Emily Newhouse and Corbin Scholz sit in the dirt of Maxwelton Valley, talking about teenagers, pregnancy and contraceptives. They are meticulously tending to rows and rows of tomato plants, picking off tiny leaves from the growing stems.
“We have to prune them. Tomatoes want to grow out, spread along the ground. We want them to grow up,” Newhouse said. “We have to make sure there’s enough air flow.”
Newhouse, 42, is a former community health worker from Phoenix. Scholz, 23, is a recent graduate of the University of Iowa.
Both decided to pursue a new life and career — farming. They are among this year’s crop of eight students studying and working at the Organic Farm School, nestled in South Whidbey off Maxwelton and Campbell Roads.
“It just seems like the most important work in the world,” Newhouse said. “I’m results orientated. With farming you see the results, you eat the results. And it’s really fun work.”
Well, there are spread sheets and other necessary paper work and computer records to keep up that are vital for organic certification by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
But mostly, learning about small-scale farming means being outside, getting fields ready in the drenching days of March to basking in the waning fall days of November.
Many topics are covered by farm manager and instructor Aaron Varadi and assistant instructor Raelani Kesler, who grew up on Whidbey. The eight-month program teaches how to manage a farm. Soil preparation, irrigation, seeding, ordering, planting, fertilizing, harvesting, marketing, business administration and community development are among the subjects.
“Soil development is huge,” said Varadi, “especially when you’re starting on a beach.”
Maxwelton Valley may be rich in agricultural history, but its dirt is more like sand, he said.
The Organic Farm School, formerly located at Greenbank Farm, is in its second season reviving fields of the past. Its 10 acres sit within an old horse track.
“We’re in the middle of what was once the Feek Farm that grew carrots, onions and raised dairy cows,” said Judy Feldman, the school’s executive director. “We’re just following in the tradition but with young folks.”
The property is now owned by Ron and Eva Sher, owners of Seattle’s popular Third Place Books. Two years ago, the Shers offered to let the school get established lease-free as a way to support sustainable agriculture and give back to Whidbey Island and the region.
The Organic Farm School emphasizes not having all your eggs in one basket. (Actually, it doesn’t even produce eggs because all its 92 chickens are roosters.)
Students learn how to raise chickens, lambs and pigs for meat. There are 40 different vegetables growing from turmeric to turnips to tomatoes. Many of the veggies have many varieties, such as the six different types of lettuce, 11 tomato varieties and three different types of kale.
Students also learn how to grow crops for seed that are sold to about a half-dozen native seed companies around the country.
“This is an heirloom variety of spinach,” Varadi points out, walking through rows of bright green leafy bundles. “It’s grown for the seed.”
“It helps produce revenue in December and January,” he added. “That’s part of the business plan and crop production we teach.”
“You need to constantly re-evaluate how to make money. In other words, farming is not just working here in the field.”
The Organic Farm School follows the concept of CSA, or community-supported agricultural. It offers local residents CSA memberships for a small or large weekly supply of fresh produce; some of the funds help support the students.
The farm also has two Whidbey “pop-up” sites. Produce is sold every Wednesday afternoon at Island Athletic Club in Freeland and at a produce stand on the corner of Maxwelton and Campbell Roads.
Helping sustain small farms gives back to communities with fresh food, jobs, soil sustainability and the development of future farmers. It’s a pitch Feldman gives often, raising money and awareness about the Organic Farm School.
Currently, the school is seeking $10,000 by the end of July that will be matched by Goosefoot.
“When you donate, what it’s ultimately doing is supporting young people who want to be farmers,” Feldman said. “It’s getting fresh produce to the Star Store and The Goose. It’s helping the food banks. And you’re supporting the local economy.”
Since it started in 2009, Whidbey’s Organic Farm School has graduated about 50 students. Some have stayed and established their own farms on the island, including Kettle’s Edge Farm, Foxtail Farm and Deep Harvest Farm. Others set down roots, so to speak, in other states.
It’s predicted an estimated 91 million agricultural acres across the country will need new farmers in the next five years. Currently, only 8 percent of the nation’s farmers are under the of age 35.
But farming is not considered a career choice even in states where people assume it’s a way of life, said Scholz, the University of Iowa graduate once bound for medical school.
“I planned to take over my mother’s podiatry clinic but I realized I was doing that for her, not me,” she said.
“Farming wasn’t really an option in Iowa. People would tell me about the low wages, the closed farms.
“But you need a farmer three times a day,” she pointed out. “Maybe four if you eat like me. But no one worries about where their food is coming from. Ask the average kid where lettuce comes from and they say the grocery store.”
Visit the farm
- The Organic Farm School hosts two annual community potlucks a year and offers tours for those wanting to see where lettuce — and bok choy and micro-plants and radishes and beets — really come from.
- Public produce sales: The Goose, Star Store and 5 to 7 p.m. every Wednesday at the Island Athletic Center in Freeland and at the corner of Maxwelton and Campbell Roads.
- A campaign to raise $10,000 is under way and will be matched by Goosefoot.
- Farm tours offered first Friday every month by reservation.
- Community Organic Farm School potluck is July 10.
- For more information: organicfarmschool.org, email: firstname.lastname@example.org