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Wednesday, April 23, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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New generation of farmers nurturing a growing movement

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

To get involved


Sno-Valley Tilth meets monthly and is always looking for members, not only farmers but anyone who supports the idea of local agriculture. For more information, call Erick Haakenson at 425-222-3738. There are tilth organizations in cities throughout Washington state, including Seattle.
Erick Haakenson is working to revive the once-loud voice of agriculture in the Snoqualmie Valley.

The 51-year-old owner of Jubilee Farm in Carnation wants to bring back the culture of the farming lifestyle by promoting locally produced products and sharing the joy of farming with newcomers.

King County at one time had a flourishing farm community, but much of the prime land has been lost to development and industrialization. Vegetable production declined sharply in the two decades leading up to the 1980s, but the valley has seen a slow but growing resurgence of small farms in recent years.

Last month, Haakenson and 16 other farmers united to create Sno-Valley Tilth, a network for organic and sustainable farmers in the Snoqualmie Valley. They are a new generation, primarily self-taught farmers, raising produce, flowers and other nontraditional crops, many at defunct dairy farms.

"A lot of farming has gone to the wayside out here, and we're trying to get it jump-started again," said Luke Woodward, 37, who started the Oxbow Farm in Carnation with his wife about five years ago.

The farmers who make up Sno-Valley Tilth had been meeting casually for years — discussing everything from pest control to marketing — but wanted to formalize and gain an official voice.

"The valley has really grown in population and we want to be a resource for people who want to become farmers or live near farms," said Haakenson, taking a break from planting to have a sandwich piled with turkey and fresh sprouts. "We also want a say in political matters involving our community."

Haakenson moved to Carnation from Redmond in 1988, and started his 25-acre organic farm where he grows all kinds of vegetables, including several varieties of heirloom tomatoes.

"Not much was happening when I first arrived," he said, "but now there are farms dotting the area."

Michaele Blakely, owner of Growing Things in Carnation, worked as a teacher before deciding 12 years ago that she wanted to farm full time. She said farmers who start later in life have new approaches and different perspectives.

"We are a lot more fluid," said Blakely, who raises organic vegetables, berries, poultry, pork and eggs. "Traditional farmers have ingrained methods and often think there is only one way. Small, organic farmers change things, and know there are many ways."

Sno-Valley Tilth farmers raise not only fruits and vegetables, but flowers, dairy products, herbs, honey, turkey and Christmas trees. Though the number of farms in King County steadily falls, the growing popularity of locally grown organic products means small farmers, happy with a moderate income and lifestyle, can make it.

Haakenson says farming is relaxing and satisfying, and he much prefers having deadlines guided by nature.

"I went through the proverbial midlife crisis at 40 and decided that instead of watching life going by, I wanted to be part of it," he said. "I learned to farm and developed patience. My life has become more peaceful."

Farming thrived in the valley until the early 1960s, when many farmers moved or sold out because of development and flooding.

But for organic farmers such as Haakenson — who use no herbicides, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers — the rains bring silts and microelements that help crops grow.

Haakenson was one of the first in King County to start a subscription farm, or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which allows the public to support local farmers by paying for part of their bounty. Members get a box of fruit and vegetables each week at a pickup site. Some farms deliver.

Haakenson says demand continues to grow. He now provides produce to 250 families.

"Every day I get calls from people who want good organic produce, want to support local farmers or want agricultural contact for their kids," he said. "Pulling carrots or digging potatoes can be a life-changing experience for a child doing it the first time."

Among Sno-Valley Tilth's goals:

• To encourage young people to learn farming by granting local schools access to local farms.

• To raise public awareness about the value of local food.

• To create consumer awareness regarding the availability of local products.

• To provide a support network for new and existing farmers.

• To be a credible source of information to governmental and regulatory agencies regarding the needs of local farmers.

"King County bends over backwards to keep Microsoft and Boeing," Haakenson said. "They need to realize that agriculture is an important component of a vibrant community. People have become alienated from (the source of their) food."

One way Haakenson hopes to change that is by teaching farming to anyone interested. He has interns and runs a work-share program, where people can volunteer hours on the farm in exchange for food.

"The 5,000-acre mega-farms depend on equipment and fossil fuel, which isn't going to last forever," he said. "People must realize that radical change is happening and without farms, food may run out."

Leslie Fulbright: 206-515-5637 or lfulbright@seattletimes.com

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