’s 185-acre farm on Crow Valley road has been in their family since 1950, and the Coffelt family has been on Orcas Island since the 1880s. The Coffelt family has always farmed. Sidney says, “We haven’t really made a living, but we kept farming no matter what.”

Since Vern retired 13 years ago from OPALCO, the couple has done more than part-time farming, “and now Vern’s trying to retire again,” says Sidney.

Their main product is meat – lamb, beef, pork and chicken. They also raise a garden, mostly for their own use, but the extra goes into a farm stand that is open from 1 to 6 p.m. every day.

The Coffelts rise at 6 a.m. and work until 7:30 a.m., feeding and watering animals, and doing other chores. Following breakfast, it’s back out to do projects like fixing fences or working on machinery. Sidney says after lunch there are “more project things, more chores in the evening, chickens to feed and lock up, pigs to feed and water again – an hour and a half of just chores, things that need doing every single day, rain or shine, 7 days a week.”

Periodically during the year, butchering takes up several whole days.

The Coffelts’ hired man, Casey McKenzie, is starting to take over the farm, says Sidney, “We’re working out of it, and he’s working into it.

“We’ve had quite a few other people help us on a more casual basis, a lot of the interns from the other farms like to help us out. It’s been a wonderful resource for us, especially as we’re slowing down.”

Retirement holds more reading time for Sidney, and she thinks Vern would like to spend more time out on the water, “if he ever gets to retire.”

This spring the county Land Bank announced that they had purchased the 185-acre farm on Crow Valley Road. The Coffelts will remain on their land, but wanted to ensure the farm would continue in to be preserved for agriculture.

Recently Vern was in the hospital, but he is now back at home. Sidney says, “The good part is our friends and neighbors have just pitched in something wonderful to take over. They’ve been here night and day taking care of things, and that’s pretty heart-warming I’d say, I just love them all. All these people have stepped up and helped.”

Black Dog Farm

The Harlows – Rob and Brenda, and the next generation Ian and Erika – run Black Dog Farm between Enchanted Forest and Mt. Baker Roads. They have been farming since 1985 on 20 acres: about eight acres pasture; five acres orchard and five acres agricultural gardens.

The Harlows’ farming venture started when they bought the farm property around 1980, after 20 years of neglect. Many farm buildings, pasture and orchards were overgrown with eight-foot high scotch broom. Previously, it had been an orchard and vegetable farm in the 1920s, and then Carson’s chicken farm until the 1960s.

Rob and Ian also worked outside the farm in construction, although Ian has been the farm foreman for 10 years. He also harvests fruit, does salvage work and is an arborist.

The four of them “raise everything,” – from animals – chickens and ducks for eggs, cows for meat, goats for milk and meat, to greenhouse produce and orchard fruit. The folks at Black Dog Farm earn 80 percent of their farm income from the Orcas Farmers’ Market and a pick-up shed on Enchanted Forest Road.

Ian also hearkens to the farming tradition on Orcas Island. “We have a lot of old agriculture [land] and island people don’t know what to do with it. But island people want fresh produce and we can’t supply enough.”

Satisfaction comes with “just about every meal, when everything on the table except for the condiments comes from the farm, almost throughout the year. It’s a lot of labor with minimal money and that’s how farming goes, but it’s really worth it. It’s slow growth, but growth – that’s success in farming.”

Harlow says he appreciates that there is no competition between farmers. “We’re all working together and to have other people in the same business be your friends and help you out is a great thing. It’s not easy, but we do have capabilities and you never know. We try to encourage other people.”

Some years ago, he recognized that with Growth Management Act (GMA) zoning, their farm was threatened by requirements of urban-level services. They campaigned to have their property defined outside the Eastsound Urban Growth Area (UGA), and now it is R-5, Rural Farm Forest. “That has really changed the neighborhood for the better,” says Ian Harlow.

“It’s supporting the community by keeping agriculture one of the viable industries and also acknowledging that farming is a way of life as much as a job – no one does it to get rich.”

