Ever since the North Pole temporarily relocated to the Blue Fox Drive-In’s Christmas Village, Santa Claus has been sharing the neighborhood with a community of fuzzy creatures who might have been unintentionally stealing the spotlight from him.
On a cold yet snowless Sunday night in December, Moo Radley was the whitest thing at this family-friendly event that runs through Dec. 23, second only to the marshmallows being roasted over the fireplace to make s’mores.
For most people around the world, ancient white park cattle are a rare sight. However, Whidbey residents have a greater chance of seeing this breed more than once, either as it feasts on some hay, or as it gets feasted on — a fate that Moo Radley won’t meet as he is basically employed in perpetuity as Bell’s Farm’s “ambassador cow.”
With his horns, white fur and heavy eyeliner, the 2-year-old steer couldn’t help but attract humans who approached him under the careful eyes of the turkeys next door. As visitors reached to gently caress Moo Radley’s head through the gate, the steer leaned closer. The attention was nothing new, as he has in fact been showered with well deserved affection ever since his mother rejected him when he was born.
Kyle Flack, a farmer who runs Bell’s Farm with his wife Paige Mueller, believes they own one of the largest herds in North America of ancient white park cattle, a breed so rare that there are only just more than 1,300 between the United States and Canada. Currently, the farm is home to about 200 steers, including 70 breeding moms and a big guy named Shrek.
Ancient white park cattle originally came from Great Britain and are known for the rich flavor of their beef as well as their appearance — generally, white bodies with black points and horns. These creatures live peacefully at the farm, moving around, eating healthy and being entertained by the occasional reporter armed with a camera and a talent for stepping on poop.
The gentle giants, in addition to the mixed-breed sheep, are an integral part of Bell’s Farm efforts to take better care of the environment, as they fertilize and turn up the soil while also eating without overgrazing. This is known as regenerative agriculture, a farming practice that restores the biodiversity and productivity of the land.
In addition to implementing sustainable farming and agriculture, Bell’s Farm employs a highly specialized team of critters to tour the island to promote these practices. Among them, “the golden girls” (sheep trio Missy Elliott, Wonky and Polly), Cowzette the ancient white park calf and, of course, Moo Radley.
This team is on a mission to expose the community to farming and agriculture in a world where farming is seen as uncool and more children believe milk grows on trees.
Flack said he worries about the future of agriculture and farming, particularly on Whidbey Island, where he said farmers struggle with the excessive cost of land and fuel and a lack of workers who are willing to embrace the farm lifestyle.
“I’m on the young side of farmers,” said Flack, who is in his 30s. “That’s gonna be a problem coming up here pretty quick.”
By bringing their animals to community events and welcoming students to visit the farm, Flack hopes to inspire young generations to grow and raise food for a living so that farmers don’t go extinct.
“Nobody’s going to be a farmer if they’ve never experienced a farm, right?” he said. “Being involved in a community for us is really important so that people don’t lose their awareness that agriculture does exist here even though it’s a very hard road to hoe right now.”
Because of the challenges of running a farm on the island, Bell’s Farm has had to make a few changes, such as cutting its production of vegetables and strawberries to focus on raising cattle, sheep and hay. Flack said he doubts they’ll see a large-scale mixed vegetables program again, and while they keep growing strawberries, production will be much smaller.
Another challenge for farmers that Flack lamented is the need for a butcher facility where people — farmers and residents who own a few animals on their backyard — can process their meat. Flack recalled how the meat shelves on the grocery stores would quickly empty when the pandemic first hit, which to him indicates a need for the island to grow more food resilience.
“The more people can take care of themselves, the less emergency resources we’re going to need,” he said. “I think the county could definitely put some money and some effort into making sure we have access to meat processing on Whidbey.”
Partly because of the inconsistent access to meat processing, Flack had to put an end to Island Pig and Pasture, a partnership between Bell’s Farm and Eckholm Farm to produce quality pork that was officially born in 2022. Delaying a hog’s butchering date would cause the hog to grow fatter and the meat to lose quality, Flack explained. As a result, the farm stopped raising pigs almost a year ago and sold the last piece of pork last week.
“I love pigs. So I’m sure I’ll do it again, at some point, but mostly it’s just an economic decision,” he said.
Despite the challenges, Flack is confident that Bell’s Farm will endure, as it has since 1946.
“We’ll find a way to keep going,” he said. “We want to keep getting better.”
Community members are invited to meet the animals and Santa at the Blue Fox Drive-In, where they can also find fresh cut Christmas trees, light displays, an arcade, free food and beverages. For more information about hours, visit bluefoxdrivein.com.