When Stephen Williams first stepped foot on Whidbey Island a few years ago, he had no idea that he and his wife Amy would soon pack up everything they owned and leave their home state of North Carolina to become farmers in the Pacific Northwest.
Along with their fluffy canine mascot Barley, the couple put down roots in Freeland in 2014 and went to work cultivating a patch of land that evolved into the certified organic Foxtail Farm.
As the last gasp of summer approaches and islanders are on the prowl for late-summer veggies, fruits, dahlias and sunflowers, it’s hard to resist following signs leading to the farm stand at Foxtail Farm. The golden rows of “sunnies” stand like sentinels of summer along the farm’s perimeter, guarding the precious remaining weeks before school begins and leaves start turning.
Multiple varieties of the gentle golden giants weave their magic through carefully tended soil, and they’re yours to purchase at the “honor system” farm stand. Just-picked sunnies vie for space with dozens of hand-planted and proudly plucked organic earth offerings. It’s a good bet the kohlrabi, kale, arugula, collards, cabbages and heirloom onions were in the ground nearby shortly before you scoop them up, drop your money in a blue box and have them sizzling on your supper table that night.
A walk through the fields at Foxtail Farm is like a tumble through time, with every twist and turn framing rows and rows of home-grown vegetables, tangled tomato vines, squash, beans, beets, berries and more pucker-up peppers than you could shake a stick at. About 98 percent of them are sold on Whidbey Island, according to Stephen, making their way to grocery stores, restaurants and directly to people’s kitchens via the Bayview Farmer’s Market and the farm’s own stand.
Stephen and Amy had no background in farming, but a keen interest soon became a deep passion after Stephen spent a year learning the “laws of the land” at the all-immersive Organic Farm School, a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit on Whidbey Island. Students at the school learn everything from soil science to livestock production and business planning as well as practical farm skills including planning, tillage, greenhouse propagation, weeding, harvesting and composting.
Fortunately for South Whidbey, the school’s investment in training America’s future farmers to run small-scale organic farms paid off when Stephen, Amy and Barley decided to homestead just minutes away in Freeland. An added plus for the island is an extra effort the couple puts into cultivating crops not typically grown in the Pacific Northwest, including ginger and Deep South favorites such as okra, watermelon and sweet potatoes.
“The okra plant flowers for just one day, or even less,” Stephen explains. “Then the flower falls off and leaves a small green nub that morphs into the okra, which is a Southern staple.” He tells how one Whidbey chef even comes to Foxtail specifically to pick tomatoes early for making Southern-style fried green tomatoes for his restaurant menu.
The couple speaks of the encompassing sense of community they’ve found on Whidbey and of the challenge and reward that comes from “growing good food while treading lightly on the land we’ve been entrusted with.” Stephen adds that their focus when building the farm from scratch was on simplicity, even ensuring their house was sustainable and created to meet their basic needs at roughly 1,200 square feet of living space.
The sunflowers at Foxtail will be waving goodbye as the air turns crisp, but the farm stand thrives with autumn offerings for weeks to come. “We stock the stand with fresh items three times a day,” explains Stephen.
“There’s refrigeration for the things that need to stay cool; otherwise, it’s simple and open-air and self-service.”