Bright Meadow Farm

Ruthie and Dean Dougherty, and daughter Abby Sale, farm Bright Meadows in Olga, as they have for the last 16 years. Both Ruthie and Dean grew up on farms, Ruthie on Guemes Island where her family raised cattle, and Dean on a dairy farm in Iowa that is still in operation. At Bright Meadow’s 13 acres, they raise eggs, goats, free-range poultry, pigs, lamb and beef. They also keep a truck garden for their own vegetables and berries.

Ruthie says, “We enjoy the animals. If we were going to eat meat, we wanted to grow it ourselves. Then we realized we could help provide families and friends with meat and expanded because we feel so good about our product.”

A “typical day” at Bright Meadow varies with the seasons, Ruthie says, but the vast majority of them begin with milking the goats and feeding the animals. During the spring when there are young animals, many of the goats are bottle-fed. Then “there’s a certain amount of mucking out the stalls” and moving pens for the pastured poultry – “that happens morning and evening, so that frames our day,” says Ruthie.

When the goats are due to give birth, a lot of time is spent preparing for the births and helping the mothers. Because the kids are bottle-fed, there are times when seven to eight kids are fed every four to six hours, and Abby is the one who gets up in the middle of night to feed the “kids.”

Outside the farm, Dean is the head of the San Juan Preservation Trust, and Ruthie works with the county Land Bank. “We still feel we’re farmers,” says Ruthie. “Farming has always been a part of island lives; farmers fished and worked log crews or road crews for additional income.

“One of the things it’s important to remember is that the nature of life on the islands has always been to piece together doing what you love, working the land and doing other things you need to do, and can do, to be able to live here.”

According to Ruthie, the traditional methods and approach of agriculture fits in with the scale of farming on the islands. “We’re fortunate in that there’s more science, but by and large, if we’re caring for the soil so it grows good forage, and practicing good animal husbandry and re-investing environmental capital back into the soil, then we’re farming in a traditional, sustainable way. The knowledge is as true today as it was 60 years ago.”

Maple Rock Farm

John Steward of Maple Rock Farm gets up before dawn every day to tend his four farm sites on Pinneo Road and three other leased sites. His farm plan uses each site, incorporating each place in rotation. The primary crops grown are mixed produce and strawberries, also tomatoes, squash, green beans, carrots, turnips, beets, radishes and potatoes and “over-winter” crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, Swiss chard and kale.

Steward has farmed for eight years on Orcas, beginning with a garden plot which grew from an interest to a hobby to a business. He has progressed to agriculture being a stand-alone business, and is “real close” to that goal. Steward also does custom hire tractor work, and estimates he spends about 10 days a month at it.

For Steward, “The best part of farming is being your own boss and spending time outdoors and within nature.

“A lot of other things captivate me: the experimentations, the gratification of growing good food for people, the variety.

“No two days are the same, I like to switch gears from harvesting potatoes to field work, to tractor work. And I also enjoy putting together a cohesive, happy crew.” Steward employs half a dozen people throughout the year, with a full crew from May or June through October. After that his crew goes back down to one person until the following spring.

Steward says the challenges are always the financial side of keeping everything together: the planning ahead, “the vagaries of the weather and the challenge to be flexible – much as I enjoy the challenges that are fun to step up to.”

For Steward, one of the greatest rewards of farming is “the feeling of pride I have when I go to Saturday Market and have a wide abundance of food available here on the island. Farmers are a big part of the solution and abundance we provide to the community.”

Morning Star Farms

Steve Diepenbrock and Mimi Anderson followed their love of the land, of gardening and working outside, to Orcas Island 20 years ago, after college educations that included conservation and natural resources for Steve and education and teaching for Mimi. They both have a background in outdoor education – they met in the mountains on a leadership program in 1976. In the 80’s they worked and traveled together, including nine months at her cousin’s fruit farm in Queensland, Australia. Jobs in teaching and construction followed.

