By Marcy Stamper
Family farming is a tough way to make a living, but some 400 Washington families have succeeded at it for 125 years — including the Thurlows, who still operate their cattle ranch outside Twisp. This week those families got some official recognition as part of the state’s 125th-anniversary celebration.
Twenty-five years ago, for the state’s centennial, the Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) honored farms and ranches around the state that had been in the same family for a century or more. This year the department checked in with those farmers to see how they’re doing.
More than 200 of those farmers responded, and many of their stories and photos were featured Tuesday (Nov. 11) at the state Capitol as part of a special exhibit for Washington’s 125th anniversary. The Thurlow Ranch, on Lower Beaver Creek, is one of 25 farms highlighted in the exhibit, said Mary Beth Lang, bioenergy and special projects coordinator for WSDA.
In addition to heralding the farmers’ long-standing connection to the land, WSDA asked about changes in farm practices and economics in the past 25 years. “The people, animals, stories, politics and economics have been interesting,” wrote Bernard and Dianne Thurlow. Their reflections are part of the exhibit.
The Thurlows have farmed alfalfa and cattle on lower Beaver Creek since Bernard’s grandfather, Mason Thurlow, acquired squatter’s rights there in 1886 from a man who had bought property and built a log cabin along the creek.
“His garden froze in the spring and he thought he couldn’t make it, so he decided to sell to the first man who came along,” said Bernard in an interview this week. After some negotiation [the man wanted $30], they settled on $22.50 for the 160 acres, he said.
Ranch has grown
Half of that original homestead remains in family ownership, although the ranch has grown to more than 3,000 acres.
Mason and his family developed the land and even had a generator for electricity to run lights in the barn, which enabled them to start milking and harnessing horses before daybreak, said Bernard.
In the 1890s, Mason had a barn built on the property, paying the carpenter $75 plus a year’s room and board, said Bernard. The barn is still in use, particularly to shelter animals in the winter.
In the early days, the Thurlows raised mainly beef cattle and workhorses for plowing. Mason was also a successful gardener who regularly grew half an acre of watermelons, said Bernard. They drove the cattle — on foot and horseback — all the way to Wenatchee, from where they could ship them by rail.
Bernard was born on the ranch shortly after Mason died. He became a veterinarian, served in the military doing food inspections, and cared for guard dogs at missile bases before returning to the ranch in 1972. Running the ranch and caring for his aging parents was a heavy schedule, said Bernard. “I about died from lack of sleep,” he said.
The Thurlows still raise cattle descended from the original stock and use the same cattle brands, but other aspects of their operations have changed. The biggest changes in the past 25 years are economic and regulatory, with rising costs and more hurdles obtaining and keeping grazing permits on public land, said Dianne. Today they rely on private rangeland.
With more opportunities for young people to make more money in other fields, it has become even harder to succeed at farming, said Dianne.
“You need some other source of income — like an oil well,” said Bernard.
Bernard and his son Sean do the majority of work on the farm. Two other children, who live outside the valley, provide additional help, said Dianne.
Some fire damage
The Thurlows described the damage the ranch suffered in the Carlton Complex Fire for the state’s anniversary exhibit. The fire burned hay, fences and irrigation infrastructure, but the original home, a log barn, a bunkhouse and a woodshed survived.
Of the 400 farms identified in 1989, about 90 percent are still in the same family, said Lang, who also worked on the centennial project. WSDA is still trying to locate some of the original farm families, she said. To be featured in the 125th celebration, the farm has to be owned by the same family and still be in agriculture, although it can be leased to another farmer.
Certain trends emerged in the families’ accounts, said Lang. Overall, farms have gotten larger — one farmer said 2,400 acres is no longer economically viable. Technology has also changed farm practices. Many farmers report that they regularly use GPS devices, she said.
Certified organic farming — which didn’t exist 25 years ago — has grown considerably, as have direct sales through a farm store or farmers market, said Lang. Many cattle operations now favor natural, grass-fed beef, she added.
Washington’s original centennial farm recognition was a voluntary program, so there may be other family farms that didn’t sign up. The stories of the almost 400 farms that chose to participate were published in a book called Washington’s Centennial Farms: Yesterday and Today.
The book, along with other historical information about farming in Washington, is available on the WSDA website at agr.wa.gov (look under “Agriculture in WA,” then “Centennial Celebration,” then “Washington’s Centennial Farms”).
In addition to the Thurlow Ranch, three other farms in Okanogan County participated in the original project.