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Two till plat of land behind Country Store
CZ Reins is worried about the garlic.
She stands at the bottom of a long row, pulling up plants and brushing off a film of fine dirt to reveal the shapely white bulbs beneath. “Look at it,” said Reins, who with her partner Jamie Froyd runs The Farm at The Country Store. “Big. Beautiful.”
The bulb is perfect, except for those few feathery veins of discoloration circling the root base.
It might be white rot. Reins isn’t sure. Other Vashon farmers have reported garlic problems this year too. The crop won’t be a total loss.
“We might get 25 percent,” she said. But it’s a disappointment given the time, space and resources that Reins and Froyd invested in garlic this season.
And so it goes in the world of agriculture, where it sometimes seems as though the forces of nature are arrayed against the farmer.
Summer droughts, winter snows that collapse hoop houses, flies that burrow into carrots, beetles that munch holes in the arugula, slugs, aphids, cabbage worms and, of course, the ubiquitous Island deer that feast on just about everything. Even The Farm’s onions weren’t immune this year.
Froyd and Reins have worked the acre behind The Country Store for four seasons now, and garlic woes aside, things have gotten better every year.
They have fortified the sandy soil, vanquished most of the pests and expanded the main field, adding new rows of The Farm’s specialty — alliums, or members of the onion family.
They now grow 20 different varieties of alliums, said Reins, including four kinds of shallots and 10 kinds of onions.
But best of all, the duo was finally able to extend the deer fence around all the beds.
A tour of the garden found Froyd beaming at her Brussels sprouts. And though a July sun was high in the sky, it was last winter’s weather that was making her smile. Snow had buried their cooking greens and carrots, Froyd recalled.
“But I came out and picked Brussels sprouts,” she said. “They were just sticking right up there above the snow. They had no protection at all, but they were fine. They were so cool.”
Such simple discoveries have delighted Froyd during her four years running The Farm, an effort that sees the 40-year-old Indiana native coming full circle.
She grew up in the central part of the state amid a patchwork of small family farms. The locals raised feed crops mostly — corn, soybeans, winter wheat — and made liberal use of the fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides that her father, an agricultural researcher, helped to develop.
Froyd’s family didn’t own a farm. But there were fruit trees on their property and berry patches and a family garden. “I always did know what fresh good produce tasted like,” she said.
Froyd came to Vashon in 1993. She finished a degree in languages from the University of Washington and took a job at Pete’s U-Pick Pumpkin Patch on Maury Island. (Proprietor Pete Svinth’s 20-acre spread on Dockton Road is now Pacific Crest Farm.)
After five seasons with Svinth, Froyd struck out on her own. She earned an organic certification and arranged to work a piece of land down near Point Robinson. But health problems scuttled the plan.
Froyd’s dreams of farm life may have ended there, were it not for the Democratic caucuses in February 2004, where she came face to face with her future.
Cindy Dubs was a high school basketball star and an accomplished horsewoman in her native Springfield, Ore. She holds a degree in animal science from Oregon State University. Dubs left the Beaver State for Vashon Island in 1983 and began a new life as CZ (“Seize the”) Reins.
Since arriving, Reins, 53, has picked apples at Wax Orchard and weeds at The Country Store, made holly wreaths at Augie’s U-Pick, tended plants at the Colvos Nursery and worked as a janitor, baker and bakery manager for Sound Food.
In the late 1990s, Reins got her farrier’s certification. But a foot injury kept her from shoeing horses.
The hobbled farrier met the frustrated farmer during those Democratic caucuses at Vashon High School. Reins helped Froyd overcome her health problems.
A year later, Vy Biel, founder and owner of The Country Store and Gardens, offered the pair the land behind her 45-year-old establishment on Vashon Highway, and The Farm at The Country Store was born.
Or reborn, actually. Vy Biel was growing and selling produce to Seattle’s fancier restaurants back in the ’70s.
Reins and Froyd divide up the farm work based on their interests and strengths. Froyd is the produce expert and soil doctor. Reins handles the starts business and the planting schedule.
A longtime astrology buff, she consults an ephemeris, a kind of astrological almanac, to construct a planting timetable based on the phases of the moon.
Lunar planting operates on the theory that the moon’s gravitational pull raises tides in the soil as well as in the oceans. As a result, seeds absorb more water and the increased pressure helps to burst the seed coat and speed germination.
“The plants really do respond to that moon,” said Reins. “Before a week, those plants are up.”
Froyd and Reins share planting, harvesting and selling duties. They keep a small farm stand under the catalpa tree by The Country Store parking lot. But their retail efforts are focused mainly on the Farmer’s Market and on a small, personalized community supported agriculture (CSA) program.
The two partners, with their signature caps, are fixtures in the northwest corner of the Farmer’s Market. Reins works the crowd, chatting easily and at length with customers about when to put starts in the ground and how to fertilize. Froyd, who calls herself “hermitty,” isn’t as comfortable with the public side of farming. Pricing is an even bigger challenge.
“You really can’t charge enough to cover all the labor and the costs, because then nobody could afford to buy your stuff,” she said.
The Farm serves a dozen or so CSA subscribers. Unlike other CSA operations on Vashon, however, its program is “pay as you go.” There’s no up-front fee, and subscribers can choose their level of participation, paying anywhere from $15 to $40 weekly, depending on the volume of their weekly pickup. “We had one person who just wanted salad,” said Reins.
The flexible CSA design, explained Froyd, “makes it more accessible for people who don’t have a lot money.”
“And that’s who we are!” chimed in Reins.
Froyd and Reins still hold down part-time jobs – Froyd at K-Jo Farm, Reins at the Colvos Nursery. But the two vegetarians foresee a time when they work only at The Farm, especially if they succeed in growing all of their own food.
At the moment, said Froyd, “we’re trying to figure out how many rows of dried beans we’d need to grow to have a good supply for the winter.”
It’s an experiment for now. The beans could crash, like this year’s garlic crop. “We’d always be squeaking by,” said Froyd. “But I think we could make things work.”
Working the land links Froyd and Reins to the past, the present and the future. They see themselves as the latest keepers of a Country Store farming tradition that began some 40 years ago with Vy Biel.
With an expanded main field, a new deer fence and those bionic Brussels sprouts, the present is looking pretty rosy.
The future is always uncertain for farmers, especially for farmers who, like Froyd and Reins, don’t own their own land.
But one thing is certain, said Froyd: “I am always going to be growing.”
— This article, the second in a series this summer featuring Island farmers who sell at Vashon’s Farmers Market, was written with funding from the state Department of Agriculture through the Vashon Island Growers Association. Mary Bruno is an Island writer.