By Ian Taylor,
The path from gardening enthusiast, to Seattle Tilth employee, to successful farmer might seem like a natural progression but many more dream of making that journey than actually achieve it.
Among those few are Rob Peterson and Joanne Jewell, whose five acre Plum Forest Farm on Vashon Island is a shining example of a dream fulfilled. With their daughters, Mira and Rose, and an ever-changing cast of eager interns, Rob and Joanne are at the center of an inspiring venture into sustainable farming: everything about them is fresh, local and organic.
Rob and Joanne’s story goes back to their youthful travels when, quite separately, they were each inspired by experiences in other cultures to pay close attention to food and farming.
“I became interested in Central American politics when I was at the University of Washington,” says Joanne. “I traveled there after graduation and learned a lot. I was struck by the need for improvements in health care and agriculture. I already loved gardening, so when I got back I went to UC Santa Cruz and took the Apprenticeship in Ecological Agriculture,” a pioneering organic farming program begun in 1967 by Alan Chadwick. Joanne loved the learning and the experience, and after 18 months left with a deep longing to live on a farm.
Returning to Seattle she found herself increasingly interested in doing something to foster organic farming in the United States. Encounters with local leaders such as Howard Stenn and Carl Woestwin, two early activists in the local movement, guided her towards Seattle Tilth’s Master Composter program.
Rob’s junior year of college was spent in Senegal. “It was a combination of adventure and academics that included learning to speak French and the native language Wolof,” says Rob. Like Joanne, he observed how central the production of food was to the lives and well-being of his hosts, and his interest in farming was born.
To build up his farming knowledge and skills he interned at Tillers International in Kalamazoo, MI, where he spent three months learning about draft animals and all kinds of farming technologies. He then moved to Kansas to complete a one year internship in Sustainable Agriculture at the Land Institute.
Rob returned to Seattle with the realization that he loved outdoor work and was passionate about sustainable agriculture. He joined Seattle Tilth and over the next several years played many roles in the organization, including newsletter editor, garden coordinator and bookkeeper.
While working at Seattle Tilth, Rob lived and worked at Brigit Croft farm in Snohomish. After two and a half years, Joanne joined him there while both continued to work for Seattle Tilth. “That farm was a great learning experience,” says Rob. “We began looking for our own land to farm, ideally within one hour of Seattle so we could keep our Seattle Tilth jobs.” After a year and a half of searching, they were tipped off to the availability of the land that is now Plum Forest Farm. In 1999 they took the plunge and bought it. They now had a substantial mortgage, part-time jobs and a one year old daughter.
“The first few years we invested in infrastructure,” recalls Rob. “We attacked the weeds on the land through repeated cycles of cover-cropping and tilling. We did that for a couple of years. We gradually added things like deer fencing and the farm stand out by the road. We drilled a well, added a water distribution system and spigots, built a greenhouse and a harvest shed.” During these years they raised some crops and steers and sold eggs from their chicken flock. The farm wasn’t profitable but it made a little money and the important foundations for success were being laid.
In 2005 they had their first year of significant profitability. They sold eggs and produce at the farm stand and at the Vashon Farmers’ Market, building up a base of regular customers who grew to love the Plum Forest Farm Gourmet Salad Mix. In November of 2005, Rose was born. With two young children to raise, the couple made the difficult decision to quit farming for two years while Rob worked full time. He left his job at Seattle Tilth and took a construction job on the island. “The break from farming was risky,” says Rob, “but it gave us two years of financial security when we needed it most.”
In 2008 the Great Recession brought an end to Rob’s construction work and the couple faced another tough decision: either try to find another full-time job or commit full-time to farming. “At this point we decided to live out the idea that ‘Boldness has genius, power and magic in it,’” says Rob, grinning. “We became full-tilt farmers!” They welcomed their first farm intern, who lived in a cabin Rob built, and began an all-out effort to make the farm pay for itself.
“It’s been steady progress since then,” says Joanne. “We began a CSA. This year we sold 20 shares. Six of them are work shares, which means those people work on the farm in exchange for their share of produce. We enjoy having them here and they enjoy the farm experience.”
Farming by hand is hard work and small farmers typically use some mechanized tools to ease the workload. “We do most of our work with hand tools,” says Rob, “using primarily a broad fork for soil preparation. We are able to borrow a neighbor’s tractor for turning compost piles, sowing and tilling in large areas of cover crops. We also have a rototiller that we use for managing smaller areas of cover crops.”
The farm relies partly on those enthusiastic interns who come to work at Plum Forest through programs like WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Over the years, 14 interns have worked on the farm. “They are delightful people,” says Rob. “They come to us from many countries, not just the United States. Many of them are remarkably well-educated. We stay in contact with most and almost all of them are still involved in agriculture.”
In 2010, Plum Forest became a member of Tilth Producers of Washington. A milestone was reached in 2012 when the farm was awarded Organic Certification. “Going for the certification was a lot of work,” says Rob, “but it was important to us and we’re proud to have it. The key was to meet the federal composting standard and the key to that was the compost bin system we built. We were able to do that with some cost-sharing support from the King Conservation District.”
“The world has changed since we started,” says Rob. “We used to have to explain about sustainable agriculture. Now people know what it is.”
In the years since Rob and Joanne started their farming venture, the world has indeed changed around them — in part because of them: they are people who have become the change they wished to see.