Customers of Hedlin Farms’ community supported agriculture program get a special treat in their boxes of produce each week: Kai Ottesen’s odes to farming.
With an English degree in his back pocket, Ottesen can get downright poetic in his recipes and ramblings about farm life. He literally wrote a poem about cabbage when it came in season and can devote pages to the best uses for collard greens and peas-in-the-pod. As the 29-year-old nephew of farm owners Dave Hedlin and Serena Campbell, Ottesen spent summers on the La Conner farm when he wasn’t studying environmental literature at his home in Juneau, Alaska. It didn’t take long for him to see his dual interests converging in the Skagit Valley soil, inspiring him to start farming full-time in 2006.
“I saw a lot of the issues in terms of health, in terms of land use, in terms of meaningful work in the world, coming together and connecting at agriculture,” Ottesen said
“Everybody has to eat,” added Lauren Hedlin, Dave’s 27-year-old daughter and co-manager of the market garden with her cousin Ottesen. She runs a business teaching horse riding lessons on the side and says she’s still figuring out how the two passions fit together.
If they stick with it, they’ll be the fourth generation to take over the family farm, started by their great grandfather a century ago. But there’s no pressure to decide now. If anything inspires this generation of Hedlins to keep farming, it’s more likely to be their ties to the soil than to the family, they say. More and more young people like them are looking to farming not out of familial compulsion, but in their search for physically, intellectually — and environmentally — satisfying work.
Chandler Briggs, the 26-year-old manager of Island Meadow Farm on Vashon Island, is one of them. After growing up on California beaches, Briggs’ environmental studies degree translated into a desire to use the earth well and to literally live from hand to mouth. He recently organized a “young farmers’ mixer” on Vashon Island that drew a staggering 250 farmers and farm hopefuls from around the state to Vashon’s Grange Hall.
“I think people are coming to it for all their own reasons,” Briggs said, noting that a growing number of young farmers didn’t grow up on or near a farm. He said they’re looking for “a rich lifestyle — in the sense that one is eating well and working outside and feeling healthy.” Briggs said he and his peers recognize farming isn’t the most lucrative of fields — but that it’s a necessary one.
The need for people in agriculture is growing along with the average age of today’s farmers, which has reached 57 years old and counting, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Skagit County is no different, said Don McMoran, an educator at Washington State University Skagit County Extension Office. Couple that with the fact that 50 percent of those farmers are expected to retire in the next 10 years, and the need for new workers is clear.
McMoran recently organized a monthly breakfast get-together for young farmers, where they discuss problems facing the ag community and even interact with local politicians. When McMoran first put out sign-ups for the group, asking for farmers ages 18 to 35, he found about 20 Skagit farmers who fit the bill.
During one of their early morning — we’re talking 7 a.m. — meetings in October, a small group of young farmers quizzed county commissioner Sharon Dillon on farming issues leading up to the November election. They’d hosted her challenger Mike Anderson the month before.
The group is active in the effort to preserve farmland in Skagit County. But, more than that, they’re likely to be a big part of keeping it farmed.
At the table every month is Nate Youngquist, a 26-year-old farmer who’s in the delicate process of taking over the family operation. Though he grew up on a Mount Vernon farm, Youngquist said it struck him in college that he didn’t want to sit in a classroom, or an office, for very long. At 22, he planted his first half-acre of strawberries on some land he rented from family. He now farms 135 acres of mostly rented land, selling berries, pumpkins and corn under the label of Sky Harvest Produce. When he’s not chasing his dog Cash through the corn fields, Youngquist spends his days running pick crews in the summer, tilling fields in the fall and planning ahead for the 17 farmers markets and handful of grocery stores where produce is sold.
He rents land and borrows most of his equipment from the family operation, Youngquist Farms. Who owns what, he said, is in a season of transition and “kind of tricky.” Though Youngquist grew up on the farm, he said taking its reigns is a little different than he expected.
“It’s kind of funny now looking back. I grew up on this farm. I was hopping on tractors before I could probably ride a bike,” Youngquist said. “… I always knew it was hard work. But the challenging side is really the business aspect of it. You can’t just, you know, farm.”
Farming, he said, is both like and unlike any other business. Youngquist has been able to take advantage of resources within his family — from tractors to the “learn from my mistakes” wisdom his father openly shares.
But he expects he’ll need a loan sometime soon to keep growing. With heavy front-end costs of production, nearly every farmer needs some financing, he said.
Scott DeGraw, an agribusiness lender serving Washington and Oregon at Union Bank, said he’s been able to finance just 10 young farmers over his 20-year career. Most of them, he said, came from family farm backgrounds and wanted to start their own operations. It helps having a farming background and relatives to share equipment costs, he said.
“It is so hard for these young people to get started. I’m not gonna say it’s impossible because anything’s possible if the kids are willing to make enough sacrifices,” said DeGraw, who spends about 40 hours a week — when he’s not at work — with the cattle at his S & L Farms in Sedro-Woolley. Despite potential pitfalls, Skagit County may be one of the best places for young farmers to launch.
Sarita Schaffer works as a bilingual instructor at Viva Farms, a farm business incubator in Burlington that provides low-rent land and education for new farmers. It’s designed to be “the bridge between internships and ownership,” said Schaffer. (She also helps them land internships through www.growfood.org, which she co-launched to link farmer hopefuls to those who want to teach the trade.)
Between farm incubator programs and local access to WSU researchers and educators, Schaffer says Skagit County “is well-positioned to be the premier lanchpad for young farmers.”
“That’s definitely one of the goals of Viva Farms, to be a stepping stone for young farmers,” she said.
Photos by Scott Terrell / Skagit Valley Herald Kai Ottesen describes the virtues of the Brandywine heirloom tomatoes that are grown in a greenhouse at Hedlin Farms. He and Lauren Hedlin (in the background) run the market garden.
Scott Terrell / Skagit Valley Herald Nate Youngquist shows off his golden raspberry bushes, which still put out fruit in mid-October. The golden berries were a best seller at farmers markets in Seattle through September.
Printed in full with the author’s permission.