When they moved to Orcas, they worked full time on the farm and also used it as a homebase for workshops in the arts as well as a place to learn to grow food. At first they specialized in basil and salad greens and now they grow mixed vegetables, berries and flowers.

Mimi says, ”As the the farm business grew, we sold produce to local restaurants, families and the farmers market. We also focused on the internship program as a way to get help and offer an educational component.”

When twins Emily and Taylor were two years old, Mimi and Steve realized they would have to make extra income outside of farming, so he went back to contracting and Mimi stayed with the farm. Now the Diepenbrock family includes Aliza, who is nine.

“We have both stepped back into a managerial position with interns and a field manager doing the work we used to do,” says Mimi. “We have been fortunate to have an outstanding caliber of individuals who have lived and learned and contributed to the farm. The financial status of the farm business has ebbed and flowed very slightly over the years, though the value and need – for this work educational experience and for local food – has increased tremendously, especially as we look at all the looming issues we face as a global community.

“We are committed to keeping this small scale agriculture alive here. We also hope to continue to offer this educational setting for young adults interested in farming, environmental education or those simply wanting a “gap year” experience. At this point, we are committed to sustain the small scale ag model as a training ground as well as a place to grow organic fruits, veggies, herbs and flowers, while continuing to offer it as an alternative classroom for students of all ages, children and adults.”

Dana Kinsey

Dana Kinsey grew up on Charles Arnt’s Driftwood Ranch on Orcas. Driftwood started beef production in the 1960s with imported Charolais cattle from France. Previously the ranch had been the McNallie Dairy. It is now leased to another beef producer and some of the original herd still remains, Kinsey says. For the past three years, she has marketed and sold island beef online and at the farmers market.

As a child, Dana remembers summers marked with bucking hay bales and running the hay crew when she got older. Fielding calls from neighbors when the cows roamed filled out her days. She says the best part of farming is “having a great and healthy source of food.”

The worst part? “Maintaining infrastructure, working in the rain and the 24/7 aspect!”

Dana is raising her son on Orcas and says, “It is great to grow up in agriculture and animal husbandry and it was fun to sleep in the hay bins in the barn on stormy nights.”

When she graduated from Orcas Island High School, Dana chose to attend land grant universities that focus on agriculture-based research “so I might be able to learn from the experts.” She attended the University of California at Davis and Cornell University, taking beef management and other agricultural courses to understand the business side of production and why it was so hard to make a profit. “I found that the training emphasis was on large-scale operations and the margins are so small that some very disturbing practices happen to produce beef to get a higher price. For example, it was common to feed cattle free sources of protein such as road kill to increase weight or to feed them cement two weeks prior to slaughter to get a higher price ‘on the hoof,’ as they are sold by the pound live weight.

“This is when I realized how difficult it is to compete and to make it in agriculture. I also learned that ‘island,’ humane and essentially organic practices would be valued only if the consumer became educated in all the ways food is produced. It seems that trend is beginning.”

Dana is a member of the Agricultural Resources Committee of San Juan County (ARC), an advisory, volunteer group that helps inform the County Council on issues of agriculture. Some of the accomplishments of the ARC in Farmland Preservation and Farmer Enrichment include : The Islands Certified Local Program promoting local food establishments that use local farm products; the Farm Worker Housing Assistance Opportunity; amendments to the San Juan County Code regarding the Regulation of Dogs and Other Animals which increase the penalty on dog owners whose animal, while at large, has chased, bitten or injured another animal; and the “No Net Loss” agricultural land policy in Resolution 2006-01 which states “…no Agricultural Resources Land should be redesignated unless effective, equivalent mitigation – that assures no net loss in total Agricultural Resource Land – is required as a condition of any such redesignation,” and recommends the county code be amended to include similar language.

Eliza Buck, the ARC Coordinator says, “Though much of what we do isn’t easily noticed by the public, without the work of the ARC, agriculture would not be considered at the county level. Support from farmers and consumers for the ARC is vital at this time. We need to make our voices heard in support of agriculture here in the islands.”

To contact the ARC, go to

For more information about Orcas Island farmers, go to