(Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series of articles about Methow Valley agriculture provided by the Methow Conservancy.)
When the ground begins freezing, you will find most farmers and ranchers in a focused scramble to wrap up the last of the season’s projects and tuck their farms into bed for winter.
While the days may be getting shorter, not so for the farmer’s laundry list of chores. There are tools and equipment to store safely under cover, post-dormancy soil amendments to spread, irrigation lines to blow out, drip lines and plastic mulch to roll up, orchard aisles to mow, hay tarps to double check and secure.
For some producers, their crops or livestock are harvested, sold and already in the bank. For others, like the valley’s direct-market orchardists, grain growers or storage-crop producers, there are many months of marketing and sales ahead. For livestock producers, there are animals to keep warm, fed and watered through the year’s harshest months. But hopefully there will be a day in the coming weeks when they will all be able to sleep in, savor a leisurely cup of coffee, and watch the frost melting in the late-morning sun. Goodness knows they’ve earned it.
With 2019 nearly in the rear-view mirror, we reached out to local producers to hear how the farming season went. We asked orchardists, grain and vegetable growers, meat and dairy producers, ranchers and hay producers if the harvest had been good; if demand had been steady; and if mother nature had been cooperative. The unusually cool temperatures in July and August, and the extended September rains, were a blessing for some. For others, the blessing was mixed.
For Deb Jones-Schuler of Wild Plum Farm, who raises heritage pork on pasture in the Twin Lakes area, this spring and summer were “a gift from the farming gods.” At the beginning of the season, Jones-Schuler worried about irrigation water availability due to the predicted drought. But the surprisingly cool temperatures and smoke-free skies allowed her pasture grasses to grow prolifically.
Jones-Schuler’s not sure if she will be so lucky in future summers, so she is working to make her pastures more adaptive to varied weather by planting an increasingly diverse mix of annual and perennial grasses, legumes and brassicas.
For Annie Utigard of the King’s Garden in Carlton, who grows heirloom vegetables for Seattle chefs, crops that did especially well were green beans and cucurbits — winter squashes, summer squash and cucumbers. Field-grown tomatoes did not fare as well: temperatures never got hot enough to kick the plants into high gear, and there was a freezing night in early September that brought a sluggish season to an abrupt end.
Cameron Green and Eric Wittenbach of Willow Brook Farm in Carlton reported that most of their vegetable crops performed well, despite a cooler summer. Cherry tomatoes, Shishito snacking peppers and leafy greens all did well — and were a big hit with customers.
Stina Booth and John Richardson of Booth Canyon Orchard in Carlton were glad to skip the days above 95 degrees in July and August that typically cause sunburn on apples. Though Richardson noted that their nearly four-dozen apple and pear varieties were slow to ripen: “We just didn’t have the late-summer heat that we usually count on.”
On the other hand, they experienced some unusually warm weather during the spring bloom. This warmth, coupled with rain, created ideal conditions for the spread of fireblight. Booth and Richardson responded proactively, removing nearly 200 trees and hundreds of fruit-laden branches infected by the bacterium. But they worry about backyard or feral apple trees continuing to host the highly-infectious disease.
In the fields
Art Zink, who was one of the first orchardists in the state to plant Honeycrisp apples, reported that fruit quality was good at his orchard in Methow. However, prices and yield were somewhat lower than normal. Honeycrisp growers across the region experienced an unexplained “premature drop” of about 10-15% of fruit, about two weeks before harvest. And because of the surge in Honeycrisp production in recent years, the market price has fallen by about 20%.
Grain growers across Okanogan County were challenged by unusually cool and damp weather in September. According to Celeste Acord of the Okanogan Farm Services Agency, many wheat farmers experienced delays in the harvest, resulting in diminished yield and crop quality. Fortunately, for Methow grain growers Sam and Brooke Lucy of Bluebird Grain Farms in Winthrop, yields were good this year — actually 8% above average. Sam Lucy noted, however, that 40% of their emmer crop was lost to a field fire in early September. Bluebird’s top sellers are their emmer farro and einkorn flour — which many consumers with gluten sensitivities have found they can still enjoy.
Sam Thrasher-Soodak of Doubletree Farm in Twisp, whose dairy produces grass-fed whole milk, felt especially lucky. She was able to “squeak” in hay harvests between the bouts of summer rain. Thrasher-Soodak puts up three cuttings of grass and alfalfa hay on about 30 acres, enough to provide winter feed for her 10 milking cows.
Hay producer Steve Devin was also able to find windows of opportunity for all of his three hay cuttings. But he noted that many of the bigger hay growers, who manage many hundreds of acres, have an extended harvest period. It’s much harder for them to navigate weather like this year’s. The vast majority of hay producers, from the Methow Valley to the Columbia Basin, were unable to cure much of their third cutting.
Rancher Craig Boesel felt that 2019 was a fairly normal year, and that “normal was a good thing.” Forage availability on the range was typical, irrigation for hay fields and pastures was available when it was needed, and the calves put weight on very well. Unfortunately, calf prices were down this fall — as much as 15 cents per pound less than last year.
Despite this, Boesel’s outlook is positive. “As a farmer or a rancher, you must have the ability, or the personality, to know that you did everything you could — but that some things are just out of your control, like buyers and the weather. You have to be able to endure the ups and downs, and knuckle under to do it again next year.”
Most farmers and ranchers will agree that you have to be a bit of a chronic optimist to be qualified for the work. For some farmers, this year was a challenge, for others it was good, and for some it was great. But certainly for everyone, next year will be better.